The best advice I ever received when it came to writing realistic dialogue was to eavesdrop on other peoples’ conversations. Sounds lame, doesn’t it? It did to me, too, until I tried it. Not that you would write dialogue exactly how people talk. Real people talk in too many fragments, speak a lot of (dare I say) boring day-to-day conversation and trail off too often. But most people don’t talk in complete grammatically correct sentences either. Effective dialogue in novels is generally a compromise between what goes on in real life and completely proper dialogue.
But not always. Take “Same Kind of Different As Me.” Every other chapter is written in first person by Ron Hall, a homeless drifter, and Denver Moore, a well-educated art dealer. In this case, their exact distinct dialogues are imperative to the story.
Did I mention there are no hard and fast rules in creative writing?
Tip #1 Write dialogue that flows naturally for each individual character, giving each of them a distinctive voice. Some will use slang. Others will swear. Some stilted characters may actually speak in stiff grammatically correct sentences. Think about your family members and friends. It’s likely no two speak exactly alike.
People from different socio-economic classes talk differently. Some people say very little, but when they do it’s important. Others ramble on and say nothing. Some people have accents. Some people talk in run-on sentences. The list goes on.
And don’t forget about the age factor. Consider these three distinct personalities coming through as they comment on the same serving of brussels sprouts.
Four-year-old boy – “Mommy, I don’t like these slimy green things.”
44-year-old husband – “Maybe if they had been cooked a little longer . . . dear.”
84-year-old curmudgeon – “What . . . are you tryin’ to kill me with these things?”
As I’m developing my characters, I maintain a spreadsheet of each of their personality traits. Then I periodically review it when I’m writing their dialogue or creating a scene, just to remind me of what they’re all about. (Click here for the Myers Briggs list of personality traits.)
Tip #2 Keep dialogue short. Lengthy exchanges between characters, unless they are categorically essential to the story, mood or character, will bore most readers.
Tip #3 Weave in physical gestures and body language with the dialogue. Have your character clench his fists or pound the table when he’s angry. Have another one throw up her hands in despair. Someone may turn his back from the person he’s talking to before finishing his thoughts. A sassy character may stick out her tongue behind the other person’s back. A nervous character may fidget. (Read my previous blog post for more examples of body language.)
Tip #4 Chose dialogue carefully. Eliminate boring everyday chit-chat. If it doesn’t work towards developing the character, establishing the mood for a scene, moving the plot forward, or depicting the character’s feelings, omit it.
Tip #5 Use sentence fragments, especially when the tension is high. Or when children are speaking . . . especially teens . . . and preoccupied husbands. In fact, sometimes a grunt will do just fine.
Tip#6 Don’t be afraid to let the character trail off in thought, interrupt someone else or lose his or her train of thought altogether. That’s natural. Just don’t overdo it, unless it helps to define the character.
Tip #7 Use “he said” and “she said” tags only when needed to clarify who is saying what. If it’s obvious who is talking, leave out the tags. Use alternative words for “said” sparingly (he shouted, she whispered, he argued).
Tip #8 Show how the character is saying the dialogue instead of telling the reader how it was said.
Instead of: “I’m outta here,” she shouted angrily.
Try using: She threw the remote at him. “I’m outta here.”
Tip #9 If several dialogue tags are required in a short span of text, mix up where they fall in the sentence.
“I’m not going,” Wayne muttered.
“Why?” Kelly asked. “You’ll know almost everyone there.”
Mario fidgeted with his tie before saying, “I know why you’re not going.”
Tip #10 Dialogue can show both inner and outward conflict.
Inner conflict: The bathroom attendant stared at the gold ring the customer had carelessly left on the sink after washing her hands. “I think you might be more comfortable over here,” she said, directing the next customer away from the ring.
Outward conflict: The woman’s wide eyes darted around the bathroom before landing on the attendant. “Where is it? Who stole my ring?!”
Tip #11 Avoid telling the reader what the character is about to say before he says it. Just have the character say it. In the following example, the dialogue speaks for itself, and the leading sentence could be eliminated.
John decided to put a stop to it. “Stop your fighting, or I’ll put you in a time out.”
Tip #12 Before a character speaks for the first time in the story, describe his or her voice. Is it baritone, gravelly, or lilted? Does the character have a lisp? Does she always talk fast, or do you have to drag the words out of her?
Tip #13 Read your dialogue aloud to make sure it’s believable, flows naturally and doesn’t sound artificial.
Tip #14 Avoid overusing someone’s name in the conversation. Most people don’t talk that way.
Tip #15 Avoid using dialogue as a dumping ground for information. If the information is important for the reader to know, find another way to convey it. In the following example, the information being conveyed through dialogue would be more effectively conveyed via backstory.
“I saw my next door neighbor the other day. You know, the Italian stud with the incredible six-pack and thick black hair who came to this country two years ago after landing an acting job in the gangster movie that opened last week.”