One of the ironic twists of being a writer who works alone at a desk making up imaginary things is writing dialogue. You know, a conversation between two or more people when it’s rare you’ve spoken to another person, out loud, about anything interesting for days at a time.
While your real life skills may be rusty or centered on small talk, conversations about the kids, work, and what’s for dinner won’t help when you’re plotting dialogue about murder, betrayal, elemental magic, or taking over the world (although if that’s your dinnertime conversation, I think we need to swap households).
So how do you develop the dialogue skills that will enhance what you’re writing? Simple, you have a lot of imaginary conversations.
Practicing some witty banter while keeping your face neutral and head nods to a discreet minimum takes skill. Not to mention the restraint hand talkers will need to curb the finger flailing when you’re alone in public, yet carrying on a conversation in your head.
But after you’ve nailed the art of internally inventing conversations, there are a few tips to remember once it’s on the page that won’t turn your dialogue into a downer. Downers such as…
While it’s hard to inject life experience into a conversation between two characters about taming dragons or the perils of living at the bottom of the sea, any exchange of dialogue should still sound like a conversation two people would have. Regardless of whether it’s set in an ancient mystical land or a coffee shop on a Wednesday morning.
If your dialogue is coming off stilted or lacks the natural hallmarks of a reality-based conversation (pauses, interruptions, actions beats, characters talking over the top of each other/cutting each other off etc), then it’s time to re-write it. Conversing with someone outside your head to get a feel for what you’re missing will help (and improve your social life and mental health). As will reading the dialogue out loud.
Same Same, Not Different
A downside to being the one person behind a conversation between multiple characters is capturing those differences. You’ve got to know your characters well to make their dialogue distinct. Even something as subtle as a greeting can set your characters apart. For example, “Hello” is a common word to use when characters meet, yet if they all said it you’d get something like this…
Boring, huh? Especially with no dialogue tags or action beats to inject personality. Let’s try that again with some greeting alternatives…
Did you read each one of those greetings differently? Did they get more casual or chirpy? Did it sound like it was three different people? (BTW, the answer to those questions is yes). Each character should have their own way of saying something even if it’s the same thing.
Just like in life, small talk has a time and a place. Usually, that time and place doesn’t belong in your book. Sometimes, small talk may show that something is awkward or boring, but unless it moves the plot forward, don’t waste your precious dialogue. No one needs to know Gary says “The sky is pretty blue today” when he meets Kayla in the park with a mysterious package. Save the dialogue for the interesting stuff, i.e. “Keep the package sealed. Don’t open it here in the park!”
Another time and place instance. Using your dialogue to rattle off your main character’s theory about who committed a spate of murders twenty years ago can work if the dialogue is a compelling back and forth between your MC and the sheriff who botched the original investigation but refuses to admit it. But if it’s not edge-of-your-seat, what’ll-they-say-next level stuff and is coming across as two characters throwing facts at each other, leave the exposition out of the dialogue. You can get the same info across using your show, don’t tell skills instead.
I’m a fence sitter on this. Some writers say mentioning names in dialogue is a waste of good dialogue and redundant, but I’ve used it in conversations that needed dramatic tension or in action scenes and I think it works just fine. If you’re happy with using names to make a point, just make sure you’re not over-using them like so…
“How are you today, Mary?”
“I’m fine, John. And you?”
“Just great thanks, Mary.”
“That’s super, John.”
Using Everything But Said
I’m a fan of de-tagging your dialogue as much as you can, swapping tags out for action beats or letting the dialogue shine on the page (when it’s clear who’s speaking). Some writers prefer to follow each line of dialogue with a tag like “cried”, “muttered” or “shouted”. While these can work, showing emotions via the actual dialogue itself is a better target to aim for.
If you still want to add a tag, that leaves you with the neutral “said” option. Said is regarded as a glaze over tag; one that readers expect and will read over without a second thought. You want that. What you don’t want is your readers stopping every few sentences because the tag you used takes them out of the conversion.
Ignoring Punctuation and Grammar Basics
As confusing as punctuation and grammar can be, they are your friend (maybe one you want to punch, but still). When combining punctuation and grammar with your dialogue, the key is consistency. If you’re using single (‘) or double (”) quotation marks, stick with the one option throughout your book. As for full stops and commas…
Full stop if the dialogue is followed by an action (smiled, grinned, laughed).
Comma if the dialogue is followed by a tag (said, whispered, shouted).
“We all can’t be perfect,” he said.
“We all can’t be perfect.” He smiled.
How about you? Do you have any dialogue downers or pet peeves? Let me know in the comments below.
— K.M. Allan