This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
I love everything about dialogue. I love reading it, I love writing it, and I flat-out adore hearing beautifully-scripted dialogue in films and television. When I’m writing first draft material, I fill pages and pages with nothing but dialogue (which reads like some floating heads jabbering away because I’ve forgotten to put in any physical details or action).
I know plenty of writers who don’t feel this way, though, and it doesn’t matter one whit. We all have our strengths and weaknesses: It’s knowing your own weaknesses and being willing to work on them that will lift your work to the next level.
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Truly, the best advice for writing dialogue is the same as for writing anything else; you just do it. Make yourself write lots and lots of the stuff, even if the results are awkward and unusable; practice, practice, practice.
The other thing to remember is that you’re not trying to mirror the way people talk in real life. If you write dialogue the way people really talk, you’ll end up with unreadable nonsense full of filler words (such as ‘um’ and ‘er’), repetition and boring chitchat. You should aim, instead, for the illusion of reality.
Here are some tips for writing great dialogue:
Unless it’s in keeping with your (extremely uptight) character, dialogue should be casual. Use contractions, improper grammar, and slang. It’s the difference between a character saying: “I am very tired today. I did not sleep well.” And: “I’m so tired. I didn’t sleep,” or “I’m knackered.”
Read your dialogue out loud. If it’s clunky, try cutting out as many words as you can without losing meaning.
Remember that conversation doesn’t have to be a direct exchange of information, with everybody listening to each other, taking turns, and answering fully. Your characters should have thoughts, feelings and goals of their own. If a character wants to talk about something but the other character doesn’t, you automatically get more dynamic and interesting dialogue.
Remember that people don’t always say what they mean. Use the gap between what characters say and what they think or do to show emotion, personality and conflict.
Become a student of dialogue. When you notice good dialogue in a book, examine what makes it fun or effective. Seek out excellent dialogue in films and television and watch ‘actively’; evaluating what works well and stealing pointers. Some recommendations for great dialogue include His Girl Friday, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or anything else by Joss Whedon, really), The Wire, The West Wing, and anything by Nora Ephron.
Learn from bad dialogue, too. When dialogue falls flat on your ear, or you notice it dragging or seeming false in a book, work out why.
Think about the way in which each character talks and try to make them distinct from one another. Things that define our speech include accent, dialect, word choice, verbosity (or otherwise), socio-economic background and age.
Next time I’ll talk more about the nuts and bolts of writing dialogue (dialogue tags, punctuation, adverbs). Please let me know in the comments if you have any specific questions about writing dialogue, too, and I’ll do my best to address them.