The best way to write convincing dialogue is to remember that dialogue in fiction is NOT conversation.
It is a way of furthering the plot. It is never used just for the heck of breaking up the narrative.
If you listen to people talking in daily life, they use a lot of ‘hems’ and ‘haws’ – they leave sentences hanging and sometimes lose the thread of what they want to say. Donald Trump is a perfect example. Listen to him, and you’ll know exactly what I mean. He makes no sense at all.
In fiction, people talk it perfect sentences and they don’t waste valuable time making small talk. In fact, even greetings are short and to the point, if used at all.
What Can Dialogue Do?
Dialogue in fiction is used to propel the plot and to flesh out personality traits or characteristics of the people populating your story.
- Give a character a speech impediment or accent (just don’t overdo it or it will cause problems) or even have them mis-use words. Ex: Mrs. Malaprop from Dickens
- Use them to bring in backstory in a natural and convincing manner
- Fill in gaps in the storyline through a dialogue between two characters
- Gossip or talk about another character thereby allowing the reader to discover more about the absent person
- Allow one person to eavesdrop on another’s conversation
- Having dialogue for the sake of it. Dialogue must always have a purpose.
- Unnatural speech. Let the dialogue flow naturally. Make sure the speech is right for the character talking. Example: if the character is uneducated, he will talk a certain way. If a character is a teen, she will speak like someone in high school with slang words (don’t overdo or you will date your piece).
- Very long monologues can be boring. Break up the speeches with some give and take between the characters and also make sure we know what they are doing while they are talking.
- Dialogue tags should be unobtrusive. Once in a while, you might want to use an adjective or adverb, but use sparingly.
- Go easy on the accents, or jargon, or slang. A word here and there to give the flavor of what you’re trying to convey goes a long way.
- Try varying your characters’ speech patterns. We all have different ways of talking. I have a neighbor that starts every line with “Nothing …” and then launches off into a long story. Give your characters some personalized traits.
So even though dialogue is written as if two people are conversing, somehow you have to convey that it is natural. Not an easy task to do. The best way you can do this is to write the dialogue and read it out loud. When you read it out loud, certain aspects will stand out and you’ll be able to adjust so that the words flow more normally.
When you read a book you enjoy, parse it to see how the dialogue is written. I will often devour a book I enjoy and then go back and read it at leisure to understand why I enjoyed it so much. What worked? What made it so compelling? This is why it is so important to read if you want to write. You can learn so much.
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