Without great dialogue, no piece of fiction can truly sing. Here are five things I’ve learned so far about writing dialogue.
1. Read it out loud.
I keep saying this, I know. I feel like a broken record. You should read all your pieces aloud, but even if you don’t think it’s necessary to read your narrative (it is!), please read your dialogue. It should feel and sound natural.
- Don’t infodump.
For the most part, characters aren’t going to be telling each other things they already both know. Keep that sort of thing for narration if it’s important.
- Don’t overdo funky spellings.
Unless you’re Brian Jacques. If you want to write a character with a strong accent, my method is generally to use a couple-three instances of funny spelling, maybe a word that’s always spelled strangely for that particular character, and instead rely on word choice and syntax, the rhythm of the character’s speech. You don’t have to spell strangely to make the reader hear.
- Don’t over-specify speech tics.
If your character uses a particular phrasing or a catchphrase, it’s not necessary to work it in more than once or twice per book. However, there’s something to be said for a particular speech pattern. Say, cursing often. Not cursing at all. A formal manner, or a casual one. Highly educated or not. This is why I think what I call filtering (by which I mean pulling the writing through the character’s thoughts and perceptions; you can read more about that here) is so important. Learning to put a particular character’s spin on things is vital to living dialogue, even if you don’t write the way I do. Build a voice for each character. Don’t just slap some mannerisms on them and call it a day.
- Subtext, subtext, subtext.
Great dialogue is as much about what the characters don’t say as what they do—maybe even more so. Think about something you’d say every day: “I’m fine.” Are you really? You probably say that whether or not you are fine. Maybe the subtext is that you’re having a fine day, but maybe it’s that your life is falling apart beneath your feet and it would take too long to explain, or you aren’t close enough to feel comfortable with the person who’s asking, or, or, or … You see what I mean. Sometimes they exaggerate, understate, even outright lie. They’re people, after all. Let’s hear them talking.