Writing believable dialogue has always been one of the hardest things to do as a fiction writer. For someone for whom conversation in the real world is a no-brainer, I find this to be a tad laughable. But, when I go back through my drafts and read what I’ve written, the truth remains. Improvements are needed. Stat.
Literature is rife with examples of people pushing the envelope with stream of consciousness or going meta and not using capitalization or punctuation. But dialogue plays a significant role in almost every story and when it’s done wrong, it can severely affect the reader’s experience. Have you ever read a scene and didn’t know who was talking? Or was the conversational action full of “he said” and “she said”? There are ways to enhance your dialogue, use conversation to move your story along, and reveal something interesting about the characters participating in the conversation all at once.
Here are some tips to help you write dialogue and to help make it feel more real when you look at it on the page.
- Don’t use “he said” and “she said.” I’ve found that it works much better if a character does an action. So, for example: It helps with the flow of the scene as well as makes the characters feel real. If you think about how you converse in real life, you’re always doing something or responding physically in some way: shifting from foot to foot, taking a drink, nodding (be careful with the nodding thing. Sometimes I go back through my drafts and find dozens of instances of nodding. My characters probably have whiplash with all the nodding they do in my early drafts!)
- Don’t rely on exclamation points or phrases like “he yelled,” “she grumbled,” etc. either. You can use them, don’t get me wrong. Just do it sparingly. But again, this is an opportunity to showcase your character’s feelings about the current conversation or dramatic action by revealing to the reader something about their stance, the look on their face, the way their gripping their weapon, etc.
- Don’t avoid using dialogue because you hate it. I used to do this a lot. I’d write whole scenes with no dialogue in my high school days. This is boring and not feasible. Well, unless you’re writing the script for “A Quiet Place.”
- Consider your character’s traits before diving in to dialogue. Is your character educated? Uneducated? Upper class? Lower class? This will determine the type of words that come out of his/her mouth.
- Consider your world as a whole when creating euphemisms, curses, etc. One of my favorite things to do is to come up with collective phrases or curses that are adopted by the people in my writing. For example, the Aviators in my current work in progress use the phrase “One flock” frequently when greeting one another. There’s also a collective phrase “May the spark return,” that is used when greeting people of a certain caliber that plays into the situation the people in this world are facing. You can read about my experience with creating sayings for a group of people here.
- As you go through your day and exchange words with real people, think about how the scene would play out on paper. What traits come out in your speaking or body language as opposed to the person you are talking to? Taking real-world examples into consideration can help you develop a more real experience for your reader.
- Read your dialogue out loud. You might feel awkward or weird, but I have found that reading dialogue out loud really helps. If it sounds weird coming out of your own mouth, then it’s going to read weird coming out of the mouths of your characters.