Dialog is the bane of some writers, and some don’t know it. Nothing brings down a novel faster than poor dialog.
An important word to know is verisimilitude. It means the appearance of being real or true.
Because story is a crafted structure, your people can’t speak “like real people do.” Their dialog should be crafted to be concise, paced, differentiated, and sharp, yet appear like people really speak.
When coaches say you need to develop an ear for dialog, what you’re listening for is meter, accent, regionalism, and word choice. The fact is that real people speak badly, almost as if we’re making it up as we go along (because we are). We speak with fluff, fail to drive to a point, interrupt ourselves and each other, get distracted, and pause, stumble, or misspeak a lot. Listeners often don’t even hear the misspeaks as they listen for meaning (only us weirdos listen to each word).
Things to do and avoid:
- Get rid of small talk. Enter scenes after small talk is over, or just skip over it. This is especially true with telephone calls. Get straight to the point.
- Be strategic. Use dialog sparingly, only when it’s needed. Ask yourself if there’s a better way to convey the points. If not, dialog is fine.
- Properly tag dialog. We have to know who’s speaking. Not every line needs to be attributed, but we know who it is. “said” is your go-to tag. Use word choice to convey how a line is said, not tags. “He grated” “she quavered” “he grunted” “she bleated” comes after the line (or should, it feels stilted at the beginning of the line), so the reader either has to re-read the line or think about it. We don’t think about “she said” because no image comes to mind. It just tags the speaker, which is the goal.
- If swearing is necessary, include it rarely: “But people talk that way.” Um, I don’t. My friends don’t. Your character may, but if it’s done so much that it becomes invisible, then you don’t need it. Use it for impact. Part of the reason not to is because the reader puts emphasis on it when the character probably wouldn’t. It screws up the meter of the dialog, putting a stress where it doesn’t belong.
- Get to the point. Dialog should have a purpose; get to it.
- Watch your word choice. Word choice is powerful. It indicates your character’s intelligence, their region, their creativity, and their strata of society. Word choice differentiates your characters and brings humor or terror to a conversation. How well does your character use language? How bad? A character who butchers English tells us a lot about himself.
- Dialog tag placement. “Harry, what do you think?” vs. “What do you think, Harry?” have different meaning. If a name is used at the beginning, the speaker wants a response; it’s an invitation. If it’s used at the end, it shuts down the named person; it’s a threat.
- Not everyone is clever. I love wordplay. Quick wit is in every novel I write, but not everyone is created equal when it comes to wit and being clever. Unless you’re writing a humor novel, but even then, you need your straight people, or it comes off as a sit-com.
- Everyone has a cadence. We each have a personal rhythm. Find your character’s cadence. Do they like long sentences? Short sentences? Incomplete sentences? Long or short words?
- Don’t get carried away! Dialog can be fun, but a novel isn’t a screenplay. Long runs of dialog are hard to follow and draining. The rule is: Is it necessary? Is there a better way?
Edit your dialog ruthlessly! After a while of this, you’ll become a master of dialog and it will flow from your fingers!