Write better dialogue – it can make or break any work of fiction. A great idea, brought to life with fast-paced action and good characterization, can fall flat if the words your characters speak are not believable. Like any other aspect of fiction writing, it takes practice to write better dialogue, but there are ways to maximize your chances of bringing your characters to life through the words they speak. You can develop ways to write better dialogue by using these methods…
“A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination.”
1. Make a habit of listening to people talking, on public transport, in shops and offices, and anywhere else you can listen in without being obtrusive or encroaching on people’s privacy. Carry a small notebook with you to record interesting or funny snippets of conversation. Jot down things that catch your attention. If you don’t record them, they will drift away from you within minutes. A well-used dialogue notebook can be a treasure trove of ideas years after you make the notes.
2. Study patterns of speech, especially when you meet someone from a different location. Speech patterns are affected by places where people live or have lived. Listen to the differences in grammar, phrasing and traces of dialect. Apply the same principles to your characters. Make sure you match their dialogue to the places they live and their life experiences. A common mistake with dialogue is that it all sounds the same once removed from identifying text and characters. Each character should have a unique way of speaking. A young, rich, privately educated character will speak differently to an old farmer who has always lived in an isolated rural community. This should be apparent in their dialogue.
3. Keep dialogue short and relevant. Don’t waste words on inconsequential chatter. Dialogue needs to move the plot along in the same way as the rest of your text. Make each word count and add to the reader’s knowledge of the plot or the characters.
4. Be restrained when identifying who is speaking. ‘He said’ or ‘John said’ is adequate and tends to become invisible to the reader. Don’t use adverbs to qualify dialogue. If you qualify dialogue with ‘he said angrily,’ for example, ask yourself why your dialogue doesn’t convey the anger. If you need to point out the emotional context of your dialogue, the dialogue itself needs looking at again.
5. Read your dialogue aloud when you’ve finished a scene. If possible, record it and play it back. Quite often you’ll pick up faults that weren’t apparent on the page. In particular, any stilted or affected dialogue will become apparent.
When you write better dialogue, it should add pace and tension to fiction. It should convey mood and express the deepest feelings of your characters. By having a clear idea of what your characters need to say and by giving them words that are worthy of them, your stories will gain an extra dimension.
By C.M. Adams