Dialogue - What's That You Say?
How to Write Effective Dialogue
Dialogue is one area in which many new writers struggle. I'm not sure why. I think it has to do with the faulty notion that writing has to be formal, which can lead to your characters having very unnatural speech patterns.It surprises me too whenever I see dialogue without contractions - as if people say 'I am going to go away' as opposed to 'I'm going away.'
Convincing dialogue is all about being natural sounding and studying dialogue in movies and TV can go a long way in helping you define what is regarded as natural sounding.Unfortunately listening to real people speaking is not going to help you. In real life people speak aimlessly without particular regard to sentence structure, punctuation or even sense sometimes. If you've ever tried to transcribe taped conversations you'll know this is true.
People speak with lots of pauses, fractured phrases, a liberal dowsing of ums and ers and slang. They use their facial expressions to denote meaning and when they're sure the other person understands them, will leave things unsaid and move on. This is not a great technique to copy when you're writing.
Reading your dialogue aloud can help. Even better, getting someone else to read it aloud will help you notice what sounds right. If your reader stumbles or doesn't seem to get the sense you meant, it may mean you have revisit your dialogue.
But what is natural sounding?
One word: simplicity. People don't usually speak in long compound sentences where the active propositions are very far from the front of their minds. For instance, this is unnatural:
"I heard from a good friend of yours, Leslie, that were considering a vacation. Is there a particular place you had in mind?'
It's more likely this person would say:
"Leslie said you're thinking about a holiday. Where are you going?"
Similarly, the other person wouldn't answer:
"I gave much thought to this issue and decided that, on balance, my prefered destination might be Bognor."
The most likely response would be:
Pare down your dialogue to the minimum - giving the most appropriate response up front. People generally speak and answer questions without thinking first. It's automatic. This is the kind of dialogue you should aspire to - characters speaking spontaneously, with no real time for reflection.
Here's four pet 'don'ts':
1. Don't make characters state the obvious.
In real life, people (except mothers) rarely do this, as in, "It's raining again" when everyone's outside getting soaked!
2. Don't use characters to tell the reader about the plot - or convey much information.
People don't do this in real life either - especially when the characters know all the details.
3. Don't have a character ask two questions in a row - and then the respondent answer them in order.
Nobody sane does this.
4. Don't try to write accents in dialogue.
While this used to be a favorite trick of bygone literary authors, it's nowadays regarded as affected. Plus it's almost impossible to read comfortably.
It's often said that you shouldn't write dialogue that doesn't move the action along. However I've seen this 'rule' broken so many times that I no longer believe it!
While it's true you don't want to have lots of character interactions that don't go anywhere, to me there's nothing wrong with people discussing the weather, their health, offering tea and biscuits and saying supposedly 'forbidden' words like 'hello', 'okay', 'all right', 'goodbye' and 'thank you'. It's more natural for a start.
The issue of dialogue is important. Many modern novels are at least 30% dialogue - sometimes up to 70%. So while you want to keep your dialogue minimalist to be the most effective, remember that they key to compelling dialogue is conflict.
Having characters agreeing with each other is dull.
The rules are simple.
Use dialogue for character development and to add color, but mostly, have your characters arguing and/or debating their emotions, actions, points of view and their agendas.
That's what will keep your readers reading.
Best regards and keep writing!
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