Every writer yearns to create good dialogue in a story. We want words that will crackle, explode off the page, become seared in the reader’s memory, et cetera, et cetera. You’d think it would be easy. We listen to people talk in real life every day. And sometimes those people are quite entertaining, even if they don’t mean to be. But writing good dialogue is about more than putting words in a character’s mouth.
Good dialogue operates on a few different levels, and communication between and among characters in a story is only one. Dialogue clues in the reader about the story, offering information about location, time period, the past, even foreshadowing future events. It can also provide insight into a character’s motivations, their psychological makeup, fears, desires, the works. And, of course, good dialogue entertains.
As with all elements of writing, good dialogue doesn’t just happen. You have to practice long and hard to make it flow. But here are a few tips that can help you on your way to crafting dialogue that will make your characters more believable and make your writing shine.
Know how your characters speak. How your characters speak is a major tipoff to the reader of who they are and how they think. You need to know not just what they would say, but how they would say it. If you don’t get this part right, you run the risk of misleading the reader and losing their interest.
A writer should never put words in a character’s mouth that they would not say. For instance, a highly educated character probably would not use the word “ain’t,” and they would also be very clear about the proper uses of “don’t” and “doesn’t.” Likewise, blue collar characters might be a little more lax with their grammar and a little saltier with their language.
But don’t overdo it. Mind the patois. Regional dialects should be used sparingly. Dropping a “g” every once in a while like in “knowin’” or “runnin’” won’t throw a reader into a tailspin. Neither will an occasional colloquial turn of phrase that colors the story. But a sentence like this will cause problems: “I never wudda gone wit dat new fella iffin I hearn bout him always raisin’ a ruckus.” If this is what your dialogue looks like, then, quite frankly, you’re trying too hard. This kind of dialogue slows the reader way down without sharing a lot of information in return. If your story is packed with this kind of dialogue, the reader will start skimming over it, then they’ll lose track of what’s going on, and then they’ll lose interest in your story altogether.
Let your characters speak with a realistic tempo. In real life, people rarely speak in completely correct full grammatical sentences. We drop words, use a lot of contractions, and often spit out what are technically sentence fragments that don’t always encapsulate full thoughts. So it should be with your characters when they speak, keeping in mind what I said above about speaking to the true nature of the character. Never mind that your high school English teacher would pass out if they knew how you were bastardizing English composition. This is about keeping dialogue realistic and keeping your reader in the game.
Remember Elmore Leonard’s rules about dialogue. Leonard was a master at crafting great dialogue for sharply drawn characters over the course of a prolific career that included some fifty novels, numerous short stories, and film and TV scripts. So, ignore his advice at your own peril. Leonard firmly believed that a writer should never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. And never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.” Let the words that are being spoken carry the emotion, not some tag like “she said forlornly” or “he shouted angrily.”
Be an eavesdropper. I mentioned above that we listen to people talk every day. But get serious about it. Pretend you’re in the NSA and start listening to how strangers talk in public. Whether it be on line at the store or sitting at a restaurant, take a few minutes to focus on the conversations taking place around you. You’ll be surprised at the dialogue tips that you can pick up from random people.