One of the biggest, and most important aspects of any novel is the dialogue. I mean, can you imagine a book without it? It would be unspeakably boring (if you’ll pardon the pun!)!
For one thing, dialogue is the primary way in which you show your character’s personality, as the way someone talks and how they interact with the world is very telling in regards to who they are as a person. It’s also integral to them building relationships with other characters, and can help move the story along.
However, writing dialogue isn’t something that comes naturally to everyone, and it can take a lot of practice to get it right, which is why I’ve written this post to share my advice. I’m not exactly an expert – far from it – but dialogue is one of my favourite things to write, so I’ve had a fair bit of practice!
So here’s my advice on writing great dialogue:
- It should sound naturalistic…
If you want your readers to care about your characters, they need to be believable as actual people (or elves, or aliens or whatever!). Therefore your characters need to talk like actual, real life people as opposed to robots (unless your character is a robot, of course!).
The best way to do this is to think about how you and the people around you actually speak in your day-to-day life and try to channel that into your writing. So,when meeting a new person would you be more likely to say “Hello, my name is [insert name here]”, or “Hey, I’m [insert name here]”? The second sounds more natural and casual, whilst the first is more formal and a little stiff, which is probably not how you want most of your characters to sound!
Similarly, you probably shouldn’t use dialogue to impart simple pieces of information, seen as that doesn’t sound very natural either. I mean, when was the last time your Dad said to you, “So, as you know I’m your father…”?
- …but not too naturalistic.
Yes, I told you to keep your dialogue natural-sounding, but I think there’s such a thing as too much. You want your dialogue to sound like an actual person speaking, but edited to take out all the extra bits that don’t contribute any meaning.
We all ‘erm’ and ‘arr’ and put in extra, unnecessary words when speaking (‘like’ for example is a big one, as in “so, like, we were at the park, and like, this guy came up to us…”), but these are the types of things that our brains naturally filter out, so we don’t notice them in our own conversations. Therefore putting them into dialogue can be distracting, as it it breaks up the sentence and can make the speech difficult to follow and understand.
The only exception to this rule is to maybe use ‘erms’ etc., to indicate a character is nervous or perhaps stalling.
- Each character should have their own, distinctive voice.
One of the biggest mistakes people can make when writing dialogue is having all the characters sound exactly the same. This makes it hard to understand who is speaking, and badly impacts your character building, as they all seem to have the same personality.
I think the main reason why this happens is that writers forget to think enough about voices, and so just end up writing the dialogue in the same tone as the narration, or in their own voice. However, for dialogue to be effective, each character needs to have their own distinctive voice, which can be done in a number of ways.
Maybe they’re a nervous, rambling kind of person, or a man of few words…perhaps they’re always sarcastic or very forceful and commanding. Perhaps their sentences are short, sharp and aggressive, or always fade off at the end as they forget what they were saying… Whatever it is, it should separate out each character from the others, and be revealing of that character’s personality. And don’t forget to keep their voices consistent throughout!
- Keep it simple.
By this, I basically mean, please don’t do over-the-top accents! Yes, there are the odd books that have done character accents well, and a hint of a person’s local dialect is OK, but often when it’s overdone it can become a chore to read and what’s actually being said isn’t clear. Plus if you do it for one character, then you’d have to do it for them all really, because literally everyone has some kind of accent!
In a similar manner, whilst I think it’s OK to use slang and colloquialisms, if that’s the kind of thing your character would say, it probably shouldn’t be overused. Maybe you want your character to be a streetwise Londoner who speaks entirely in Cockney rhyming slang, but if your reader has to try and work out everything your character is saying, it may start to feel like too much effort, and they could stop reading.
If you’re writing historical fiction, I also don’t think you should go overboard with archaic language. Obviously you don’t want to use any modern slang or abbreviations, but it should be comfortable for the modern reader to read. So my best advice is to keep it simple!
- Avoid small talk and meaningless dialogue.
Yes, we all have multiple of those conversations every day: “oh, isn’t the weather awful?” and “how’s your Aunt Doris?” But that doesn’t mean characters in a story should!
Dialogue is a narrative tool, and so should be used with a purpose, whether that’s to advance the plot of the book, or show character development and/or relationships. Even the scenes that are just your characters sitting down and talking should have a purpose, whether it’s to show them starting to bond after being thrown together on a quest, or to show growing conflict between best friends, or maybe even to signal a blossoming romance!
- Be careful with speech tags.
This is a pretty common piece of writing advice, but I thought it was definitely worth repeating! Using speech tags – ‘he said’, ‘she said’ – should be done sparingly, and only when necessary to understand who is speaking. Otherwise it can be really distracting from the actual words being spoken and remind the reader that they are actually reading a conversation, instead of letting them become immersed in it.
Descriptive speech tags like ‘he groaned’, and ‘he bellowed’ should also be used infrequently. In fact, it can be more effective to describe a character’s action alongside their dialogue, as opposed to how they said it.
So compare the following two snippets:
1. ‘“That’s it. I’ve had enough of this.” Ellen spat.”
2. “Ellen slammed her hand down on the table.
“That’s it. I’ve had enough of this.”’
I think the second one tells us more about Ellen’s personality, and the dialogue seems more natural, as there’s no speech tag drawing attention to it. And you can still tell exactly who is speaking!
- If you’re not sure about a piece of dialogue, read it aloud.
Dialogue is meant to be representative of the spoken word, so the easiest way to find out of your dialogue works is to read it aloud. If it sounds at all clunky or awkward, you can then revise it and read it again until it sounds perfect!
So what do you think of these tips? Do you find writing dialogue easy or hard? What are some of your own tips for writing effective dialogue?