In the post Show, Don’t Tell, I mentioned dialogue as one of the ways you can “show” your reader what’s happening in a scene. Effective dialogue is an essential part of both fiction and creative nonfiction writing.
Good dialogue can be tricky. It needs to move the story forward and reveal important character information without seeming artificial. It needs to seem realistic without actually being realistic.
Confused? Let’s break it down. Here are some things good dialogue should do:
- It should follow some simple grammatical rules. Dialogue should be enclosed within quotation marks. Each new line of dialogue is indented, and a new paragraph should be started every time a new person is speaking.
- It should be concise. Long, wordy passages of dialogue might seem like a good way to get information across, but they can be tedious for the reader.
- It should communicate character information. Good dialogue lets the reader know something about the person speaking it.
- It should be broken up with action. People don’t typically stop everything when they talk. They fidget. They keep washing the dishes. They pace. Don’t forget that your characters aren’t static.
And here are a few dialogue don’ts:
- Don’t get too crazy with dialogue tags. Usually, a few well-placed “he saids” or “she replieds” will do the trick. If your dialogue is well-written, it should be clear who is speaking, even without the tags.
- Don’t go overboard with backstory. You should never use dialogue to tell the readers things your characters already know.
- Don’t use too much dialogue. Your readers don’t need to know everything your characters say, word-for-word. Dialogue should be chosen carefully.
- Don’t try to be too realistic. Our actual speech wouldn’t make great dialogue. We say “um” and “uh” a lot. We trail off in the middle of sentences. We change subjects without warning. Good dialogue should approximate real speech, not mimic it.
To give you an example of what dialogue should look like here’s the opening of a short story I wrote, titled Me:
“What do we do now?”
Shadows from the single candle flickered on Heather’s face. It masked the basement smell with green apple. She rolled her eyes at me.
“Nothing, Kristy. Just wait.”
I sighed. I was sick of waiting. My arms, and my butt, were starting to hurt. I drummed my fingers impatiently on the plastic pointer thingy.
“Stop it,” Heather hissed. “You’ll make them mad.”
“Make who mad?”
“The spirits, stupid.”
Right. The spirits. Like I really believed the spirits were going to talk to us on a piece of Parker Brothers cardboard.
The words exchanged between Kristy and Heather let us know something about their respective moods and character traits. In just that brief opening, we already know something about them.
So how can you improve your dialogue?
- Read. Pay attention to what your favorite authors do well, and what they don’t.
- Listen. Pay attention to what natural speech sounds like, and be sure to use those natural rhythms in your writing.
- Read aloud. Read your own dialogue out loud, to yourself or to a friend, to test yourself.
You’ll be writing dialogue like a pro before you know it!