I’ll never write a post about how to plot. It’s not my strong suit. My attempts at plotting typically involve letting my characters run all over the place and hoping they do something coherent at some point.
But I have a lot of confidence in my ability to write decent dialogue. I love the flow of it, the rhythm, the pauses and the beat. Good dialogue always serves a purpose. It reveals little things about your characters in slick and subtle ways. A passage of skillfully-written dialogue is like a dance between the speakers, measured and justified.
Obviously, everything that follows is just my opinion. It’s a ramble, and it’s all based on my own experiences as a writer and a reader. It’s what I offer when I’m asked for dialogue advice. You might disagree with some or all of it, and that’s cool! It’s subjective. Having said that, here’s what I’ve learned about writing dialogue . . .
To write good dialogue, you need to listen. Listening has always come naturally to me because I’m a super-quiet introvert who would rather let others dominate the conversation, but anyone can learn to listen more effectively.
Eavesdropping is a great way to do this. Yes, I’m suggesting you be nosy. Go somewhere fairly busy, like a coffee shop, where you can hang out for a while. Get a flat white or a frappuccino or an iced tea, park yourself at a table, and listen. Without being obvious about it (pretend to read a book or play with your phone), pay attention to the conversations going on around you. Imagine those people as characters in a story. Notice the cadence of each comment, the tone, the pauses. Feel how the dialogue ebbs and flows. Is it snappy or slow? Are the speakers happy? Impatient? Upset? Indifferent? Distracted? What can you infer from listening to them for a minute or two? How would you translate those inferences into words in a manuscript?
You can practice with movies, too. Before watching a movie you’re not too familiar with, look up some quotations and dialogue online (you might even be able to find the entire script). Read portions to yourself and picture them playing out on the screen. Then watch the movie and see how close you were. Notice how much more information comes across through the actors’ performances. Writers don’t have that advantage, so we need to include enough nuance to let the reader visualize and “hear” the conversation.
After writing a passage of dialogue, I always find it helpful to read it out loud. Some lines sound so different out loud. A line might seem to work fine on the page, but when you hear it, you’ll realize the rhythm is a bit off, or the phrasing sounds unnatural.
When I’m reading a book with especially good dialogue, sometimes I’ll read passages out loud simply because it’s enjoyable to do so. I want readers to enjoy the dialogue I write that much, and I bet you want the same for yours.
Finally, a few things to look out for when writing dialogue:
–Characters using each other’s names too often. Again, listen to real conversations and notice how seldom most people use names unless they’re trying to get someone’s attention or really emphasize a point. This can get tricky when you’re writing scenes involving multiple characters and you need to show who’s addressing whom, but if your characters are constantly saying things like, “Jane, how was your day?” or “I paid that bill last week, Roger,” or “I’m running to the store, Allie, do you need anything?” consider revising to minimize some of that. Use names in dialogue when you (or your characters) have a good reason for doing so.
–Dialogue that’s overly formal and stilted, or that avoids contractions and other spoken shortcuts. I’m not telling you to jump headfirst into writing in dialect (which is SUPER tricky and potentially offensive if it’s not a dialect you share), but you don’t want your characters speaking like robots: “We are going to the store, and later I will stop by the post office.” That might work for some characters (if you’re writing Downton Abbey fanfic, for example, go for it!), but when I see, for example, teenage characters in young adult contemporary speaking like that, it can be really jarring. Compare the above line to something like, “Hey, we’re gonna run to the store. I’ll go by the post office later.” Dialogue doesn’t need to employ perfect grammar; often, it really, really shouldn’t.
–Careless tags and description. The unspoken parts of dialogue-heavy scenes are just as important as what’s actually said. Choose tags (said, asked, exclaimed, yelled, whispered, etc.) with care. The right tags will blend into the dialogue; the wrong ones will stand out (this is not the time to grab the most creative synonym your thesaurus can deliver) or cause an uncomfortable amount of repetition. Personally, I like to avoid tags as much as possible and let the action illustrate who is speaking.
Here’s a snippet from Mammoth that illustrates the above points. It’s a fairly unimportant bit of dialogue that exists mostly to get Mellie and Eli, the paleontology program’s senior interns, out of the dorm for a bit so shenanigans can happen, but it shows how I balance multiple characters, use action to note who’s speaking, and choose tags that blend into the narrative:
That evening, we’re watching a zombie show in the common room when Mellie speaks up. “So guys? Can Eli and I trust y’all to your own devices for a few hours?”
“Depends,” Brendan says. “Why?”
From a chair in the corner, Eli scowls. “I don’t like this.”
Mellie shushes him. “There’s a special showing at the Drafthouse that we really want to see.”
“That you want to see,” Eli mutters.
“Take us with you.” Brendan leans back with a negotiator’s grin.
“It’s an anniversary showing of Dirty Dancing.” Mellie’s tone grows bubbly. “The best romantic classic ever!”
“Never mind,” Brendan says.
“So . . .” Mellie raises her brows at us.
I shrug. “Sure, go.”
“I still think this is a shitty idea,” Eli says.
Mellie jumps up and tugs on his hand, pulling him off the chair. “Come on. Nobody puts Eli in a corner!”
In thirteen lines of dialogue (I count Eli’s grunt as a line, heh), I only used four speech tags, and even that feels like a bit much. And only one of them is more unique than “says.”
But you’ve gotten hints about the characters. From the dialogue and the action that surrounds it, you get a sense that Mellie is playful and bossy, Eli is a grump, and Brendan is a bit of a schemer. Mammoth’s main character, Natalie, only gets one spoken line, but since she’s the narrator, everything here is filtered through her point of view, and what she focuses on lets us infer things about her as well.
The characters don’t always speak in complete sentences. They use contractions like it’s and there’s and y’all (the book takes place in Texas, after all). The only time a character says someone’s name is when Mellie specifies that she’s asking a question on behalf of both herself and Eli.
What are some books that you feel handle dialogue especially well? Let me know in the comments!