The connection between a writer and his or her characters is essential to a story’s life. The connection between two or more characters, and the words they exchange back-and-forth, is just as important.
Dialogue invites a reader into a story and gives them a reason to stick around. What makes them stay? Real conversations. Conversations with context and emotion behind them. Conversations that flow from one line to the next from beginning to end, almost like they would in real life.
Here are our tips for improving the dialogue you include in your next writing project.
Insert dialogue into an environment—not the other way around
One mistake you could be making without realizing it is writing the dialogue first, then going back and filling in the rest of the scene later. Sometimes this is okay—and necessary, if you’re getting really into the conversation. But there’s one problem with this method: it’s what’s happening around a conversation that makes it real, not the conversation itself.
Words are meaningful, but think of all your memories: you remember where you were when someone said something meaningful to you; details, even. To put real meaning and emotion behind what your characters are saying, you have to paint a picture as the dialogue forms. In a romantic scene—does he touch her arm as he asks her about her day? During a tense conversation between two friends at a restaurant, does the waiter back away awkwardly in the middle of it, realizing too late it’s a bad time to ask if they want dessert?
Remember that time does not stop while two or more people are talking. Things—preferably significant things—are happening as the conversation unfolds. That’s how you pull a reader in. Words bring characters alive. Don’t forget to bring the rest of that fictional place alive along with them.
Toss grammar, maybe even spelling, to the side
No one actually calls their friend and asks, “Do you want to go see a movie tonight?” We move, and talk, too fast for all those syllables. We use “yeah” and “wanna” and “gonna” even if we don’t want to admit we do. It can be challenging to remember to make sure your dialogue reflects how people actually talk—but it’s important to pay attention and put in the effort to do so.
Watch a movie or a few good episodes of your favorite show (well … maybe not GoT). Record you and a friend having a natural conversation. It’s a good exercise to help you become more attentive to ‘real speak.’
Does it go against everything your English teacher taught you? Grammar-wise, sure. But your English teacher also probably taught you about dialect and characterization in literature. If the characters in your young adult novel spoke in complete, contraction-free, grammatically correct sentences, it would actually be difficult to read. Cringe-worthy, almost.
Avoid repeating “he said/she said” phrases
If you’re serious about your stories, this is a habit you should seriously consider weaning yourself off of. It’s a hard one to break—and you probably won’t start to do so until you hit the revisions stage of the writing process. For the writer, adding “he said/she said” statements after someone speaks is a tracking mechanism—especially if there are three people talking, you don’t want to forget who just said what.
There are ways to work around this, though. So when you do go back and edit—or if you like to reread a chapter you’ve just written before continuing on—it’s okay for dialogue to flow from one set of quotation marks to the next (just don’t forget to hit return).
If there are three or more people speaking, keep our first point in mind. Have them do something as they’re talking. Instead of this:
“I don’t know. I don’t remember,” he said.
“So why do you remember, and we don’t?” she asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It was a long time ago.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
“So why do you remember, and we don’t?” She asked, turning to glare at me.
I concentrated on the cell under the microscope. “I don’t know. It was a long time ago.”
For all you word count wizards out there, this adds some sustenance and boosts your word count, too, in comparison.
What makes a good, effective story is its ability to draw readers in. Dialogue is the perfect way to do this, if you know how to make it work. If you want to concentrate on finishing the story, then go back and touch up your dialogue, that’s perfectly reasonable. It doesn’t matter what the order is, as long as you put in the time and effort you think your project deserves.
Now, back to writing!
Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.