Human beings are, for the most part, social animals. We like to mingle, gossip, hug, cheer, and most of all we love to talk. Even the most introverted of all introverts have been known to run their mouths if you can get them talking about a subject they love. That’s right, we love to talk. Yet many authors find it difficult to transfer this love of dialogue into writing dialogue. Makes sense, right?
If you were to perfectly transcribe a conversation happening between two people, it would be horrible writing. Horrid.
People blurt. They interrupt. Cut each other off. Pause in awkward places and spit out dozens of words in a single breath. They talk over each other, and fill in the gaps with uh and um.
Yet, if you write out a conversation without all those bits, it becomes unrealistic, hard to follow, and yanks a reader right out of a story in a negative way.
And then there are the dialogue tags to worry about:
“Hi! Thanks for talking to me,” she said.
“Oh, it’s no problem. I enjoy talking,” he said.
“Yea, talking is really great, isn’t it? It’s a good way to have us characters show the reader what’s in our heads,” she said.
Oh. Oh it’s just so painful!
But, as dialogue tags go, I like to stick with “said” because the alternative is worse:
“Hi! Thanks for talking to me,” she exclaimed.
“Oh, it’s no problem. I enjoy talking,” he opined.
“Yea, talking is really great, isn’t it? It’s a good way to have us characters show the reader what’s in our heads,” she confirmed.
Just what are you trying to do? Kill me? Now it’s just as unrealistic as before, but it’s got all these newfangled dialogue tags distracting me from the conversation.
I understand why people do it, I really do. Seeing the word said over and over again isn’t good writing. In fact, one of the many reasons people like me like the word said as a dialogue tag is because it disappears into the background. But not when it’s he said, she said, he said, she said, the third guy said, he said. Then it just sticks out like a sore thumb. And I’ve smashed my thumb in enough car doors to know how far that sore thumb can stick out.
The truth is writing dialogue doesn’t have to be that hard. Yet I hear writers agonize over dialogue all the time. To be honest, I think a lot of writers make it harder on themselves than it needs to be. So I’ve compiled a list of tips to help you keep it simple and get your characters talking.
Remember your characters are in a scene.
Are they sitting in a cafe? Crowded around a campfire? Dodging raindrops? Is a train rolling by?
Chances are unless your characters float up into a vacuum whenever they talk, they are immersed within a environment. Use that. Sprinkle bits of that setting throughout the conversation.
“Hi! Thanks for talking to me,” she said as she grabbed a second mug from the cupboard.
“Oh it’s no problem.” He pointed to the silverware drawer. “I enjoy talking.”
“Yea, talking is really great, isn’t it? It’s a good way to have us characters show the reader what’s in our heads.” She filled the coffee mug and handed it over, trying to ignore the pain of having splashed scalding-hot coffee on her fingertips.
Don’t forget about the setting while your characters are talking. Incorporate it. Have your characters interact with it.
Don’t use dialogue as a place for an info dump.
Info dumps are, in general, frowned upon in the world of fiction. No one wants to read through four or five paragraphs or more of backstory, history, and setup. But even more than that, no one likes picking up a book to read one character turn to the other and say, “As you know, Bob….”
No one speaks like that. No one says “As you know, we’re here investigating the latest in a string of murders.”
We don’t give each other speeches about how we got to where we are except under one condition: when we are catching up with an old friend or member of the family whom we haven’t seen in a long time. And even then, we wouldn’t start the conversation by saying “As you know.”
Remember your characters are not imbeciles.
Don’t have your characters say something that should be more than obvious to each other. “Bob, be careful with that cup of coffee. If you spill it, you’ll burn yourself.”
Unless your story happens to be about the village idiot, chances are Bob knows that hot coffee will burn him if he spills it. He doesn’t need you to tell him that. And the readers don’t need you to tell them, either.
You don’t need to start at the beginning.
It’s true that when we come across each other, we tend to greet each other with hellos, his, and salutations. But that doesn’t mean you need to include those in your conversation. Dialogue should push the story forward. Slowing things down for five minutes of greetings and chit chat. “You look good! That new job really suits you” can be great to hear when you’re talking to an old friend. But it doesn’t exactly make for good reading.
The same is true for those long goodbyes. We can assume that if your characters are friends and part ways, that they were polite enough to bid each other farewell.
Your characters probably don’t talk exactly alike.
Next time you’re in a room filled with talking people, try listening in on some of the conversations. No doubt, you’ll notice that no two people sound alike. Even people who grew up in the same town will have slight variations in how they speak. One might say “y’all” while another one says “you guys.” Someone who paid close attention in English class will likely have a different vocabulary from someone who skated by.
Reflect these differences in your characters. Give them each a distinctive style of speech. Not only will this help to bring your characters to life for your readers, but it will also make it easier to distinguish one from the other without relying on tags.
Try to stay away from tangents.
In real life, people go into tangents all the time. Our own words provide us with a myriad of squirrely thoughts to follow in endless combinations. We get caught up in our own words and before we know it, we’re rolling our eyes up to the ceiling trying to remember the original point to our story.
This might be a humorous little quirk for one of your characters to do. But if you have all your characters doing this the reading will be boring and the plot will be hard to follow.
Dialogue is meant to be heard.
When in doubt, read your dialogue out loud. This will help you spot small errors you might otherwise miss and it will help you listen for anything that might sound awkward.