Dialogue in a story is a vital tool to add realism, information and to continue the plot. Harvey Chapman describes fiction quite astutely as “real life with the dull bits taken out.” This should be true of your dialogue also. Conversations we have in our day to day lives are often boring, unproductive small talk. While we want our stories to be believable and relatable, we also want to capture and keep our reader’s attention.
I’ve compiled 4 tips on writing dialogue that will help your story move and keep your reader’s interest. I could write pages and pages on the intricacies of dialogue, but in the spirit of conciseness I have picked what I believe to be the foundations for good dialogue.
Make sure your reader knows who is speaking.
This might seem elementary. But ignoring this can completely ruin the flow of your story. If you have a passage of dialogue between two people your reader has to be clear about who is saying what. This will help to develop the personalities of your characters and help your reader to distinguish each character’s individualism. If your reader thinks that a different character is talking than you intended then all the information you’re giving them is wasted and will only serve to confuse the reader as they delve deeper into your story. It can also confusing for a reader to get to the end of a passage of dialogue only to realize that they got the speakers the wrong way round and have to re-read the passage.
Ensure your dialogue has a purpose
Harvey Chapman again sums it up nicely, “the role of the writer is to select what’s important and then distill it down to its very essence.” A good way to think about dialogue is that it should be a substitute for your narration, never use dialogue and narration to tell the reader the same thing. It should serve a purpose by revealing things about your character such as motivation, intention, history or personality. This will help set the tone of your story. Try to think about whether the story would still make sense if you removed the dialogue. If it does then you don’t need that dialogue. As James N. Frey put it. “If the stakes are high and both sides are unyielding, you have the makings of high drama.”
Your dialogue should deepen your reader’s understanding of the character
Advancing the plot is one way of creating purposeful dialogue, another is to help your reader gain a greater understanding of the character. A character might tell a story of their childhood, or a formative event in their lives. They might discuss a lost love, or a time they were wronged. These pieces of information may not continue the plot, but they will help the reader understand the character’s motivations and intentions. A seemingly unnatural action from one of your characters can be justified by the reader if earlier on you’ve added context through your dialogue.
Your characters shouldn’t all sound the same
Many writers will spend time describing their characters in vivid detail. The colour of their hair and their eyes, their stance and their walk, their presence and their clothes. But surprisingly they differentiate their characters very little through dialogue.
Make sure that the words a character says are a natural extension of their personality.
A soldier might be gruff, short and vulgar. A grandmother would be quieter and more polite. Put yourself into the shoes of the character and make sure their words match their personality. Their background, location and audience will all vary the way they speak. Someone from an aristocratic background would obviously speak differently to someone from blue-collar background. A soldier would swear and laugh with his comrades, but with a superior he would be less at ease.
A man leaving a tavern late at night to find himself confronted by a thug would react differently based on how you have designed his character.
”What the fuck are you looking at?”
”I say good sir. Would you mind awfully stepping aside?”
These are obviously two dramatic examples, but you get the point.
If you stick to what’s expected of a character then you have the ability to utilize the opposite to great effect. If a grandmother has been polite, charming and motherly for most of the book, a sudden change to anger or frustration can help the reader understand the gravity or the effect of a situation.
Make your dialogue concise
The late novelist Nigel Watts put it well:
”I recommend you rewrite your dialogue until it is as brief as you can get it. This will mean making it quite unrealistically to the point. That is fine. Your readers don’t want realistic speech, they want talk which spins the story along.”
Never write in ten words what you can get across in 5.