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This post is part of our special series that will unpack the criteria we consider when evaluating manuscripts. Today is the first part of a two-part series on writing great dialogue. Whether you are in the midst of writing, or have already received feedback from us, our hope is that this series will provide the insight you need to make your manuscript even better. View the full series here.
In many ways, writing a compelling work of fiction comes with greater challenges than writing non-fiction.
Bear in mind that I say this from the perspective of someone who works with a lot of relatively inexperienced authors. That’s an important bit of context. If you haven’t written a book before, chances are that non-fiction is going to come easier.
Why is this? Well, in non-fiction the greatest burden on the author concerns structure and research. So as long as you know what you’re talking about, which is especially easy when you’re writing, say, a memoir based on your own experiences, you’re going to be in pretty good shape. Structure may not come naturally, and you may need to work with an editor to smooth out some trouble spots, but you’ll have a solid foundation.
In fiction, authors need to think more imaginatively about things like story logic, plot, characterization, and dialogue. These things don’t necessarily come naturally; they are specialized skills that need to be mastered.
Today I’m going to tackle the art of writing good dialogue.
When people speak in real life, it has a certain rhythm to it. The really cool thing about this is that everyone’s rhythm is different! There are a lot of variables, such as a person’s favourite words and level of vocabulary, the way they tend to structure sentences, and even the languages with which they’re familiar. Someone who grew up speaking French as a child is likely to perform English differently than someone who grew up speaking Korean. And people who are fluent in multiple languages might approach English differently than those who aren’t.
The most common reaction people have to bad dialogue is to call it “wooden,” or stilted, which is a way of saying it doesn’t have a natural rhythm. People tend to speak in colloquialisms, use contractions, and in general be a little bit less precise than you’d expect from them in prose.
So here are some tips to keep in mind.
- Make sure you don’t make characters say things they already know solely for the purpose of explaining a concept to the reader. If you’ve read a lot of books or blog posts about writing advice, you may recognize this rule by another name: “As you know, Bob.” Regardless of what you call it, it’s a rather ham-fisted writing technique.
For example, imagine you have two police detectives having a conversation just as they’re about to go into an interrogation room and interview a suspect. Let’s call these detectives Bob and Jane.
“Wait, Bob,” Jane says to her partner. “As you know, there is an interrogation strategy called good-cop/bad-cop. The good cop empathizes with the suspect and makes them think they’re on the suspect’s side, whereas the bad cop antagonizes the suspect. Hopefully, this will lead the suspect to trust the good cop and make a confession.”
This is bad dialogue because obviously Bob already knows what good-cop/bad-cop is. The only reason to include something like this is to make sure the reader knows. And maybe you want the reader to know, because you did the research! But it just gets in the way of logical characterization, so steer clear of this.
The popular name for this rule—“As you know, Bob”—is apt and a pretty good way of recognizing when you’re doing it. If you catch yourself writing those three portentous words, “As you know,” then please stop what you’re doing and reassess!
- Next up: fight your tendency to write dialogue that doesn’t come with any context. In other words, don’t let your characters launch into lengthy chats without involving the world around them.
This is a fairly common writing problem, one that I find comes up two or three times a year. Here’s an example of the dialogue-without-context phenomenon. Imagine a scene that opens like this:
“How are you doing today?”
“Nothing much,” says Steve. “But I went to that concert yesterday at church and had a great time.”
“Ah, cool. I wanted to go to that, but I had to babysit my niece.”
“It seems like you have to babysit an awful lot lately!
“Yeah, well, that’s just the way it goes,” Henry said with a laugh. “Anyway, about that dead body we found in the field last night…”
All right, did you imagine it? You probably didn’t. That’s because this entire conversation begins and ends without any clue at all about the circumstances of these characters’ meeting. There’s nothing for the reader to conceptualize. They could be in a park somewhere, or sitting around a kitchen table, or looking out a window of the International Space Station.
Okay, that last one is a stretch. But hopefully, you see my point. These two characters are ping-ponging off each other without anything else going on around them. As the writer, you can’t rely exclusively on the dialogue; you also have to involve the story and the setting.
- By the way, this dialogue exchange between Henry and Steve is most likely emblematic of another common dialogue blunder: conversation that doesn’t have anything to do with the story or characters. I say “most likely,” because the book this comes from probably isn’t focused around Henry’s babysitting travails. I’m pretty sure the plot has something to do with that dead body they found in the field!
In real life, people who know each other well might very well riff like this for a few moments before getting down to the business at hand. Yes, people do engage in this sort of small talk. But let’s be honest: wading through the small talk is boring and unnecessary, and it’s within the author’s control to move things along.
It’s amazing how many pages in a novel can be filled with this sort of inane chatter. Try not to fall into this trap.
- This next one is related to the second point, but I’ll include it here because it’s a slightly different problem: avoid very long, uninterrupted speeches.
I once worked on a novel that ended with a ten-page speech from one of the main characters. During this time, the rest of the cast literally sat around a table and listened. There was no other interaction, no action, no description, no cross-chatting between the other characters… nothing. Clearly this constitutes a poor use of dialogue.
That marks the end of today’s post, but I’ve got several more tips to share with you! In the next blog post in this series, I’ll share the second part of my advice on how to write great dialogue. See you then!