Every writer struggles with elements of craft. Some with putting cohesive, illuminating prose on the page, others with developing elements of plot, others still with brevity, and still others with imbuing their stories with living atmosphere. For the most part, we learn how to compensate for these weaknesses using our strengths.
However, writing real and true authentic dialogue is something that many writers consistently strive to improve. Thus: here are five tips for writing authentic dialogue. It’s okay if you disagree or think I’m flatout wrong on this stuff. No way am I claiming expertise. But maybe this will be helpful for you. I’m only putting down what I try to remember when I’m writing.
1. Choose between dialogue and narrative
One of the common pitfalls of dialogue is that some writers don’t identify what should be dialogue and what should be narrative, e.g.:
John asked Laura how she felt about wine-tasting
“How do you feel about going wine tasting?” asked John.
Dialogue characterises the speaker more than narrative, so if a line of dialogue is delivered as opposed to information being delivered via narrative, the dialogue needs show something about the character. Most “bad” dialogue isn’t bad–it just puts too much focus, and therefore expectation, on the words being said, when they don’t say anything about the speaker. The above line of dialogue doesn’t show us anything about John–it’s just information–therefore, it works better as narrative. In order to use dialogue effectively, in this case, the way John speaks–the words he actually chooses to use–should be carefully selected to allow them to say something about him.
“Listen. I’m–well. I was thinking we could maybe go wine tasting next Saturday.” works as dialogue because it implicitly shows the way John is feeling.
As opposed to
John nervously asked Laura if he could take her wine-tasting, which isn’t very interesting or illuminating narrative. This further acts as a good example of the benefits of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’.
2. Remember that most communication is nonverbal
We’ve all been told not to cross our arms in a job interview because body language says more about what we are thinking and feeling than the words that come out of our mouths. It applies, also, to dialogue. Allow your dialogue to be realised by physical action. The emotion/thought/mood–the meaningful intention–is made clear through context. Again, this is one arena in which the classic “Show, don’t tell” advice is easiest to exemplify:
Laura leaned her head against the car window. “Wine tasting?” she said. “Sure. If you want.”
works better than:
“Wine tasting? Sure. If you want,” sighed Laura.
which itself works better than:
“Wine tasting? Sure. If you want,” said Laura, who had grown bored.
3. Dialogue is an approximation
Dialogue does not mirror general day-to-day speech, but distills it down into its most meaningful parts. When characters are having on on-page conversation, ensure that every line contributes to at least two of three elements: character, plot, or atmosphere. Preferably all three. This can be accomplished through consideration of exact words used, (generally the fewer the better), a plot that is already moving at a good pace and gives a character an opportunity to give a meaningful response, and a contextual, implicit, physical detail that reinforces the emotional resonance already present in the scene (see tip #1).
When a deer crossed the road and disappeared into the trees, John slowed the car. Dusk darkened in the treetops. “If it’s not your thing,” he said, “you can just say so.”
4. Everyone lies
The fulcrum of good fiction is conflict–we all know this. And in meaningful conflict, (where something is at stake), we usually don’t express ourselves wholly or honestly–honesty is a risk. The things we say are tempered, contrived, or just plain made up. It is through conflict that our inner worlds and outer worlds become bridged, but information that crosses that bridge becomes muddied by emotion. In short: usually we don’t say exactly what we mean. Or we say its opposite. Let your characters tell small, emotionally-driven lies.
“No,” said Laura. “Wine-tasting is fine. It’s nice.” She leaned forward and turned up the radio.
5. A piece of dialogue is, itself, a story
Like stories, a conversation has a beginning, a middle, and an end. When you are writing dialogue, ensure that the characters both want something out of it. In the wine-tasting example, John wants to take Laura wine-tasting and the dialogue is the story of him wanting to know how she feels about it within the greater context of the implied whole story.
In this conversation, it’s clear that Laura doesn’t want to go wine-tasting but doesn’t, for one reason or another, want to hurt John, though she does want him to know she’s not wholly invested in the idea or, perhaps, the relationship itself. If we were to guess the rest of John and Laura’s conversation, we might think that John will continue to press Laura about the wine-tasting, and that she will continute to placate, elude, or otherwise side-step the issue. This means that the tension will rise. Compelling dialogue often follows the same narrative structure as a story itself, which if you didn’t know looks like this:
The conversation may reach that climactic boiling-point, but if we are writing authentic fiction we will remember that we, as fully-realised human beings, are often unwilling to plunge into conflict, into emotional risk, and what matters then most often is what we don’t say; this brings us to the unsaid. If you’re reading this, you probably already know that what’s left unsaid can be more emotionally evocative and transformative than the hardest-hitting “I don’t love you anymore”. This cultivates tension and compelling stories draw out and relieve tension effectively. What’s left unsaid should honestly be part of this list, but other writers have put it finely here and here and here.
A few quick and dirties:
Understand dialogue tags. Cut everything that isn’t completely necessary. Read aloud. (If you’ve never read your dialogue aloud, read your favourite author’s work aloud, first. You will begin to know). Always remember that each person comes in to a conversation wanting something, and that they should either get what they want, or not, which is to say, cultivate tension.
Finally: Let your characters say what they want, even if it’s yabba-dabba-do. You can always cut it later.
I hope you find this useful. Feel free to add your own tips and tricks in the comments. Pretty much any time you feel like, honestly.
Bonus Prompt: Finish John and Laura’s dialogue.
Currently Listening to: The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy — Love Kittens
Currently Reading: The Quarry– Damon Galgut
Current location: Licking the bottom of the rain-barrel