Last week, I posted a blog about identifying your strengths and weaknesses as an author as a step to becoming a better writer. Since most authors tend to either start out having problems either with narrative or dialogue, I asked Laura E. Koons, author of He Said, She Said: Writing Effective Dialogue, to share a few of her tips on becoming a better dialogue writer. If you’re currently working on moving from being narrative-strong to more well rounded, here are Laura’s suggestions:
Dialogue, like any aspect of writing, can be strengthened and improved with practice. While it may seem like some writers were gifted with “an ear for dialogue” and can effortlessly put the right words into their characters’ mouths, the art of producing good dialogue can be studied, and practice and attention can help any writer appear to have the gift of that “good ear.”
Perhaps the most useful general guiding principle to keep in mind when trying to strengthen your dialogue is the concept of fiction as a balance between the realistic and the artful. Realistic dialogue mimics the way people really talk. But while it is often a writer’s goal to make her dialogue sound “real,” dialogue which mimics precisely the way most people talk may come across as boring, clunky, or repetitious. Real people often do not speak elegantly; listen to any conversation and you are likely to hear a lot of oral crutches (um, ah, er, and so on), repeated words, pauses, and sentences that don’t come out quite right. While there may occasionally be times when a scene requires that kind of realism, most of the time you will want to make your characters speak more proficiently or more efficiently than real people usually do. This is where the balance between the realistic and the artful comes in. Use your artistic license to “clean up” dialogue of the oral crutches, repetitions, and the like that pepper most real conversations in order to present dialogue that reads like the best version of the way people really talk.
In order to strike this balance between realism and the artful in your dialogue, consider the following tips.
In order to keep your dialogue realistic:
- DO use contractions as real people of similar backgrounds to your characters might. Dialogue without contractions will sound stilted.
- DO use widely understood (or easily deciphered) slang and/or regionalisms appropriate to your characters. This will help them sound like real people from real places.
- DO keep the scene going during dialogue exchanges. People don’t usually drop everything and stand still to talk to one another. They keep making dinner, or fidget, or try to fix the dishwasher to avoid the conversation, or carry on working on their report. At the very least, they gesture or make facial expressions. Having your characters do something while they have a conversation will make the conversation itself seem more realistic.
- DO NOT overuse direct address. Most people don’t refer to one another very often by name in conversation, so having your characters do so may sound inauthentic and will become tedious.
And in order to keep your dialogue artful:
- DO avoid distracting dialogue tags. Consider using “asked” and “said” as your default dialogue tags, as these will fade into the background and allow readers to concentrate on the dialogue itself. Reserve other tags (such as lied, interrupted, shouted, whispered) for those times when it is necessary to tell the reader how the dialogue was said.
- DO vary character gestures and use unique rather than generic gestures whenever possible during dialogue exchanges. Real people likely do a lot of generic things like smiling, frowning, nodding, and shrugging in the course of their conversations, but in a dialogue exchange on the page, these generic gestures can become tedious and—worse—make your characters seem boring or cookie-cutter. Keep generic gestures to a minimum (they are certainly necessary sometimes) and give your characters gestures, habits, and tics that are unique to them that they can engage in during dialogue exchanges.
- DO NOT overemphasize characters’ dialects through phonetic spellings and dropped letters. If a character’s dialect is important, suggest it through the use of slang, regionalisms, and occasional nonstandard grammar rather than trying to reproduce its exact sound through nonstandard or phonetic spellings. The resultant “apostrophe jungle” on the page can be very distracting to readers.
- DO NOT overuse clichés in dialogue. Real people use clichés frequently, but clichés are phrases that have become commonplace and as such are usually uninteresting. Err on the side of having your characters speak with original language to keep your dialogue interesting and fresh.
- DO summarize commonplace exchanges in dialogue. Commonplace exchanges such as the pleasantries exchanged at the beginning of a phone call (“Hello?” “Hi, Jim.” “Oh, hi, Sam.”) do not need to appear in full in dialogue if nothing but that commonplace exchange occurs. This kind of over-representation of characters’ exact words can be dull. Summarize instead: Jim answered the phone. It was Sam.
- DO NOT overuse oral crutches in dialogue. Use oral crutches only when absolutely necessary to show that a character is at a loss for words or is otherwise stumbling over his speech. Real people use oral crutches to let their brains catch-up with their mouths—generally the reader doesn’t need to see that process for fictional characters.
In order to fine tune your ear for realistic dialogue, listen carefully to conversations going on around you. Make note of interesting turns of phrase, regionalisms, and the cadences of real speech. You might even record (with permission) some real conversations so you can study at your leisure the way real people’s speech sounds.
To ensure that your dialogue comes off as artful as well, make it a habit to read your dialogue out loud to yourself. Note any places where you trip over the words, where you hear repetitions, or where the exchange becomes dull. Ask yourself what you might remove or change (even if you think doing so will tip your dialogue away from strict realism) to make it read more smoothly.
Following these tips should help you develop your own “ear for dialogue.”
Find more dialogue writing tips and full exercises in Laura’s book, He Said, She Said: Writing Effective Dialogue, available exclusively on Amazon.