Writing Great Dialogue, Part Two
April 8, 2020 by Evan Braun
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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 conclusion of our two-part series on writing great dialogue. (Read part one here.) 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 last month’s post
, I began a discussion about how to write great dialogue. Today I’m going to continue on right from where we left off.
Before we get going, though, let me offer a quick recap:
- Make sure you don’t make characters say things they already know solely for the purpose of explaining a concept to the reader.
- Fight your tendency to write dialogue without context.
- Steer clear of conversation that doesn’t have anything to do with the story or characters.
- Avoid very long, uninterrupted speeches.
Now that we’re caught up, let’s move on to the second half of the list!
- Make sure that your characters sound different from each other. Last week, I mentioned that in the real world everyone has a slightly different rhythm and cadence. In other words, they have different speech patterns—and it’s always a good idea to try to reflect this in your writing.
Obviously if one of your character is a forty-year-old woman, and another character is her eight-year-old son, those characters aren’t going to speak the same way. This is a no-brainer.
But what if one of your characters is from the Midwestern United States, and the other one is from London, England? Well, English is used very differently in those two places, and this should be reflected in your use of language. Yes, getting this right will require some research, but creating distinctive voices for your characters will be highly rewarding in the long run.
- Again, I touched on this at the beginning of last week’s post, but here is where I’ll discuss the problem in greater detail: avoid stilted phrasing.
“I am wanting to know what you did for fun yesterday.”
“Yes, thank you. I went to my church and listened to a concert.”
“It is very nice that you did not have to babysit your niece.”
“You are right, it is very nice.”
It’s hard to imagine two characters speaking like this, but you’d be surprised how many writers deliver exchanges like this. Perhaps an English teacher once told them not to use contractions, or perhaps they just don’t have a good ear for people’s real-world speech patterns. It happens.
Whatever the reason, I see it more often than you might think—and your reader won’t have much patience for it. The characters in this conversation don’t sound like actual flesh and blood humans. Allow your characters to loosen up a bit.
On the other hand, you can go too far in the other direction and write dialogue that is far too flowery and esoteric. So keep in mind that you don’t want to overcorrect.
- Be aware of the tendency to engage in call-and-response dialogue. Put more simply, if you include a lot of direct questions and answers, your scene might end up coming across more like a formal interview than you intended.
“Lorna, did you check the mail today?”
“Yes, dear. We got quite a lot of mail.”
“Who did we get mail from?”
“There were two bills, an invitation to Paula’s wedding, and a receipt from that oil change we got last week.”
“Did you pay the bills?”
“Yes. I paid them this afternoon.”
“What day is the wedding?”
“Are we free that day.”
“Yes, I believe we are.”
“Where has Paula registered for wedding gifts…?”
One can imagine a scene like this might be more effective if it was a little less on-the-nose, if the characters found ways to demonstrate greater affection for each other. Questions and answers might flow very easily and naturally, but try to work in a little bit more realism and variety.
- As much as possible, be aware of repetition when your characters’ speak. This is also good advice for your writing generally, since an inexperienced author is liable to fill their prose with redundant words, phrases, and bits of information. However, the problem becomes exacerbated in dialogue, where it has the potential to draw even more attention to itself.
“My son and I went fishing last night at the fishing hole down by the pond with all the fish in it,” Bethany explained. “We hadn’t gone fishing together in more than a year. It had been many weeks since the last time I spent time with him, and we really enjoyed spending time together. Next time, we shouldn’t wait so many weeks to go fishing together.”
If you read this aloud, you’ll most likely spot the repetition and recognizes that it goes too far. Which brings me to this:
- Always, always read your dialogue out loud. This is a key piece of advice I’ve made on this blog before. In fact, read everything aloud, not just the dialogue. But especially the dialogue! Written dialogue, after all, is a representation of the spoken word, so it’s best proofed aloud.
- This last one doesn’t specifically have to do with dialogue, but it’s a crucial point nonetheless—and once again, it’s something I’ve written about in detail on another blog post on this site: learn how to handle dialogue tags correctly. There are few things that will more quickly sabotage your writing career than failing to master the correct and proper use of dialogue tags.
Hopefully these tips will help you steer clear of some of the most problematic dialogue-writing tendencies and set you back on the straight and narrow path.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.