Any writer who watches movies understands how important dialogue is to the story. Yet in too many instances, we’re writing dialogue that could use a tune up. Instead of asking what the character might say, a better question might be to ask what a character must say.
Writing Tip for Today: How can we write dialogue that serves our story best?
Most writers know that dialogue shouldn’t be used the way we talk in real life. A wonderful mentor once proclaimed, “Dialogue sounds like real life—but isn’t.” The point here is in real life we natter, mindlessly prattle on or shoot the breeze with out any consideration for where our dialogue is going.
Every word a character speaks should point to forward movement and should build tension. In other words, your characters cannot shoot the breeze for no reason. Readers look for clues as they read, and a superfluous passage irritates and frustrates that search.
Another useless dialogue practice is the over-inclusion of the space fillers we use in life—the wells, ers, uhs and so forth. When I draft dialogue, I often include these placeholders too—but when I edit, I remove them. Try it and see if your dialogue truly misses these nothingburgers.
As you write, the aim of the dialogue must raise tension, even if only subtly. You already know the story moves with rising action and tension. Allow the dialogue to follow with words that raise tension too.
How do we do this? One easy way is to take any dialogue and give your POV character the opportunity to say things that aren’t necessarily polite. In life, we’re taught to play nice. But this idea in fiction almost always falls flat. Even if your character is prim and proper, think of ways that character’s words can shine a light on the conflict.
Another idea (thanks to Donald Maass) is to ask your character to say the opposite of what you think they’d say. By surprising the reader (and even the writer!), you keep the tension building. Also, avoid writing questions that are simple yes/no answers—and if they are, find a way to show the character’s discomfort with thoughts and emotions. These things make your character and dialogue seem more authentic.
Wish You’d Said
Another fascinating idea comes from James Scott Bell. He proposes that to craft effective dialogue, make characters say what you wish you’d said yourself in similar situations. As I said, we’re told to be polite in life—but remember, dialogue only sounds like real life. If your character says things you wish you’d had the guts or freedom to say on occasion, your dialogue is liable to be stronger.
But Bell also cautions against writing forced dialogue. Whatever your character says must be in keeping with who the character is. He talks about “curving the language” so that you gradually sharpen the dialogue until it sparkles. Experiment by writing a line and then revising it until it passes the character test. Look to strong emotion or opinion to point you in the right direction.
Dialogue comes easily to some writers and for others, it’s a challenge. All of us can benefit from refreshing our skills. Remember, dialogue enlivens readers and also reveals character. Keep your dialogue effective by practicing these techniques.