Dialogue – are you doing it right?
Dialogue plays an important part in connecting your readers to your story. Good dialogue helps a reader hear the voices of your characters and creates an additional layer of context and tone. But, effective dialogue doesn’t, and shouldn’t, mirror every day conversations. In our daily speech patterns, we stammer, stall, get distracted, and often end up talking about things completely unrelated to our original intent. Effective dialogue, like the rest of your writing should endeavor to say what must be said as efficiently and quickly as possible. When characters speak, they must have a motivation for every single word.
Motivations for dialogue include:
…to reveal a character’s personality, motivation and/or beliefs
…to heighten tension or creates conflict
…to provide an alternative to lengthy descriptive passages
…to advances the plot
…to provoke reader empathy.
…to help establish tone or mood
…to remind the reader of things they might have forgotten
…to foreshadow events yet to come
If your dialogue does none of these, you might consider cutting it entirely. If it does only one, try to develop the context or the purposed for the dialogue to accomplish two or three.
Some things to keep in mind…
While there are no steadfast “rules” in writing, especially when it comes to dialogue, there are some things to keep in mind when creating the voice of your characters.
1. Don’t Overuse Accents and Dialects
The flavor of the words we use help to color our character interesting. Utilizing accents and dialects can be a great way to add a layer of richness. But, if a reader cannot easily understand what a character is saying and must read and re-read their words, it pushes them out of the story instead of pulling them further inside.
“Ah don’t much lak me no sit-ay boy with yer fant-say pants and yer fant-say her.”
If you read this out loud, you can probably figure out what this character is saying, but it isn’t easy to decipher. Instead, consider using other methods of sensory writing to create a hint of the voice you are trying to create and trust the reader to hear it.
He pushed his straw hat further back on his head and spit. “I don’t much like me no city boy with your fancy pants and your fancy hair.” He tucked his thumbs behind the over-sized belt buckle that sat half hidden under his rounded belly. I could practically smell the chicken-fried steak and pickles on his breath.
2. Do Use an Authentic Voice
Another task we have as writers is to make dialogue sound as natural as possible without rambling and without sounding stilted. Here’s another example:
John sat down and looked at Penny.
“How are you today, Penny? I did not see you at the meeting, Penny. You must be sick,” John said, and hailed the waiter. “I will take one hamburger, one order of large fries, and one large diet soda.
Dialogue that doesn’t feel authentic won’t work for your readers and makes your characters sound robotic. To combat this, try reading your dialogue out loud. Does it feel like it flows naturally to you? Does it sound like something you would say or hear?
Here’s the same scene, redone in a much more natural way.
John dropped down into the seat across from Penny. He glared at her and hailed the waiter and ordered his usual – a burger, fries and a diet soda. “From the looks of it, you’re not sick, so want to explain why you weren’t at the meeting?”
What do you think? Better?
3. Don’t Forget About Pacing
Just like in exposition, pacing can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of your dialogue. If your character is upset, long, whimsical, wordy sentences don’t support his or her emotional state.
If your main character’s best friend collapsed at a party, what would she be most likely to say:
“Oh my gosh, someone should call an ambulance. She is my best friend. She held my hand when my boyfriend left me last year, and even though we made up, she was still there for me. Her parents would be so upset if something happened to her, she’s an only child. You really should hurry, she needs help!”
“Oh my God! Jenny, can you hear me? Stay with me. Jenny! Jenny? C’mon stay awake! Wake up! Someone call an ambulance. Tell them to hurry!”
Use the strength of your verbs and the length of your sentences to heighten tension and create urgency. High conflict and tension should see short, quick sentences.
On the flip side of things, during those soft and tender, poignant scenes, don’t hurry the reader through with a bunch of shot, clipped sentences. Use the timing and rhythm of the dialogue to help enhance the mood.
4. Watch Your Tags
The pursuit of clarity sometimes results in the overuse of dialogue tags. But too many dialogue tags has an impact of flow and authenticity.
“I want a slice of pie,” Sally said decidedly and handed the menu to the waitress
“How about a cup of coffee?” the waitress asked.
“Yes, that might be nice,” Sally replied.
“Okay, I’ll get that right out to you,” the waitress quickly blurted out with a smile.
“Thank you,” Sally chimed, smiling back.
All of those tags do help to make sure it’s clear who is speaking, but they also slow the conversation down and create a very mechanical rhythm when reading. We have to remember that our readers are used to dialogue and are quite able to follow along. Once you establish who is speaking, use dialogue tags sparingly.
The only exception to this “rule” is if you have multiple characters in a scene. It then becomes important to use dialogue and action tags effectively to keep the reader from getting confused. But even then, we should strive to structure the dialogue to use as few as possible.
And don’t get overly exotic with your tags. An occasional deviation from “he said” or “she said” is okay, but when your characters start chiming, barking, bellowing, growling or regurgitating, it’s probably time to consider using other methods to create the mood or texture of the dialogue.
One final thought on tags: adverbs don’t make dialogue better. Don’t fall into the trap of using an adverb to create tone. If she said it lovingly or he said it angrily, chances are there are specific facial expressions, body language, or actions that go along with the dialogue. Use these other indicators to show vs. tell the reader how your character is feeling.
5. Match Body Language and Subtext
Movies and television are a great place to study good dialogue, but you have to remember that on screen actors say so much more than just simple words. They create subtext through the use of expression and body language. All of those unspoken bits are just as important as the words we use when creating dialogue and it’s up to us as the writer to create the image we want the reader to see.
And just like the pacing and the specific words we use have an impact on tone and mood, so does the subtext and body language of the characters we create.
Simon sat down quietly at the table and folded his hands in his lap. He shook his head and looked up at his wife. She stood beside him, filing her nails and blowing bubbles with her gum.
“I knew I should never have trusted that man. I should have gone to the police when I had the chance.” He stretched his arms high over his head and yawned. “I don’t know what to do. They think I stole all that money from the Jones account.”
Jenny patted his back and ruffled his hair. “We’ll figure it out, honey. Don’t worry.” She kissed the top of his head and bent down to tie her shoe. “I’ll go call my brother; he’ll know what to do.”
Does this feel authentic? Do Simon’s actions and body language support the idea that he has just been betrayed by co-worker? That he is now looking at possible criminal charges? And what about Jenny? Do her actions demonstrate how upset and worried she is?
Actions and facial expressions should match the mood of the characters. And every action and nuance should have a purpose.
Let’s try that same scene again:
Simon sank down in the chair and raked his fingers through his hair. “I knew I should never have trusted that man.” He pounded his fist on the table. “I should have gone to the police when I had the chance.”
He looked up at his wife. Her usually bright and smiling face now darkened by fear and worry. Her dark grey eyes filled with tears.
“I don’t know what to do. They think I stole all that money from the Jones account.”
Jenny leaned down and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “We’ll figure this out, honey. “ Jenny hugged him tighter and kissed his furrowed forehead. “Don’t worry. I’ll call my brother; he’ll know what to do.”
3 Goals for Good Dialogue
Good dialogue really can be the key to letting your readers crawl inside the pages of your work and feel the emotions, motivations, and nuances of your characters. And when the time comes to give your characters a voice just remember these three simple goals: seek clarity, but don’t sacrifice flow and rhythm, match the words and subtext with the motivations of the character, and strive for authenticity.
Good luck and happy writing!
About Veronica Jorden
Fiction lover and copy editor, Veronica is the founder of First Page Last Page, a feedback, design, and marketing company dedicated to supporting indie writers. She is currently entrenched in research for the year 1778 for her first full-length historical fiction novel.