This is a guest post by Charles A. Ray. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.
Dialogue can make or break your short story or novel. No matter how good the plot or subject line, poorly-written dialogue can turn a reader off quicker than anything.
I recently read a draft novel manuscript that had a fascinating premise, a compelling story line, and conflict aplenty. I was, nonetheless, completely turned off because every character in the story sounded exactly alike. They all used the same stilted Shakespearean speech, and sounded as if they were reading from Hamlet. Even a street smart black activist student, who was portrayed as aggressive and racially sensitive, talked as if he was the villain from Othello.
This is not to suggest that the character should have been lampooned, or that his dialogue should have been a parody of ‘Amos and Andy’ or ‘Shaft.’ But, the character would have been more credible and believable if the dialogue had been less formal, with more use of modern slang, instead of the formal speech that was employed. The only slang word this character used in the first chapter, in over a half page of dialogue, was the word ‘ofay,’ which was inserted in a formal sentence, making it stand out like a pimple on prom night; and it was as unwelcome and out of place as a pimple. Reading the passage, which described his encounter with his professor, I had difficulty telling which of them was speaking without looking at the tags, or going back to see who spoke last. This was clearly a case of poor dialogue ruining an otherwise good story.
A more effective technique is to give each character a distinctive voice; either through the words they use, or some other action that belongs to that character and that character alone. Dialogue should be written so that the reader knows immediately which character is speaking.
A good way to learn to write effective dialogue is to eavesdrop on the people around you. Note the quirks that distinguish one speaker from another. For example, teenagers these days seem to put the word ‘like’ indiscriminately in their speech. Here’s an example of a conversation I overheard on the subway one day, “He was like really out of control, and like I just couldn’t get into what he was like saying, you know.” That is an actual line of dialogue that could be used in your story. You have to be careful in most cases not to use what you hear verbatim. People don’t often say what they want to say as succinctly as you need your characters to speak to keep your story moving; but informal expressions in your dialogue will make your characters sound like real people.
If you want your writing to keep people interested, in addition to a strong plot, and an interesting theme, you need characters that people find believable. This means learning to write dialogue that holds a reader’s interest as much as the plot. Dialogue, when well written, can help to identify a character more effectively than paragraphs of description or narrative, and it can help keep your story moving. More importantly, it can keep a reader interested in your story from the opening sentence through to the end.
You can check Charles’ page on RedRoom for commentary on leadership, politics and life in general, as well as information about his books.