Writing dialogue is an area of struggle for many aspiring (and professional) writers. Well written dialogue can be one of the most useful weapons in a writer’s arsenal – but done poorly, it can severely hinder a reader’s enjoyment of a novel.
There are a number of very common mistakes that authors make in writing dialogue. Knowing how to avoid them is crucial in ensuring your characters’ speech is convincing and realistic.
It’s important to focus on the many ways that well written dialogue can enhance your story. Used properly, dialogue can help to establish the rhythm or “flow” of your writing. It can be used as a tool for exposition or plot advancement. It can punctuate the action of your story, or be used to convey important details about your characters’ personalities.
Beginning our new series of The Writers’ Academy Checklists – we list the essential steps when it comes to writing dialogue that will give your latest story that authentic touch.
Keep it Natural
The ultimate aim of all good literature is immersion – distracting your reader from the artifice of the story so that they become fully absorbed in the tale that you’re telling. And nothing hampers this sense of immersion more than contrived, “literary-sounding” dialogue.
That is to say, you should always be conscious of how people in the real world actually speak. Listen in on everyday conversation, and pay attention to the speech patterns, expressions and other little idiosyncrasies that make up ordinary exchanges between real people.
You’ll notice that such conversations are rarely grammatically perfect, or bursting with quotable insights, quips or one-liners. A sense of authenticity is key to making your audience for get that they’re reading a work of fiction.
Pro Tip – K.M Weiland
“Know what sets apart the okay writers from the great writers? Subtlety and subtext. This is true in absolutely every area of storytelling, from narrative to plotting to character development. But the lack of subtlety and subtext is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in dialogue.
I’m talking, of course, about on-the-nose dialogue. When I pick up a potential read and skim through its opening paragraphs to discover whether or not the book will pique my interest, one of the first things I look at is the dialogue. If it’s on the nose, I’m outta there.”
Trim the Fat
When it comes to authenticity, though, don’t overdo it. Trying too hard to recreate speech exactly as it is in day-to-day life will weigh your writing down. Don’t be tempted to pepper your novel with fillers such as “er” and “um” – good dialogue should have the effect of real speech, rather than be an exact copy of it.
Avoiding the extra mumblings and hesitations of “real” speech will make your dialogue flow much more naturally. Only use pauses and repetitions when they serve a practical purpose. (A character stumbling over a response could be an indication that they are nervous or hiding the truth, for example.)
Trimming the excess features of everyday speech also streamlines your writing and prevents it from getting dull. In short, try to mimic the patterns of natural speech, but keep the content of your dialogue focused on plot, character development and driving your story forward.
Simplify your Tags
Dialogue tags are the short phrases that assign lines of speech to a specific character; the “he said” and “she said” parts of a sentence.
The trap that many writers fall into is straying too far from simple tags and, instead, dressing up their characters’ remarks with elaborate alternatives. Once you get into the territory of too many “he exclaimed” or “she bellowed”, your dialogue can become distracting and lose its flow.
As a general rule, stick to “said” as much as possible. The occasional “asked”/”shouted” can work well depending on context, and as long as it serves a functional purpose. The point here, once again, is for the reader not to notice the artifice of the writing.
The same thing applies to “modifying” your tags too. There’s no real need for “said angrily/sadly/cheerily” – instead, try to convey this through the dialogue itself.
Break It Up
Nobody wants to read page after page of uninterrupted dialogue. Grounding your conversations in a physical space with regular beats of action or description of your characters’ surroundings will prevent things from getting tedious.
There doesn’t have to be an elaborate description after every line of speech, just enough to remind readers of the setting and what’s going on around those talking.
The same is also true in reverse – several pages of pure description or action can become dull if not broken up by occasional sections of dialogue, so it’s important to find the right balance.
Drop the Accent
Another thing to be very wary of is the dialect, accent, and colloquialisms used by your characters. It might be tempting to overuse dialect words or write in a particular accent to establish your characters’ personal traits, but this can make the text difficult to read.
Be highly selective in your use of profanities, slang and stereotypes. Repeated use of these creates a risk of distracting or alienating your reader. Anything that puts dents in the shield of authenticity you’re attempting to build is to be avoided. Try reading some examples of the tone you’re trying to achieve and then experiment with your own writing to mimic the techniques used.
Writing dialogue is one of the biggest challenges for writers both old and new. This checklist should help you to avoid making some of the most common mistakes, and help you on your way to writing dialogue that will engage and entertain your readers.
And if you’re still unsure as to whether the speech you’ve written sounds natural and authentic, then test it the old-fashioned way: read your dialogue scenes aloud, and you’ll soon pick up on any jarring phrases or features that may have sneaked their way into your prose.
If you found this article helpful then you’ll want to catch up with our webinar on Creating Complex Characters. Our free Online Masterclass includes expert advice from The Writers’ Academy tutor Barbara Henderson.
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