Dialogue; for some it is an absolute joy to write but for others, the bane of their existence.
Primarily dialogue helps move the story forward, it gives realism to your characters and their relationships and helps to convey some information, a useful tool in foreshadowing or enhancing the perception of a scene. Writing effective dialogue is a little bit of an art form and there are some commonly accepted ‘rules’ when writing it.
The most common ones, that I am sure we are all most familiar with, are formatting related:
Quotation marks need to be used to open and close the dialogue each time a person speaks and a new paragraph should be started every time a new person is speaking, with an indent with each new line. This makes it far easier for the reader to follow the exchange, making it a smoother and more relaxed read. You do not want your reader to have to work at getting through your novel and combining the speech of multiple characters into one line can slow the reader down. For example, this is part of a conversation from Clockwork Renegades Vol II:
“Come, Charlotte, help me put it on.” “I thought you loved me.” “Of course, I love you.” Velia put her hand on Glitch’s cheek, “You have been a wonderful pet, but my darling, our time together has come to an end.” ” Do you regret nothing?” Please say something good enough for me to save you, I can make a plan to save us all. The hope inside Glitch was almost palpable. Velia shrugged her shoulders. “My only regret is that I never managed to turn you into one of my dolls.”
Difficult right? You almost need to do a second read-through to identify what is being said by who and to make sense of what is happening. Read it again with the formatting mentioned above:
“Come, Charlotte, help me put it on.”
“I thought you loved me.”
“Of course, I love you.” Velia put her hand on Glitch’s cheek, “You have been a wonderful pet, but my darling, our time together has come to an end.”
“Do you regret nothing?”
Please say something good enough for me to save you, I can make a plan to save us all.
The hope inside Glitch was almost palpable. Velia shrugged her shoulders.
“My only regret is that I never managed to turn you into one of my dolls.”
Now, because there is a clear distinction between each dialogue line, reading is more fluid and there is less work needed by the reader to identify who is speaking.
You do not have to have a dialogue tag after each time a character speaks. Provided your characters are distinct and the dialogue is clear, your reader should be able to follow the conversation and tell who is who. Be aware that this is not a limitless concession, you cannot have pages of dialogue with no adverbs or dialogue tags, but put one in now and then to maintain clarity, and insert actions, and you will be good to go.
Making dialogue sound real between characters can be achieved in a few ways. Picture an actual conversation between two people in your head, or better yet, watch two people talking to one another (from a safe social distance people). People do not stand or sit stiffly or unmoving when having a conversation, unless you are in an interview or on a date and are too scared to move because, like me, you are that socially awkward.
People naturally use their bodies and facial expressions when talking to convey meaning. They gesture with their hands, or lean forward if they are interested, or cross their arms to close themselves off. Facial expressions also help convey the meaning behind words that have been said. Have you ever been on the receiving end of a sarcastic comment and have seen that sickly-sweet artificial smile that comes with the comment? Right. We are all very much in tune to non-verbal communication as people, whether it is conscious or not, use it in your dialogue, your characters do not have to speak all the time to convey the message.
Pay attention to how the conversations start and how they end, people do not always begin a conversation with ‘hello’ nor do they always end it with ‘goodbye’, and if they do, the entire pleasantries exchange thereafter is boring for someone to watch, so why include it in your book? Unless it is absolutely vital, leave out the fluffy pleasantries and start your dialogue right away after the greeting.
Be careful with the number of characters in the conversation, the more there are, the harder it will be for your reader to keep track. Think about what it is like to be part of a conversation in a group of people. Everyone talks over everyone else, constant interruptions, it is chaos and on paper, it is even worse. It can be incredibly difficult for a reader to determine who is speaking in a conversation with too many people. Try to limit it a little.
People are also not grammatically correct when they speak (cue us grammar police). As much as some of us wish they were, they are not so when your characters are all speaking in complete and grammatically correct sentences all the time, the dialogue comes off as stiff and unrealistic. People change their thoughts halfway through a sentence, they lose track of what they were saying, they pause. Let your character do the same.
And don’t have the characters tell each other what they already know, do you walk up to a friend, who has just run through a downpour and say “Looks like its raining today.”?
If someone did that to me, my automatic response would be a very annoyed “No shit.” and I would forever judge their powers of observation. Unless this is the kind of dynamic you are trying to achieve, keep an eye on what details you give your reader through the dialogue, if it is something the other character already knows or should already know, then don’t do it.
This leads right into the info dump and show vs tell. Dialogue is not there to be the crutch for poor ‘showing’ in your story. As mentioned before, dialogue helps move the story forward, it gives realism to your characters and their relationships and helps to convey some information, a useful tool in foreshadowing or enhancing the perception of a scene.
It is okay to say;
“Those clouds look dangerous.” Emma glanced at John, who frowned with concern at the distant rumble of thunder. An icy gust wove through the tall grass of the plains, bringing the smell of rain.
But try to avoid;
“Those purple clouds on the distant horizon with the flashes of lightning coming towards us very quickly look dangerous.” Emma glanced at John, he frowned with concern at the distant rumble of thunder. An icy gust wove through the tall grass of the plains, bringing the smell of rain.
The first is an observation that the character makes, it sets the scene up for a possible obstacle for your character and it is heightened by the response of the second character and the description of the subsequent events. The second gives far more information than is needed and the response of the second character followed by the description of the subsequent events is overkill.
Let your readers use their imaginations a little, they don’t need every single detail, what you don’t give them, they will fill in themselves. And if it does not advance the plot or build your characters, leave it out.
Find your character’s voice. Everyone speaks differently, even if they are brought up in the same home and have the same accent or regional linguistic quirks, there will be a difference.
The way your character speaks helps to differentiate them from your other characters and helps to enhance their personality and their characteristics in comparison to the others. Does the character stutter? Do they speak at a slow, measured pace or a quick and flighty one? What about their vocabulary? Are they terse or do they wax lyrical over the eggs they had for breakfast? Don’t speak for your character’s, let them speak through you.
Now, accents (or dialect). I, for one, am a sucker for accents and I do use them here and there. It is a slightly controversial topic. On one hand, you need to be careful using them, representing a regional or cultural group by phonetically spelling their pronunciations or the liberal use of apostrophes where letters are dropped, can come across as offensive to some people and some readers and can make for slow and distracting reading.
Many authors today prefer to stay away from using these tactics for expressing dialect and prefer to use regional expressions or slang, or the description of how the person is speaking, such as a ‘guttural grunt’.
I have used phonetic spelling and dropped letters quite liberally in one of my fantasy novels, I felt I needed to convey the accent as such as there were no similarities with regards to geographical place or common idioms for readers to glean the information from themselves. Feedback so far from Beta Readers has not highlighted it as a concern, so I feel you should follow your gut on this one and if your Beta Readers bring it up as a potential problem, then change it.
Dialogue is a great contributor to the overall story, there is no ‘rule’ as to how much dialogue is too much or too little. Much like everything else in a novel, if it does not contribute to the story progression, relationship building, or characterization, then you don’t need it. It comes down to the author at the end of the day. Some authors have a greater ratio of dialogue to narrative and others a greater ratio of narrative to dialogue. Much of the time the ratio falls somewhere around 50:50, but this is not set in stone.
The best way to self- check your dialogue is to read it aloud. Hearing the exchange between your characters can help you find the points where the dialogue is stiff or where it drags and could be shortened. It can be beneficial to record yourself reading it out so that you can give your full attention to listening to it. If the conversation sounds natural, then move on, if not, tweak the parts that sound odd to you.
Writing good dialogue is not easy, but it is something that, with practice, can become easier and before you know it, you will be writing dialogue like it is second nature.