NOTE: When I first started writing this post, it was intended to be an all-in-one guide. However, I realized there were so many little tidbits I wanted to include that it was turning into a post of epic proportions. So, like a Hollywood executive, I decided to divide my little tale into three parts. Links to the next two parts will be included at the bottom of this post once they are completed. Now, on with the show!
Many, many, MANY people know how to come up with a good storyline. Plot structures and twists come easy to them. But there’s one area of writing proficiency that still eludes them. Ironically, it’s the one they actually have the most experience with: Dialogue.
I say they have experience because, after all, most of us have conversations about various subjects with various people every single day. We are, essentially, coming up with dialogue on the spot. Coming up with storylines should, logically, be far harder. And yet…
Some people have told me they actually dread writing dialogue, or that it’s painful for them.
It doesn’t have to be. Look at it this way: it’s an opportunity for your characters to talk not just to each other but to the reader and to give deep insights into their character, which makes it a great opportunity for you as a writer. So let’s take a look at how to take full advantage of it and make it the quotable, moving, awesome dialogue it should be.
What Makes Good Story Dialogue?
- It Sounds Real. The biggest thing, by far, that makes dialogue enjoyable is that it sounds real. Notice I didn’t say it has to be real. It can be more fluent or more clever than normal speech, but it still has to sound like something an average person could possibly say. Or, more specifically, something an average person could possibly say in response to the fictional situation you’ve created.
- It Is Pleasant to Listen to. What makes dialogue pleasant to listen to? Rhythm, flow, alliteration, pacing – these are all things that make dialogue enjoyable to hear. This applies to books as well, since the reader “hears” the dialogue in their head.
- It Achieves Its Goal in the Story. Dialogue in story should have a goal – plot advancement, character development, comic relief, etc. If it doesn’t achieve its goal, it is a placeholder or a time waster. Placeholder and time waster dialogue shouldn’t be in your story.
Let’s look at these three points a little more closely…
1. It Sounds Real.
How do we determine if dialogue sounds real or not? We instinctively compare it to what we’ve heard our whole lives.
Granted, real-world conversation and dialogue in a story are not completely analogous.
Story dialogue has to serve a purpose, be it to advance the plot or establish a character. The purpose of real-world conversation is often more mundane, like ordering a meal or finding out the price of a cellphone plan.
Story dialogue is often more heightened and dramatic, where huge announcements are a matter of course and people always have the perfect comeback at the ready. Real-world conversation? Not so much.
Frankly, that is how it should be. After all, how many people want to read stories filled only with people discussing what they watched on Netflix over the weekend or how much toilet paper they want their S.O. to buy at Target?
But does that mean that real-world conversation is not useful in crafting enjoyable story dialogue? Not at all! Let’s look a little closer.
We know how people respond to things. We know how the basics of conversation are carried out. If the dialogue we read or hear veers too far away from our own personal knowledge and experience, it won’t ring true.
This is the baseline. Once you have mastered real/natural dialogue, you can add the fun embellishments we’ll discuss in part two, but you have to walk before you can run. Or talk before you can pun, in this case.
There are three major ways to improve your skills in crafting real-sounding dialogue:
- Use your imagination
- LISTEN. Yes, it’s important enough to mention twice.
When I say “Listen“, I’m talking about two major areas:
- Listen to dialogue scripted by others.
- Listen to natural conversations in daily life.
Listening to dialogue in plays, movies, TV shows, etc. is helpful in that you can start to focus in on what you personally like in dialogue.
Do you enjoy dialogue that is honest and straightforward or layered with hidden meaning? Funny or serious? Quippy or sincere?
You can also see how experienced writers handled certain situations and gain inspiration for your own writing.
Scripted dialogue can’t be your only reference material, though. If it is, your dialogue will never grow beyond being an imitation of other writers’ words. No, you have to go to the source – the people you encounter in your life every day. That means friends, retail workers, family members, co-workers, cashiers, bosses, people at the gym, custodians, parking attendants, neighbors, people at the park, and on and on and on. If you talk to them, in whatever capacity and for whatever purpose, really listen to what they say and how they say it.
Listening to how others speak helps you gain knowledge of general speech patterns and also helps you write characters with backgrounds different than your own. By listening, I mean really paying attention to every aspect of their speech – their syntax, grammar, word choice, you name it.
Just like a visual artist pays attention to the world around him to better represent it in their work, an artist working in words should do the same. Over time, it gives you a feel for what “sounds right.” Most people do this with their native language. After enough years speaking it, they know what “sounds right” grammatically even if they don’t know what a direct object or preposition technically does. The same principle applies here.
Once you start to “get an ear” for how people speak, you’ll find you can sometimes predict what they’re about to say. Yes, we all can create unique and interesting sentences at any time, but we also all fall back onto stock phrases as quick responses. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s perfectly natural, and using those phrases sparingly at appropriate moments will make your writing sound natural, too.
I’m not saying you should have your characters speaking 100% in stock phrases, but consider this scenario:
Bob is walking down the street when he sees his ex-girlfriend kissing his brother. What might Bob say to himself?
Option 1: You’ve gotta be kidding me.
Option 2: I do not believe what I am seeing across the street.
“I do not believe what I am seeing across the street” is perfectly accurate, but it sounds awkward and unnatural. He describes what he is feeling, but we don’t feel it with him. “You’ve gotta be kidding me” is a stock phrase, but it’s one we use when confronted by something that shocks us, so we understand what he’s feeling. It works.
SIDE NOTE: This also shows how judicious use of phonetic spellings can be effective. When speaking, people often slide words together, drop syllables, etc. Including too many phonetic spellings can make your writing difficult to read and disrupt the flow, but the occasional use of words like “gonna” or “gotta” can add a natural sound to your dialogue.
Using your imagination is essential for putting your characters in more fantastical situations, like in science fiction or fantasy. If you can imagine what you would say in a given scenario, it will make it easier to craft realistic dialogue for your characters.
“But if it’s a fantasy situation, how would I know what I would say?” you might ask.
Making correlations based on the emotion of a scene can be very helpful in this regard. For example, if your characters are very scared while on a spaceship confronting a murderous alien, the fact that you’ve never been in that situation shouldn’t stop you from writing realistic dialogue. Think of how you reacted when you were very scared of something in the real world and use that as reference.
- Did you speak in long sentences or short, quick phrases?
- Did you speak fluently or were you at a loss for words?
- Did you pull away in fear or confront it aggressively?
- Were your words beseeching or angry?
The more “out there” your scene, the more emotionally grounded the dialogue should be. It will help sell the scene as well – the more realistically the characters react, the more the reader will believe in the scene as a whole.
Preparing to write these scenes can be compared to how an actor prepares. They’ve never been, say, an astronaut on Mars, but they can imagine how they would feel in unfamiliar surroundings and high-stress situations and act accordingly.
Truth be told, in many ways a writer needs to be the best actor they can be. They are playing all the roles at the same time, crafting sometimes dozens of different voices and characters.
It takes effort.
It takes practice.
And it also takes … information that we’ll get to in Part 2!
I feel like I should insert an evil laugh here.