Part 2: The Do’s
Does writing riveting dialogue feel like an insurmountable task to you?
It’s no wonder given the monumental role dialogue plays in fiction. Your dialogue should embody your characters’ unique voices, set the tone of each scene, help your readers connect with the characters, convey backstory, move the plot forward, and more…
…and all while making it sound as authentic and natural as possible.
Last week, in Part 1 of the series, we focused on the words outside the quotes. This week and next, we’re going to move inside the quotes and go over the do’s and don’ts of how to write riveting dialogue. Let’s start on a positive note with the do’s.
DO: Give your dialogue a purpose.
In real life, people blather on about nothing for hours. If you let your characters do this in your book, however, your reader will probably throw it across the room. Why?
Because it’s boring.
Every conversation in your novel needs to have a purpose: to give the reader some backstory, to establish the relationship between two characters, to introduce an element of the plot or move it forward in some way, etc.
When you’re writing a dialogue scene, ask yourself, “What is the goal of this scene?” It doesn’t have to be a lofty goal – it can even be as simple as introducing a new character or demonstrating one of your protagonist’s character traits – but it does have to have some purpose.
If your dialogue serves no purpose in the story, then it’s superfluous (no matter how entertaining it is). And readers are smart cookies. They’ll notice. So either give that sparkling bit of dialogue a reason for being there…or cut it without mercy.
DO: Be conservative in your use of names and terms of address.
Think back to your last conversation. How often did you say the other person’s name? Once? Or maybe twice? In normal conversation, we typically only say someone’s name to get their attention or to emphasize a point. Saying someone’s name over and over again sounds repetitive, especially in written dialogue. For instance:Can you see how awkward it is to have Dan’s name in every other line? When writing dialogue, be careful not to use names too liberally. Unless the conversation is quite long or heated, once (if that) is probably enough.
The same rule also applies to terms of address, words like “man” and “dude.” (Can you tell I write YA? LOL) They’re a good way to add some “flavor” to your dialogue, and you can use them a little more frequently than names without annoying your reader with repetition. But if you’re not careful, even this can easily be overdone. For instance:Can you see how I’ve gone a little overboard with my use of “man”? If I were writing this conversation into a novel, it would look more like this:As you can see, this conversation flows more naturally, even with two forms of address. Here, “man” is used as a casual address, but the use of Theo’s name indicates that AJ’s trying to make a stronger point.
The exception to this rule is if repetitive use of a name or term of address is part of your character’s unique voice. An autistic character, for instance, might say someone’s name in every line of dialogue. Or someone with an over-the-top personality might say “honey” every fifth word. If this is a normal part of your character’s voice, then this rule doesn’t apply, but be aware that you’ll have to work extra hard to make this repetition sound natural.
DO: Become a thespian and act out your dialogue.
Um…Amy…I’m a writer, not an actor.
Yeah, I know. Me, too.
But acting out your dialogue is the very best way to test whether it sounds natural and has a good rhythm. And I don’t mean to just read it aloud. I mean act it out, using each characters’ inflections, tone, volume, accompanying actions, etc. You may feel a little silly, but the benefits to your novel are well worth these few awkward moments.
This practice not only helps you judge how realistic your dialogue is, but it also helps you pinpoint any words that just don’t sound right, either because they’re not words a particular character would say or because they disrupt the flow of the dialogue in some way.
To hear your dialogue from a more objective standpoint, record yourself while you act out the conversation, then listen to the playback. Some word processing programs (such as Word) will even read your work to you. Or, if you have friends or family willing to help, have them act the scene out for you.In fact, having others act out your dialogue is even better than doing it yourself. Because the dialogue came straight from your noggin, you have a preconceived notion of how the conversation is supposed to sound. Your actors, however, will have no such preconceptions; they’ll come at the scene as readers rather than as the writer.
If the dialogue coming out of your actors’ mouths doesn’t sound the way you imagined it, then perhaps you haven’t provided enough clues (punctuation, action tags, etc.) to help them deliver the dialogue properly. This means your reader won’t be able to imagine it the way you’d hoped, either. If this is the case, then go back and add some action tags and other clues to help clear things up.
DO: Eavesdrop. Yes, really!
When you’re developing a character’s unique voice, eavesdropping on conversations is an easy way to gather valuable intel. The same method also works for writing great dialogue.
Now, before you just go out and eavesdrop on random conversations, hoping to hit on one that’s helpful, let me clarify: you’ll have to do this in a setting that is appropriate for the type of dialogue you’re trying to write.
For instance, if you’re writing a scene featuring a group of cheerleaders, then head over to the high school and camp out on the bleachers while the cheerleading squad practices. (You might want to let the coaches know what you’re doing so they don’t think you’re a perv!) You’ll no doubt gather heaps of fantastic material – cheer lingo, teen slang, unusual inflections, girl gossip, etc. – which you can use to make your dialogue sound authentic.
To eavesdrop on specific types of people, you’ll need to find them in their element. But to soak up the local vernacular and collect a few interesting tidbits of conversation, then a trip to your favorite coffee shop (or any other public place) will do nicely.
Open your laptop and listen to the conversations all around you, paying attention not just to the words your unwitting helpers use but also to how they speak. Listen for their tone and inflections. If possible (and without being obvious), watch their faces and make note of their actions and expressions. Including action tags like these make your dialogue more realistic.
Afraid you’ll feel like a creeper listening in on people’s convos? If someone is holding a conversation in a public space, then they can’t have any reasonable expectation of privacy. However, you should be respectful and not include full names or identifying details in your notes.
Practice, practice, practice…
When you’re learning how to write riveting dialogue, it can feel like you’ve got a dozen balls to juggle. But, as with everything – even juggling – it gets easier with practice. If you want your dialogue to capture your readers’ attention (not to mention a publisher’s!), then put in the time to practice the craft.
Penny for your thoughts…
What’s your favorite piece of dialogue from a book or movie?
I’ll be back next week to go over the don’ts of writing riveting dialogue. Until then, buckle up, buttercup, and let’s write!
In case you missed it: In Part 1 of the series, we talked about the parts of dialogue that fall outside the quotes, which is every bit as important as the words your characters say!