When I pick up a novel, I usually know within a few pages whether I’m going to like it. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule and there are always exceptions, but generally speaking, I find that I can determine a lot about the author’s style—and my potential enjoyment of the book—simply by reading the first conversation in the book.
The devil’s in the dialogue, one might say.
I find it inordinately difficult to get into a story or to relate to characters when the conversations within feels unrealistic or forced. I want to make friends with the characters—or even enemies—and I can’t do that if they sound like they’re straight out of a poorly written made-for-TV movie. To ensure that you don’t fall into the trap of dull discourse or pitiful parlance, here are a few tips to consider when you’re making your revisions.
1. Consider character.
There’s something jarring about reading a book in which a ten year old speaks like a grad student. And if that little oddity is an integral part of your story, great—mission accomplished. But if you’re searching for verisimilitude in your writing, it is useful to consider your characters’ story arc(s) when writing their dialogue. Match their words with their lives and experiences. Hint at regional affiliation through diction and grammar. Incorporate colloquialisms and slang as applicable. Make me believe that the characters could be living, breathing people.
2. Mix it up.
It is tempting to make all your characters sound charming and educated and wise and awesome in general, but it isn’t realistic. Some people are just more likeable than others. Some are witty while others are snide. Some are kind where others are rude. Some come across as uncomfortable or confident or menacing. Play off the differences between your characters in their interactions. Entertain us with hints of personality, experience and regional flair. Use dialogue as an opportunity to give readers subtle hints about who your characters are and where they come from. Language is a rich spectrum—don’t limit yourself to a few colours!
3. Don’t forget the sound of silence.
I’m sure your mom has told you once or twice: “It’s not what you say but how you say it.” Harsh but fair, Mom. The thing is, language is often ambiguous, and while it can be fun to play with ambiguity, it is also often necessary to strive for clarity. Sometimes, the best way to do that is to pay attention to dialogue tags. A benign sentence like “I don’t care” finds new meaning whether it’s said with a shrug or a snarl. An unremarkable “tell me more” indicates interest, but so do widened eyes and a forward-leaning stance. Sometimes it’s useful to replace banal conversation with body language. Other times, body language enhances the words being said. Either way, it is important to include dialogue tags and non-verbal action in order to flesh out your characters and keep their conversations real and believable.
4. Observe and Inquire.
Once you’ve drafted your dialogue, it’s time to test your theories in the field, so to speak. Ask people in the know if your conversations sound plausible. If you’re writing a detective story, track down a cop friend who can check your terminology. If you’re writing about teenagers, see if your niece or nephew or neighbour will give you some feedback. If you don’t have enough suitable readers, check out how people interact on social media or in public. Which words are they using? What does their body language look like? How do their conversations progress? Distil your findings and apply them to your writing as needed.
Bonus Tip: You Do You.
Use your best judgment as you revise. I do think that there is such a thing as “too real”. The conversations we have in real life are messy, meandering and pretty dull, when you come right down to it. Fiction is meant to be engaging, so true-to-life dialogue is not necessarily the optimal goal. The trick is to simulate reality without getting bogged down in the details, the red herrings, the non sequiturs. This is why writing is an art, people!
There you have it. Four (plus one) tips to improving the dialogue in your next novel or short story. If you have any good dialogue tips, please share them with us in the comments below.
Cheers, and happy writing,