As most of you know who’ve been following my blog for any length of time, I’m primarily a non-fiction writer. But, over the years, I’ve done my share of dabbling with children’s storytelling as well as fictional short stories. One thing I quickly learned from my fictional interludes is that getting dialogue right is absolutely critical. Of course, dialogue is also important to help make nonfiction interesting. The following are some dialogue tips I’ve learned from writers’ groups, critique groups, workshops, and good ‘ol fashioned trial and error.
1. In a workshop I teach, I talk about how to create suspense in your writing by not giving away all the goods at once. One way to do this is through the use of dialogue. Instead of strictly using narrative to spell out your characters’ every move or provide key details of background information, take advantage of your scenes with dialogue to allow the necessary information to trickle out in conversation.
This could come in the form of conflict where two or more characters are arguing, it may happen with one character accidentally spilling the beans over a important piece of information, or it might just be a casual conversation where some much-needed info is revealed. However you choose to divulge your facts, use your dialogue as stepping stones that gradually uncover the elements you wish to get through to your reader. But, resist the temptation to do it all in one scene. Give your reader some tasty morsels to chew on for a while before you reveal deeper insights.
2. One fun way to create realistic dialogue is to get into character with your characters. In other words, put yourself in your character’s place. You should be doing this anyway to help better develop your characters, but it’s especially helpful when writing their dialogue. Say the lines you already have written for them out loud, or if you don’t have anything written yet, imagine what your character might say based on the situation he’s in, then speak out what’s probably going through his mind or what he wants to tell the other character he’s with. Don’t just keep it in your head or on your paper. It’s important to hear their words out loud.
As you’re speaking, think about the dialect, personality, and even mannerisms of your character. Now, pretend you’re the other character in the scene and react to what Character #1 just said, again keeping in mind what this person is like. For instance, a teen gang member from inner city Detroit is going to respond to the same circumstance very differently than a stay-at-home mom from Iowa. By putting yourself in your character’s shoes and reacting as he or she would, your dialogue will come off sounding natural and not forced.
3. Be sure to balance your dialogue with narrative. Too much narrative in a scene causes readers to lose interest or feel as if they’re being preached to. But too much dialogue and your story’s going to lack necessary description, details, and action that not only create clarity but also give your story depth. After you’ve written a scene, step back and re-read it as a reader, not a writer. You should notice right away if you’ve not achieved a proper balance.
Some things to consider when you’re trying to strike this balance include: making sure you ‘ve spent adequate time offering background on your characters so your readers know and care enough about them; checking to see if you have long stretches of narrative or dialogue before or after this scene; determining if you’ve resorted to using only dialogue to provide plot details (too much of this gets tedious and should be handled through a combination of dialogue and narrative); and considering if your pacing is appropriate (pacing can be controlled through more or less dialogue).
As an added note, some writers prefer to write the narrative first, then add in the dialogue where necessary, while others allow the dialogue to form the scene then go back and put in just enough narrative to make the scene interesting and understandable. Either way is fine and can be effective, so you need to determine what works best for you.
4. Going back to the use of dialogue to create pacing, there are a couple of simple ways to mix up your dialogue in order to change the pacing of your scene. If you need to create tension or quicken the pace for any reason, try using quick, snappy exchanges without using dialogue tags. Also, stick to as few words as necessary to get your point across. For example, skip the small talk between characters if you’re goal is to move your dialogue along briskly.
If your objective is to slow the pace, add to your dialogue descriptive narrative and action that show “how” your character is talking (more on this in Tip #5), as well as other things happening in the scene. The mixture of narrative with dialogue creates a more relaxed pace.
5. To help make dialogue more interesting than simply a he said/she said back-and-forth exchange, and to help your readers get to know your characters better, add in elements such as body language and actions your characters are performing while they speak. Examples of this include having a character pace during a particularly tense moment, or add to the anxiety by having a character nervously tap his pencil on the table. Characters can use their body language to “talk” to one another by becoming more distant to indicate defensiveness or closer to accentuate a point. They can use facial expressions, hand or arm gestures, or they can even show off their temper by slamming a door or stomping.
All of these movements help reveal certain qualities about your characters and add sensory details to your scene, which help draw your reader in. Just be careful to make your characters’ actions compatible with their personalities so they’re not acting in a manner that is out of character for them.
Have you used these tips with success in your writing? Do you have others you’d like to share? I’d love to hear from you to see what’s worked for you in the world of writing dialogue!