Good Dialogue–it’s the difference between:
“Look, Your Worshipfulness, let’s get one thing straight. I take orders from just one person: me”
“I wish that I could just wish away my feelings.” (Ugh. I wish that I could wish away that whole movie.)
Great dialogue can do so many things: characterize the speaker, progress the plot, add variety to a scene, reveal the nature of inter-character relationships, etc. For me, characters tend to come to life through what they say and how they say it, which is why stilted, awkward dialogue can be so destructive to a novel.
So, what makes for good dialogue? Here are some thoughts on the matter, in no particular order:
1.) Real conversations aren’t prefect.
What I mean is that people don’t always respond in the most logical ways. Sometimes a person will reply to the implied question instead of what is actually asked, or what they believe is the implied question. Sometimes a person isn’t listening at all and will change the topic. Sometimes people misunderstand each other, interrupt each other, or seem to be having two separate conversations at once. When you have an entire novel of people speaking in complete sentences, always responding exactly to what is said, it feels as though your character are reading from a script.
2.) Speech reveals character
How a person speaks–what they say and what they do not say, the word-choices they make, as well as their grammar and the rhythm of their speech, should all be representative of their character. So many of the greatest characters in fiction and cinema have distinct speech patterns, and those speech patterns say something about who they are–their education, their upbringing, their personalities. When I’m writing, I find that some of my characters have strong voices right away, but others require a bit more work. I need to really think about who they are before I can hear their voices and know just what they would say in a given situation.
Different character should sound different. If I’m having a hard time finding my character’s voices, I sometimes do a little exercise where I create a scene (something not actually in the book) and a bit of information that needs to be related. I then take turns plunking each of my characters in that scene and think of how each would speak, what they would say. I had to do this early in my first book, but after a time it became second nature.
As in real life, characters should not always be able to have an entire conversation without interruption. This, again, makes the scene feel scripted, as if nothing can happen until the so-and-so has completed his monologue. People whose thoughts are scattered frequently interrupt themselves. A conversation being cut short can be a great way to build suspense or break up a scene with some action.
4.) Purposeful wording
While dialogue aims to imitate real conversation, it also has the ability to be far more precisely and meaningfully expressed than people tend to be when speaking extemporaneously. Great dialogue gives the impression of authenticity, while being far more interesting than real discourse. Dialogue can be clever, sharply articulated. It can have double meanings. It can have perfect comedic timing, or be eloquently tragic. Characters who are not, themselves, clever can unwittingly deliver wonderful lines.
I sometimes get the feeling when I read novels that the author spent much more time crafting the prose, while the dialogue feels like first-draft, off-the-cuff wording. (Like the unfortunate “I wish I could just wish…” Above. In reality this kind of clumsy repetition might seem natural, but in fiction it screams of needing an edit.) This is a real pity, as I find that the lines in novels that stick with me are much more often lines of dialogue than lines of narrative.
5.) Honesty…not always the best policy.
How honest are your characters? How self-aware? Most people lie; either they lie to others–they evade, they exaggerate, or they downplay–or they lie to themselves (and then repeat those lies to others, feeling they speak truth). What delusions do your characters operate under? Books in which all of the characters are totally self-aware, totally forthcoming, and totally honest feel unrealistic. If your character doesn’t want to say something, how–based on his or her personality–does that character go about being dishonest? Boldly lie? Change the subject? Tell partial truths?
Sometimes the best dialogue happens when the character is saying something untrue and we, as the reader, know it. It makes characters more interesting, adds drama, and tells us a lot about the rules that character follows.
6.) Sometimes less is more. Sometimes more is more.
Think seriously about how long your lines of dialogue should be. Books in which all characters seem to speak in long, uninterrupted monologues feel unrealistic, not to mention tedious. At the same time, people don’t always speak in short, clipped statements, and an evocative, well-written monologue can be a powerful thing. It’s all about the characters in question and the situation. How important is the information being related? How interested or polite are the listeners? A character might be given to long-winded speeches, but how often is he able to get through his whole soliloquy without interruption?
Beware the monologue that reads like undercover exposition. If a character is going to tell a story, it needs to be realistic a.) that he or she would do so and b.) that the listeners would, in fact, listen.
7.) Walking and talking.
If a scene feels as though it has too much dialogue, give the characters something they can be doing while they talk. Action beats are beautiful things, and when used with purpose, they can not only help ground the scene, but reveal the emotions of the speaker. Action beats also provide a great way to tag a line of dialogue without using ‘said,’ giving a bit more variety. Putting an action tag in the middle of a sentence can give the feeling of a pause in conversation without using an ellipses, which is a handy way to add both visualization and rhythm to a conversation.
8.) Get rid of the fat.
Trimming out unnecessary words, sentences, and bits of dialogue can really help make a scene more engaging, make it read more crisply. Long worded sentences don’t roll off the tongue, especially a lot of them in a row. A scene doesn’t necessarily have to include an entire conversation–it can skip to the most interesting part, then cut away before the talking has actually ceased. The less of the mundane, the better. If a character is saying something trivial, there should be purpose to it–like if you want to show how silly the speaker is and how uninterested your protagonist is, for example. But, most of the time, you want the dialogue to be interesting. It should be plot-relevant or contribute to character development. If you have lines that do neither of those things, consider if they are necessary.
9.) See as they see.
Sure, most of the time action and setting are going to be related in the prose. Sometimes, however, it can be insightful to have a character describe what they are seeing. Seeing the scene through the words of a character gives us information about him or her as well as the scene. When a character describes something, what details do they find significant and what do they find extraneous?
10.) Let the dialogue speak for itself.
Well crafted dialogue doesn’t need a lot of help from its tag. So often, authors feel the need to explain the emotion of the speaker when the emotion is already perfectly evident in the dialogue itself. Aside from being unnecessary, these sorts of over-explanations are a bit insulting to readers. It’s as if you, as the writer, fear the reader isn’t paying proper attention, like nudging them in the ribs and whispering “See that? You get it, right? RIGHT?”
If your character says, “You are positively infuriating!” we don’t need the tag “she said angrily” or “she fumed.” Her emotions are clear enough already. If her anger isn’t evident, then perhaps it’s the line of dialogue that needs revisiting. Don’t brace saggy discourse with emotive adverbs. This kind of repetition bogs down a scene and steals all of the subtlety from the prose. Exceptions are when relevant information can’t be imparted in the speech itself, like volume or sarcasm. Even these should be used sparingly, however. If you’ve written sharp dialogue, these sorts of supportive tags should feel unnecessary.
If writing dialogue is something that doesn’t come naturally to you, then its simply a muscle you should practice flexing. Listen to the way people speak and take note of what words they drop. Pay attention to the dialogue in movies and try to figure out what works well and what fails. Above all, read your own dialogue aloud when you edit. If you find yourself stumbling, or saying contractions when you haven’t written contractions, then make the necessary adjustments. Don’t be afraid to delete a few sentences entirely and start from scratch if a line isn’t working. If you still aren’t sure, get a second opinion. Have someone else read through, focusing specifically on the dialogue, in search of awkward phrasings and missed opportunities.
_________________Priscilla Du Preez