Dialogue is one of the best predictors of good or not-so-good fiction. The writer whose dialogue feels formal, stiff or stilted is also liable to be making other story errors that hinder readability. Writing better dialogue is a great way to elevate your writing to the next step.
Writing Tip for Today: The target for writing better dialogue is to focus on putting words in the mouths of the characters that advance the story, sound the way people talk and that surprise the reader. Here are a few of the easiest to incorporate:
- Use contractions. This idea seems simple but writers are sometimes afraid to use contractions lest they be labeled casual. Even worse, writers who want to sound literary will sometimes eschew contractions. Hardly ever works.
- When you write dialogue, revise with an eye to incomplete sentences. Thus, I might draft, “Are you going to the concert?” but revise to “Going to the concert?” or “You going?”
- Don’t allow “ly” words to describe how a character speaks. If she says something angrily, is there a more specific verb? Try hissed, snarled, sneered.
- Avoid “yes” or “no” questions. Instead, have your character ask “how” or “why” questions.
- Attributions should be limited to “said.” I’ve seen the current trend away from attributions (dialogue tags) altogether, replaced by a “beat” (short sentence) of action, interior thoughts or emotion. It is good to remind your reader of the rest of the sensory info aside from dialogue but be careful not to let this style become repetitious. Vary the tags, beats and scene reminders by mixing it up.
- Don’t forget the Rule of 3! If one character speaks more than 3 uninterrupted lines, insert a beat or a bit of narrative. If two or more characters speak more than 3 exchanges, consider adding beat or narration. Don’t allow your characters to speechify or become talking heads.
Try This! Write a tense scene of only dialogue. Read it aloud. Are you picturing the characters’ postures, body language, actions? Can you imagine the surroundings? Rewrite the scene, sprinkling beats of action, narrative and emotions in small doses throughout the scene. Are there spots which call for “said?” Are there places where the tension is so high you don’t even need attribution?