Monday, July 19, 2010

Writing Good Dialogue

Tips for writing good, compelling dialogue:

  1. Listen to people talk. If your character is from a particular region, copy that. Has a particular job? Copy that. Based on a real person? Listen to her. Similar to someone you know? Listen to him.

  2. Match dialogue to characters. Match dialogue by age, gender, occupation, education, time period, and anything else that makes them distinct. This will help you create an original voice for the character and make them believable to your reader. Write what you want them to say, then go back and tweak it. This might require research, but will be well worth it.

  3. Don't be afraid of the vernacular. Formal English all but disappeared with 19th century literature. It has its place, but can easily be out of place. Use contractions, slang, idioms, phrases, and if necessary, curse words.

  4. Show emotion in dialogue. Avoid explaining emotions in narration if you can show it in dialogue. This makes it more powerful, and is often how people detect or recognize someone's feelings.

  5. Use action words and present tense when appropriate. Don't force the issue, but skipping forms of "to be" makes dialogue more powerful.

  6. No appellations. Writers have characters address each other so the reader knows who's speaking, i.e., "Is that so, Bob?" It's a lazy habit. Develop other ways, including an original character's voice and actions while speaking, to let people know who's talking. People rarely address each other by name during a conversation.

  7. Avoid dialects. Don't confuse this with numbers 1 and 2. Common phrases like "y'all" for Southerners and "yous" for Brooklynites are fine, but writing entire dialogue in that manner can seem strained. The reader needs to know what a character is saying, and too many imitations can prove distracting. Replace common words with "dem," "dese" "dose" and "boids" and see if you can understand your character.

  8. Avoid monologues. People rarely speak in paragraphs let alone pages. Others interrupt, even in the course of telling a story. Have characters speak in short sentences. Dialogue is interactive, not individual.

  9. Don't use big words when small words will do. People don't speak in essays, unless, of course, your is extremely educated, a boor, or a pedant. Even then, don't overdo it. Even academics save their most egregious sophistry for published periodicals.

  10. Don't be afraid to let characters get distracted. Individuals don't always focus on the matter at hand. Let their minds wander; let them go off-track. Don't overdo it, and use only when appropriate, but this trick can make dialogue more interesting and real.

  11. Add tension. Dialogue is a great way to add tension to a scene, whether overt or covert.

  12. Develop a catch phrase. Sometimes cheesy and easily overdone, it can be effective in telling a reader who is speaking. Just be careful. It does not have to be overly original. Perhaps a character says, "Cool," or "Groovy," or "As the crow flies." You get the idea.

  13. Don't explain things that should be familiar to the characters. This is little more than verbal exposition and is as bad as narrative exposition. If a character starts a sentence "Remember that time we..." very little will follow because they both remember the story. Don't explain events to people who were there. This is often done for the reader's edification, but will always seem awkward.

  14. Watch rhymes, alliteration, and other devices. Sometimes people speak this way, but rarely. Rather, the author injects it in the course of writing.

  15. Can you act our your dialogue? Try acting your dialogue as it if were a play. Does it seem natural? Record it and play it back. Does it sound like two people talking, or two people reading Emily Bronte?

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