So, you want to add some dialogue to your story, but you’ve been told that your dialogue isn’t realistic. Or maybe you have no idea where to start when it comes to writing dialogue. I get it, dialogue is hard. Bad dialogue can completely ruin the flow of your piece and take your reader out of the moment. But when done right, dialogue can take your piece to the next level.
Here are my top three tips to strengthen your dialogue and give your piece that verisimilitude you’re after.
1. Listen to real conversations
I know, this sounds creepy. And it sort of is. But I promise you, eavesdropping on real conversations helps. Listening to the way real people speak will give you a better understanding of how people actually talk. When you’re having a conversation with your friends, you speak differently than in a job interview. Gossip sounds different than an argument. Be a (respectful) creep and listen to some conversations around you and pay attention to how people are speaking, then implement it in your own writing!
Now, in the days of COVID-19, this may be a touch challenging. You can’t really get close enough with six feet of social distancing to properly hear strangers talk about their annoying mother-in-law.
But you can take advantage of other listening opportunities. Have a work zoom call? Listen to the small talk before the boss shows up. How does John talk about the troubles he’s having with his boyfriend? Does he take a lot of pauses while he thinks, or does he ramble on while trying to pretend like everything is fine? You can even dissect the speech patterns in your favourite YouTuber’s new video. The opportunities are still out there!
2. Find your character’s voice.
Dialogue is such an impactful way to add personality to your characters, and it’s up to you to figure out what that personality is. Consider where your character comes from, what their background is, or how they feel about the person they are speaking to. All of this will impact the way your character speaks.
If someone is sarcastically responding to a question, the dialogue might be overly sincere: “Oh, yes, absolutely right Tom.”
If they are angry or impatient, you can use short, staccato bursts of dialogue: “Yup.” “Uh-huh.” “Nope.”
If your character is stuck-up or snobby, they may use larger words to seem smart, or speak in overly wordy and long, drawn-out sentences.
If it helps, make a character history chart, and then think about how each of those details will impact your character’s voice.
3. Dialogue has to have a point.
Everything in your story needs to have a point, but with dialogue, it is crucial you have a reason for including it. Dialogue that goes on too long is exhausting, and it will bore your reader! Consider this:
“Well, Maria, I’ve been thinking about buying a new house. I’ve called my agent and she is going to start looking for me. My specifications are a bit much, though. I refuse to have any less than four bedrooms. Five is ideal, so that I can have a craft room and Tommy can have a man-cave, and then we can have a bedroom and the kids can each have a room of their own. The agent said that it was unrealistic at my budget, but I simply will not accept a three bedroom.”
Are you bored yet?
The problem with the above example is that there is no point to it! What does this woman’s quest for a new house have to do with the story, aside from give the reader a brief look at what she wants in a house? (Nothing. The answer is nothing.) If you’re going to include dialogue, make sure it’s moving your plot forward, or revealing something about a character or their relationships. Otherwise, readers might just check out and skip to the next paragraph, or stop reading your piece altogether.
4. DON’T USE DIALECTS.
Now, before you start typing an angry response in the comments, hear me out. Dialects have their place, but one of the biggest rookie mistakes when it comes to dialogue is an incessant use of a dialect. It’s one of those things that you have to master before it works, like second-person narratives. Start with the basics before you move on.
If your character’s accent is crucial, or provides backstory or character development, there are better and more natural ways to indicate a character has an accent than constantly dropping letters or inserting slang into every phrase. Choose your moments. A well-timed “bullocks!” will be so much more effective than three sentences of “blimey”, “bloody”, and “’ello luv!”. (And please double-check your slang. Nothing screams amateur like misused slang.)
There you have it, friends. 4 tips for becoming a dialogue-writing master. Good dialogue will take your piece from average and potentially awkward to immersive and enthralling. Now get writing!