Writing dialogue is one of the most challenging skills for writers to learn. Conversations dominate our lives on a day-to-day basis, but we rarely, if ever, focus on the tone, rhythm, or body language when engaged.
I like to people watch. The mall or similar venues are great places to hone this skill. Observing other’s interactions offers a treasure trove of different gestures, tones, words, body language, and action, to use in your stories.
Writing dialogue isn’t as easy as watching a conversation. In real life, we don’t have to worry about commas, speech tags, unclear antecedents, tone, or rhythm, or who is speaking. But, when writing, we must convey all of those aspects and more.
One of the stories in my upcoming short story collection is almost entirely dialogue. I have revisited that story a million times to ensure the conversation between the two men flow, sound natural, and is believable. That’s a rabbit hole best left for another discussion. Ultimately, readers will determine if I did my job well or not. For those of you who struggle, as I do, following are a few tips I’ve learned along the way and trust me, I’m not the expert.
- Short sentences are best.
- Use contractions unless your story dictates a more formal language or it is a characteristic of one of your characters.
- Make it clear who is speaking.
- Don’t overuse the characters names.
- Keep dialogue tags simple as in: said, asked, replied, and answered. Using verbs like whispered, shouted, or stammered are permissible, but don’t over do it.
- Don’t forget body language which often speaks louder than words.
- Stay away from dialects unless you’re an expert in the dialect.
- Characters shouldn’t sound like duplicates of each other. We all have our own distinctive manner of speaking; characters should too.
- In real life, we often say, um, ah, or trail off in the middle of a sentence, but use sparingly, unless it’s reflective of a particular characters speech pattern.
- Make sure the conversation has a purpose. In real life, we talk about topics that would never keep a reader’s interest. For example using coffee grounds to fertilize the soil of house plants. Unless discussing coffee grounds is significant to the story – like say, burying a murder instrument underneath the coffee grounds – I’d leave that conversation out of the story.
Speaking of observation, here is a look at one of my all time favorite scenes. Whoever wrote this dialogue, rich in words, body language, gestures, and action. It was magnificent. Enjoy.
Want more information on dialogue? Check out these resources:
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