Writing Dialogue with Purpose

"Characterization is an accident that flows out of action and dialogue." —Jack Woodford

Photo credit: pheezy on Flickr
It's often said that poorly written dialogue is one of the first signs of a new writer —whether it's an error in the way it's punctuated, an abundance of non-said dialogue tags or clunky, unrealistic speech, dialogue can make or break your writing.

This post is assuming that you've already perfected the grammatically correct way to punctuate your character speech and your characters are speaking naturally, rather than sounding like they're reading off lines from a script. You see, even after you've mastered the basics of dialogue writing, there are still many more aspects to look at when writing or revising character speech.

One of the most important things you can do when looking over your novel's dialogue is determining its purpose.

In our everyday lives, people blabber on for no particular reason. We talk about the random and the ridiculous with little direction, we go off on long-winded, completely unrelated tangents and some of us are even guilty of talking for the sake of talking. In real life, those things happen.

In your books, those things must never happen.

Menial how's the weather conversations are perfectly acceptable in the work place or at the dinner table, but the moment your characters start talking about the beautiful sunny day outside or the delicious breakfast they had, red flags and buzzers should be going off in your mind.

I'm sure most of you have heard the Alfred Hitchcock quote: "Drama is life with the dull parts taken out." The axiom doesn't only apply to drama and plot, however, it also applies to dialogue.

One of the best writing tips I've ever read on the subject is this: character speech is an action. Our characters' every action must have a purpose, and that includes every line of dialogue they speak throughout the course of the novel.

So what does that mean?

Next time you're revising your writing, take a close look at the dialogue. With every line that comes from your character's mouth, ask yourself if what they said was necessary. What would happen if you removed that line? Would the conversation still be understandable? Would it miss anything? Chances are if the scene can go on without repercussions after removing the line, you probably don't need it.

But how can you tell if the dialogue is necessary?

Dialogue must accomplish one of two things: 1) move the plot forward or 2) develop character. If your dialogue isn't doing either, it's time to either cut it or rewrite it with one of those goals (or even better—both) in mind.

Well-written dialogue moves smoothly, develops character and leads the reader forward through the plot. What are you accomplishing with your dialogue?


Daniel Swensen said...

"Dialogue must accomplish one of two things: 1)
move the plot forward or 2) develop character."

Optimally, both at the same time, though that can be tricky and exhausting. I struggle with this because while I can write oceans of snappy dialogue fairly easily, it's not always relevant. So I end up cutting a lot. Great post, Ava.

Ava Jae said...

I probably should have said at least one of those two things, but agreed--if you can do both that's even better. You're right though, it's not easy to write relevant, interesting dialogue all the time, but of course that's when the editing kicks in. :) 

Thanks, Dan! 

Danyelle said...

Excellent post! Thanks for posting the link on Twitter.

Ava Jae said...

Of course! Thanks for commenting. :)

Laura_Pauling said...

In my recent wip, I went through one last time and trimmed conversations to what was just necessary. It's not always easy to spot on your own.

Stacey said...

Love writing dialogue.  But the fun part is writing dialogue without words . . . does that even make sense?  :)

Ava Jae said...

That's very true--it's much easier to spot those kind of problems in other WIPs than it is in your own. 

Ava Jae said...

Sure it does! Non-verbal communication, right? :)

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