Dialogue is paramount in any story. Dialogue is the backbone of stage plays and screenplays, and is what actors memorize. Dialogue is the hinge pin of novels, especially in today’s fast-paced, want-the-story-to move-forward world. Yet, for many writers dialogue is the hardest thing to write. We can fill pages upon pages with purple prose, narrative, and information dumps, but often avoid dialogue.
Why? Maybe we’re afraid our characters will sound stupid, or their words will be stilted. Perhaps writers fear their characters will sound flat, or they will say too much or too little.
Or maybe we think our characters will sound the same, because, after all, it’s only one person creating all those different voices.
Personally, we tend to write dialogue first then going back and fill in the narrative, the senses and other parts of the story. Maybe that’s because of our acting or playwriting background. Sometimes we must scrap the dialogue, having discovered some of the problems mentioned above. At any rate, along our writing journey we’ve picked up a few tips to help with writing dialogue that we’d like to share with you. We hope you find them helpful.
Six Ds of Dialogue:
- Deliver content. Every word, every scene, every sentence in your book should move the story forward. Dialogue is part of that forward motion. Use dialogue to propel your story forward by revealing new obstacles, introducing pivotal moments in the plot, reminding the character of goal, and deepening emotions. Don’t waste words on unnecessary stuff like greetings, talk about the weather, discussion about the song on the radio (unless it will figure in the story later) or idle chit-chat inserted to fill time or make up word counts. Get right to the point.
- Differentiate voice. No one person sounds like another. The way my sister pronounces the word “picture” is unlike anyone else, and I’d recognize her voice anywhere. Make sure your characters’ voices are just as distinctive. Give them different cadences, different speaking styles, different words, different sentence lengths. Listen to people speak and use those nuances in your characters’ dialogue.
- Define tone. Dialogue sets the mood for your story just like narrative does. Characters in a humorous book sound unlike those in a horror book. Chick lit dialogue is very different from that of a hard-hitting cop drama, and a magically based book’s characters would certainly not sound like the teenage characters in YA novel, unless they are teens. When creating your characters’ dialogue make sure you take the tone of the book into consideration.
- Drop in description. Normally, writers use blocks of narrative to describe setting and provide background information. By dropping bits of description, background, or historical information into dialogue you can let the reader learn what he needs to know at that moment in the story.
- Don’t be didactic. Providing information in your story is important. Just make sure you don’t drop so much description and background into the dialogue that you turn what should be quick, informative conversations into dialogue description dumps.
- Dial up the conflict. Use your conversations to create tension and suspense. Speed up the scenes by eliminating most of the description and explanations. Make sentences short and fast. Make the conflict and risks clear, but hold back some information so suspense remains high.
If you have trouble writing dialogue, try writing the first draft of your scene as a script. No narrative, just dialogue. Then read it out loud to see how it sounds. You’ll be surprised at the results.
Is dialogue hard for you to write?