If we listened to a real conversation and tried to put it into words, we would soon realize that the resulting dialogue fails on a narrative level. Real conversations are full of interruptions, unfinished sentences, and inconsistencies. The key to writing effective dialogue is to keep the authenticity of a real conversation but not at the expense of fluency and clarity. But how is that put into practice?
1. Know your characters well.
In order to give voice to your characters, it’s essential that you know them in depth – their personality, origin, age, education, profession, the time in which they live, etc. All of this information provides the necessary clues to understand how your characters talk. Unless you consider it indispensable, try not to portray dialectal differences between your characters or the peculiarities in their diction as readers will find it exhausting to read a book loaded with misspelled sentences or undecipherable words.
2. Play the role of your characters.
When you insert a dialogue, try to play the role of your characters and perform their conversations. Feel free to do it out loud (that’s the reason why I could only write in private for many years). If you become the actor of your own works and perform them as you write, not only will you find it easier to produce effective dialogue, you will also discover the gestures and actions a certain dialogue requires.
3. Be dynamic.
Your dialogue will flow better if you choose short sentences over long sentences, do not always include the verb after the intervention of a character, be concise, be dynamic, and keep up the pace of your story. This does not mean you aren’t allowed to add longer or more complex interventions to your dialogue, but it is better to do that only as an exception.
Let’s consider an extract of the conversation from The Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams:
“I’m not panicking!”
“Yes, you are.”
“Alright, so I’m panicking; what else is there to do?”
“You just come along with me and have a good time. The Galaxy’s a fun place. You’ll need to have this fish in your ear.”
4. Do not explain – move forward.
Do not use dialogue to explain whatever action that should have been understood. A wicked character exposing an evil plan point by point only appears in parodies. If readers need such a thorough explanation in order to understand what your story is about, you may need to revise it.
Don’t use dialogue to clarify things which all of the characters involved in the dialogue already know (or things that none of them have asked about). Always ask yourself if the sentences in your dialogue are necessary in the context you are using them, and make sure they sound natural.
This snippet of Douglas Adams’ dialogue is a good example:
“Unfortunately, I got stuck on the Earth for rather longer than I intended,” said Ford. “I came for a week and got stuck for fifteen years. I got there in the first place because I got a fit with a teaser. Teasers are usually rich kids with nothing to do. They cruise around looking for planets which haven’t made interstellar contact yet and buzz them. They find some isolated spot with very few people around, then land right by some poor soul whom no one’s ever going to believe and then strut up and down in front of him wearing silly antennae on their heads and making beep-beep noises. Rather childish really.”
And it is different than this:
“Unfortunately, I got stuck on the Earth for rather longer than I intended,” said Ford. “I came for a week and got stuck for fifteen years.”
“But how did you get there in the first place then?”
“Easy, I got a lift with a teaser.”
“Errr, what is...”
“A teaser? Teasers are usually rich kids with nothing to do. They cruise around looking for planets which haven’t made interstellar contact yet and buzz them.”
“Buzz them?” Arthur began to feel that Ford was enjoying making life difficult for him.
“Yeah,“ said Ford, “they buzz them. They find some isolated spot with very few people around, then land right by some poor soul whom no one’s ever going to believe and then strut up and down in front of him wearing silly antennae on their heads and making beep-beep noises. Rather childish really.”
5. Interrupt once in a while.
Taking the example of the dialogue above, interruptions are a good way to make it realistic and dynamic. Insert questions and comments in your dialogue to make the conversation more fluent.
6. Make your characters hesitate.
Dialogue must transmit the life inside your characters – their mood, the way they change their mind, and their reactions when they feel happy, undecided, angry, or annoyed, etc. Once again, play the role of each of your characters and reflect on which type of feelings they show when they speak. In doing this, you will find the best words to express what your characters think and feel.
7. Make each dialogue important.
As with any other narrative element, when dialogue is used, it should be because it’s the best way to present a certain part of the story. So if you write a dialogue, do it with some kind of purpose – develop the action of the story, express the change of mood of one of your characters, introduce conflict, etc.
8. Break up the dialogue with action.
Don’t forget that when we are speaking, we are not still. We keep moving as does life around us. Thus interrupting the dialogue to explain what is going on in the context where our characters are holding a conversation brings realism to the scene and makes the story go on.
9. Go easy on the “said.”
These “stage directions” have to be noticed as little as possible. Long ago, I wrote a post title “The Narrator in Dialogue” where I explained in more detail how to use the verb “said” as well as similar “stage directions” when your characters are speaking.
As with all narrative techniques, the best way to learn is by writing and reading. Paying attention to what masters do is fundamental to improving writing skills. The next time you read a novel or a story and find a dialogue that works well, underline it, photocopy it, write it down, or save it in some way. Later on, go back over it and analyze it thoroughly until you understand its mechanism, or in other words, why it works so well. Few things can help you more than this little exercise.