Last post we reviewed basic rules for formatting and writing good dialogue. Today, let’s dive a little deeper.
Writing Tip for Today: Writing effective dialogue relies on speech that sounds natural, is easy to read and that maintains and heightens a scene’s tension. Here are some more tips:
Mix it Up
When you write dialogue, does each character speak with a distinctive voice? Do your dialogue sentences all have the same format? Does every line of dialogue start out the same way? Asking yourself these questions can help you remember to vary your dialogue. Write accents, slang or idioms sparingly—readers don’t want to wade through too many dropped gs, strange spellings or foreign words.
Shaky dialogue makes characters sound alike or worse, makes the cast of characters all sound like you. Often, you can remedy this mistake by using more contractions, less formal language and even sentence fragments. Think about your character’s background, education level and even the era. A person of royalty speaking in the Regency Period should sound much different than a contemporary person from Boston. By writing dialogue that sounds natural and unforced, you’re better able to keep readers engaged.
Vary the format. If you always put dialogue first and then add attribution or action/thought, spice things up. Occasionally, reverse this format, vary the number of lines of speech, change where the second character responds or even allow characters to interrupt one another. Remember the Rule of Three and stick to the word said for dialogue tags.
No Info Cramming
Writers sometimes mistakenly think they can insert important information into dialogue. While character’s can and do effectively discuss plot or other information, cramming details into your character’s dialogue usually backfires.
You need readers to understand your character’s motivations and goals. But most of us don’t actually say aloud our reasons for doing things. If we’re passionately pursuing a goal, we may not even make the connection between our past and our present. Even if we do, the motive may be painful, embarrassing or make us angry. When characters speak, they rarely tell each other stuff both of them already know. Allow readers to slowly unfold those motives through narrative or inference.
Avoid dialogue that is encyclopedic (a longwinded explanation) or is of the “You know” variety, such as, “Bob, you know I must stay twenty-four hours in my late aunt’s estate to inherit the million dollars.” Just inform readers in narrative in a succinct way.
Avoid encyclopedic or “You know” dialogue and keep up the tension.
Talking Heads and Wilson
If one character speaks more than three lines of dialogue, chances are that character will end up delivering a speech. Speechifying leads to readers imagining that person talking away while the rest of the scene (other characters, all the concrete sensory detail, action) disappears. A talking head has a harder time keeping readers engaged than does action or lively back-and-forth dialogue.
Another dialogue problem develops when writers only put one character on stage. Ask, “Who is this person talking to?” I call this the Wilson Principle, after the old movie Cast Away with Tom Hanks. Marooned on a desert island, Hanks decorates a volleyball with a face so he has someone to talk to. Characters alone on stage can’t hold reader attention as easily as action or a real conversation.
Lastly, ineffective dialogue often makes action slow, which in turn removes tension from your scene. When you keep dialogue lively between at least two actors, you vary the format, use contractions and refrain from info dumping, your readers are much more likely to stay engaged and turning those pages.