How to make dialogue come alive

There’s nothing worse than stilted, pointless and/or confusing dialogue. As discussed in my previous post, dialogue is the quickest way to make a scene come alive and add some drama, but only if it is done correctly. Let’s examine some ground rules for dialogue.

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  1. Use distinctive voices

If all of your characters talk the same, your reader will have a hard time distinguishing between them and will get bored soon.

Think about the voice of each of your characters. It has been molded by multiple variables, including:

  • Background
  • Personality traits
  • Accent/dialect
  • Jargon

 

Example:

You have three female sixteen-year-old characters that belong to the popular clique in high school. While their socioeconomic background, age and popularity level at high school is similar; other variables are unique to each of the character. Let’s look at how their family situation could influence the way they speak.

Character A: Uses clipped sentences; something she picked up from her father, whom she adores and who’s in the military.

Character B: Talks slowly and prefers to manufacture the perfect phrase in her head before she speaks. It is a coping mechanism she learned to avoid setting her temperamental mother off

Character C: Says the first words that pop into her head and is brutally honest. Her mother is a therapist and an artist, who believe in expressing emotions.

 

  1. Vary the dialogue

If you always follow your speech up with he/she said, your reader would soon get fatigued. Instead vary between telling us, who just spoke, to showing what action they were doing, to leaving both out when the reader can tell, who is speaking.

Example:

“But I didn’t steal the money,” Kara said.

Her mother looked at her for a long time as if she was considering the statement. “All I know is that it’s gone and you were the last person in the house.”

Kara shook her head. This was so typical for her mother. Always trying to accuse her of everything.

“Look, Kara, you can tell me, I won’t be mad. I promise. Just tell me the truth.”

“Why do you always think it’s me?” Kara grabbed her purse and hurried out of the house, slamming the door behind her.

 

As you can see from the dialogue above, I have even added in inner monologue to create variation. Dialogue can also be interrupted by narrative passages.

 

  1. Ensure that dialogue is relevant and concise

Make sure that when you use dialogue the reader either learns some new information, the plot is moved forward or the true colors of a character are revealed.

Dialogue is not idle conversation and just like each chapter, each dialogue should have a unique purpose. If you already had a scene where your protagonist discovers that her friend is untrustworthy, you shouldn’t have a second dialogue making the same point. If you don’t want to cut it, think about how you could dramatize the second dialogue. For example, you could reveal why the friend is untrustworthy or that her untrustworthiness is way more extensive than we previously thought it to be.

Furthermore, look at the separate lines of your dialogue and ask yourself whether you could tighten them up. While dialogue in novels imitates real conversation, it moves faster than in real life. It is not just the ‘ohh and ahhs’ that are omitted. Other natural speech patterns, such as echoing should be avoided.

 

Example:

Natural speech vs. dialogue in novel

“I’m sorry. I can’t. I’m actually going with Jordan to Italy this summer.”

 “What to Italy this summer with Jordan? But you, you…you promised you would go to Madrid with me. We have been planning this for the last six months.”

“Uhh, yeah I know. But…it was sort of a surprise and…”

 

Are you bored already? I am. Let’s see how we could improve this.

“I’m sorry, I can’t go to Madrid this summer with you. Jordan has invited me to Italy.”

 “Are you kidding me? How you could do this? We’ve been planning this for the last six months and now you’re going to toss me aside for a guy you’ve met two weeks ago?”

 

Not only is the passage more concise, but we also find out that character A has only known Jordan for two weeks, from which we can infer that she either falls in love quickly, is reckless, doesn’t care about her friend, or all of the above. Notice how removing the echo and the stammering, allows us to shorten the dialogue, while adding new information.

 

In summary, when writing dialogue ensure that each of your characters has a distinct voice, that the dialogue is relevant and concise and that the form in which it is given is varied.

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