One of the most important skills a writer needs to have mastered is the proper usage of dialogue. Dialogue provides many things to the reader: Information and Backstory, Character Personality, Plot Flow, Interaction and Dynamic Action.
You may say, well some stories don’t have much dialogue. Wrong, what about internal dialogue? Even if characters are not speaking to others, they will most certainly be speaking to themselves.
1. Character’s Voice and the Narrator’s Voice are Not the Same
This will be most relevant when a story is written in Third Person or Omnipresent Point of View (PoV). The narrator and the character voices will be distinctly different from each other. The easiest way to make sure the narrator does not interfere with the main characters is to give each character enough of a personality and voice that it will not naturally write out as your own. If the narrator and characters start to sound the same, I’m going to get distracted and bored.
Even in First Person PoV, there can be cases where the author may choose to use a narrator instead of the main character, a small hitchhiker inside the main character’s head which reports the events. The only instance I can imagine where this would be useful for First Person PoV is if the main character has a thick or jarring accent. I know I’d get a headache trying to read the description of scenery in broken English.
Author Alfie Thompson has written an insightful book on this topic: Point of View: Understanding Which PoV is Best for your Story
2. Character Dialogue is Consistent
Many writers will use speech style to convey a character’s personality. I find this to be a great tool.
If I hear “ain’t nobodies by dat name ‘ere”, I immediately get a vivid picture of the character without any messy narrator description. However there’s a catch, the character must always speak this way! Nothing is more jarring than a bumbling accent instantly transforming into polished English.
As we write, it may be easy to forget the character’s personality and fall into the trap of writing out dialogue as we would say it. However, you must never forget the character personality you have developed. I encourage you to look through your latest story, if your character has the personality s/he deserves, I guarantee you will find dialogue gaps. Fill those in with the consistent vivid colors your characters are meant to have.
3. Dialogue Tags need to be Efficient
When we read dialogue, our eyes are trained to skim over the dialogue tags (he said, she said, they said). But like anything, dialogue tags have a time and a place. If there are only two speakers, you may want to cut out some of the “he said”, “she said”. It may be obvious who is speaking, and some of the tags are just in the reader’s way.
On the other hand, especially when there are multiple speakers, it’s very important that the reader clearly knows who is talking. Don’t be afraid to put in a reminding name tag or physical detail to help the reader keep track of who says what. (Critiquing partners are a great tool to find these spots if you’re unsure.)
I’ll touch on colorful dialogue tags as well (he mumbled, she whispered, they shouted). Some suggest to stay away from these, but I find them strong tools to help the reader understand the tone of the conversation, when used correctly. Read through some of your dialogue, if you find yourself lowering your voice, then it might be a good spot to say “he whispered”. Additionally, try not to say “he said it quietly”, whispered is much more powerful.
4. Correct and Interactive Punctuation and Formatting
While this is a rather technical aspect of dialogue, it’s a very important one. If you have incorrect punctuation, then the reader is going to be frustrated. Keep with established conventions.
Writing punctuation will vary depending on the country you intend to publish, but please use these sources:
Author James Bell: Book about Writing Dazzling Dialogue
As for formatting, keep in mind that how long or short your sentences are will change the feel of the action. If your sentences are short, they will help to convey shock and panic. This will show there’s a rush, we don’t have time for colorful sentences. Time is short. Danger.
If your sentences are long, they may come off more relaxed and placid, since the narrator has the luxury to ponder such detail.
5. Seize Dialogue Opportunities
This is one that I see many writers missing. Dialogue is your chance to fill in that massive info-dump you’ve been holding onto! (Or more embarrassingly, made us sit through in Chapter 1.)
It’s an amazing cheat. Readers will get bored if information is endlessly drilled through an inner monologue. But if two characters are interacting, suddenly the information is being presented as a forward flow of the story. Something is happening, we are getting to see how these two characters respond to each other, and happily eavesdrop on the conversation like any good stalker would.
I encourage you to go through your latest work and take a magnifying glass to the dialogue sections. The first draft is exactly that, a draft. Keep polishing and your readers will appreciate the hard work.
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