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I’ve often found it’s easy to tell a writer’s skill level by taking a look at their dialogue. With just a few lines, you can easily tell if the dialogue is working (or not), which is important because character speech can easily make or break an otherwise great story.
The good news is well-written dialogue can really make your manuscript shine, and if you remember certain guidelines while writing or editing, it can make all the difference.
So when writing dialogue...
- Let your characters ramble. In reality, we ramble while having conversations all the time. We switch from topic to topic, sometimes randomly, and go on unnecessarily about silly little details that are fun to talk about.
Don’t let your characters do this. Everything your characters say should have a purpose, and unnecessary ramblings are not allowed in fiction.
- Use it to convey obvious information. Or, as some writers like to call it, use the “As you know, Bob.” If your protagonist is a dentist with three kids, the way to tell us not to have her mention to her friend, “As you know, my three kids Elana, Mike and Maggie have beautiful teeth because I put my dentist skills to good use at home.”
If both characters in a conversation know a particular bit of information that you want your readers to know, chances are you don’t want to use dialogue to tell us. Characters have no reason to tell each other information they already know, and readers will recognize it for the poorly disguised info-dump that it is.
- Mention names every couple lines. This is a pretty common mistake, and it’s easy to do. Thankfully, it’s also very easy to fix (the “Find” feature is a beautiful thing).
Point is, your characters are certainly allowed to mention each other’s names, particularly when they’re trying to get their attention or make a point. But they should not mention each other’s names several times in a conversation, or even in every conversation. We don’t do this is real life, and neither should our characters.
- Think about context. In this case, by “context” I mean your character’s background and surroundings. A high-class 18th-century woman is going to speak very differently from an uneducated man of that time, or a teenager in today’s society, or a king from another world. How your characters speak, what they choose to say and to whom is very much dependent on the setting, your character’s background, and personality, which are all important to remember while writing dialogue.
- Remember everyone speaks differently. If you removed all of your dialogue tags, you should still be able to pick out which of your characters said what. Every one of your characters should have a different voice and viewpoint that should come across in the dialogue.
- Read it aloud. I’ve written in the past about the importance of reading your WIP out loud, but even if you don’t read your entire WIP out loud, you shouldn’t definitely try to at least read your dialogue aloud. Or have someone else read it to you.
Why? Dialogue should sound natural and flow easily, and sometimes, what flows in our minds when we read, doesn’t actually flow as well as we think. Reading our writing out loud solves that problem, because the awkward phrases your brain doesn’t trip over, your tongue will still catch.
- Silence can be powerful. Sometimes, what a character doesn’t say is just as powerful (or even more powerful) than what they do say. Silence, in a way, is it’s own form of dialogue.
- Straightforward isn’t always the answer. It wasn’t until semi-recently that it occurred to me that just because a character asks a question, doesn’t mean whoever they’re talking to has to answer. Eureka! Changing the subject, answering a question with a question, or dancing around the answer can sometimes be even more interesting than the answer itself. As a bonus, unanswered questions also make for added tension and intrigue.
- “Said” isn’t evil. While action tags and non-said dialogue tags are great in moderation, “said” is not a word that needs to be avoided. The nice thing about “said” is that it acts as an invisible dialogue tag. That’s not to say that you should use it every time, but it’s actually less noticeable than the alternative tags and are often overlooked while reading.
And in case you missed it, here’s how you definitely shouldn’t write dialogue.
What tips do you have for effective dialogue?
Is your dialogue realistic? Writer @Ava_Jae shares dos, don'ts and tips to remember while writing dialogue. (Click to tweet)
Having trouble with dialogue? Take a look at these tips for writing realistic conversations. (Click to tweet)