Here we are, friends…down to the finish line of “How to Write Riveting Dialogue”! This series has been even longer than I imagined when I first started writing it. Why?
Because dialogue is a tremendously important part of your novel – and some would argue the most important – and this means there are a whole host of do’s and don’ts to remember.
In Part 1 of the series, we went over all of the parts of dialogue that fall outside the quotation marks. In Part 2, we discussed the dialogue inside the quotes, beginning with the list of do’s. This week, in Part 3, we’re going to end the series by going over a few of the big no-no’s – the don’ts – of writing dialogue.
So let’s jump right in!
DON’T: Make your characters sound like clones.
In my post, “Three Steps for Creating a Captivating Protagonist,” I stressed how important it is to give your main character a unique voice. While your protagonist’s voice may be the most important one to get right, all of the major characters in your book should have their own distinct voices. If every guy in your novel sounds like a clone of the next, then your dialogue will lack the variety and personality it needs to capture your reader’s attention.
However, while your characters’ voices should all be unique, this does not mean they should all be exaggerated or over-the-top. One or two of your characters may be larger than life – with a voice to match – but most of them will just be your average Joe.
To make your characters sound different from each other, give their voices one or two unique details that help readers identify them. Perhaps Joy is fond of creative expletives like “Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat.” And maybe Jessica, being a good Georgia girl, says “y’all” and “bless your heart” at the drop of a hat despite the fact that she (and the story) are based in India.
Your characters’ voices don’t have to be outrageous to stand out from the rest. Here, subtlety is key…and so is consistency. Once you’ve found your characters’ unique voices, make sure they remain consistent throughout the story. If your character throws out a Yiddish phrase on page 1, then your reader will expect to see Yiddish sprinkled here and there in his dialogue in the rest of the book. If it’s not, then it probably shouldn’t be on page 1, either.
DON’T: Make your characters curse like drunken sailors.
In real life, cursing is quite common…but is it ever necessary in a novel? Some say any writer worth his salt can convey whatever tone or meaning he wishes without resorting to the use of curse words. Others believe swearing adds flavor and authenticity to their novels.
Unless you write in a genre that doesn’t allow curse words at all (children’s lit, for instance), this is a personal choice. In my opinion, a well-placed curse word can add to the authenticity of a character’s dialogue and enhance the tension in a scene. But the overuse of curse words can easily turn readers off and distract them from the story I’m trying to tell – or worse, make them close my book!
Nip it in the bud.
Swearing has its place, but the words themselves are offensive to many readers. If you want to convey the same tone as cursing without turning off your readers, simply cut the dialogue off in the middle of the word, like this:
“That’s total sh—”
Or you can let the character’s voice trail off before the curse word, like this:
“You son of a…”
Most readers will understand exactly what the character was going to say without you spelling it out for them (and leaving a possibly offensive word ringing in their ears).
Add it in the action.
Another way to add swearing to your novel without using the words themselves is to mention it in an action tag.
The man stomps away, lobbing f-bombs over his shoulder with every step.
When Sally’s eyes land on her ex, she erupts in a flood of curses so foul they’d make a dock worker blush.
Depending on your character’s voice, you can also choose alternatives to curse words – such as “geez” and “dang it” – or even get a little creative and have him throw out phrases like “shish kebab” or “son of a biscuit.”
If you decide to use traditional curse words, then be conservative with them. While swearing can punch up your dialogue, you don’t want your readers to feel like they’re being punched by a curse word every other line (or even on every page). So if your characters must curse, then choose the words – as well as their frequency and placement – wisely.
DON’T: Use dialogue as an info dump.
Backstory…ugh! It is the bane of many a writer. Cluing your reader in to your character’s backstory without them knowing you’re doing it is a tough trick to pull off. You have to become something of a magician, slipping in this important information without your readers noticing your sleight of hand.
Rather than throwing a tedious info dump into the narrative, many writers use dialogue to convey backstory. While this is usually more interesting than dumping all of the backstory into the narrative, there is a right way and a wrong way to do this.
The wrong way is for your characters to simply spout information both of them already know. Nobody does this in normal conversation, and your reader will recognize this as an info dump…not to mention a pretty boring bit of dialogue.
Ron loops an arm around his daughter’s shoulders. “I’ll be so proud when you graduate from medical school at Penn State next year.”
“Yeah, if I graduate,” Joy says.
This is a classic info dump. Not only does the dialogue sound a little awkward, but Ron is also saying things to Joy she already knows, which makes it clear that his words are for the reader’s benefit rather than hers.
Rookie magician mistake.
Instead, you can give the reader the same information but in a way that sounds more natural.
“Hey, doc,” Ron says, looping an arm around his daughter’s shoulders.
“Dad,” Joy says with an eye roll, “I’m not a doctor yet.”
“Minor technicality. I’ll be the proudest father at graduation.”
“If I graduate, that is.” She blows out a shaky breath. “I knew med school would be hard, but the program at Penn State is even tougher than I expected.”
He gives her shoulders a squeeze. “It’s just one more year, peanut.”
Even though this conversation sounds like a natural exchange between two people, it still conveys the backstory the reader needs to know.
When you have background information to tell your reader, be subtle in how you slip it into the dialogue. As with all sleight of hand, this takes practice, but it will soon become second nature.
Eager to Learn Even More About Dialogue?
The latest addition to my bookshelf is James Scott Bell’s little gem, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. (And I swear I came up with the name for this series of posts before I found this book!) It’s a quick read, and the author includes examples of great dialogue from novels and movies to illustrate every point, which I find very helpful.
Here are a couple of things I learned from the book: In other words, there is no small talk in fiction…unless, of course, the small talk serves a purpose (to show how nervous a character is, for instance). So when you’re writing the dialogue in a scene, ask yourself, “What do the characters want here?”Ah, conflict. The lifeblood of novels. Before you start writing a conversation in your novel, identify each character’s agenda and keep it in mind as you write. Everything they say should be designed to help them achieve their goals. This is not to say every bit of dialogue has to center around conflict, but when you can add tension to your novel, it’s usually a good thing.
How to Write Dazzling Dialogue is a helpful resource, covering everything from adding tension to dialogue to how to punctuate it properly. If you’re looking for a handy little guide to keep at your writing desk, this is it.
And up next on my Amazon Wish List are:
- Crafting Dynamic Dialogue: The Complete Guide to Speaking, Conversing, Arguing, and Thinking in Fiction from the Editors of Writer’s Digest
- Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Stage, Page, and Screen by Robert McKee
Penny for your thoughts…
Have you read any great books about writing dialogue? Share them in the comments below.
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I’ll be back next week with a post all about theme. Until then, buckle up, buttercup, and let’s write!
In case you missed it: In Part 1 of the series, I covered the parts of dialogue that fall outside of the quotation marks. And in Part 2, I shared the “do’s” of how to write great dialogue. They’re free for the taking, folks, so don’t miss ’em!