There is nothing, NOTHING more story-killing than bad dialogue.
It can be a book, a movie, a show, anything. Specifically here we’re talking about books or short stories. But the second someone says something completely contrived or unrealistic or just wildly out of character. . . you hear that sound? That’s the sound of the fictive dream being shattered.
Dialogue is so very important. It is a exceedingly tough line to walk to have your characters feel genuine, engaging, and true to themselves all while keeping the rhythm of the story. It only takes a little incongruency to make your readers go “Huh?”
Your characters have voices. They speak to each other, to the reader, to you. They hide things, they lie, they mask emotions, they show emotions, they speak their minds, they put themselves on the line. And ultimately, the dialogue is what makes your readers love your story. After all, it’s how your beloved characters interact and show themselves in the world you’ve created.
Every writer has a different relationship with dialogue. Some tend to love it, some tend to hate it. Sooner or later we all feel both ways. I tend to love it, but I also tend to rewrite the living hell out of it. Dialogue I thought was awesome one week I think needs serious change a week later.
So here are my tips on dialogue:
1. Focus on character realism without getting too hung up on it.
It is of critical importance that your characters stay true to themselves when they speak. But that doesn’t mean they always have to have the same opinion, feelings or actions. After all, people change their minds all the time. If your story is doing its job, your characters should be changing a lot through the conflict, so it’s natural that what they say will change. But make sure whatever is happening, whatever your characters are saying, that it’s true to their personality, that it makes sense to their internal beliefs.
2. Don’t get cute.
You know what I mean. Good dialogue should feel real. In real conversations, people change the subject, misunderstand each other, don’t respond, answer simply or talk nervously. Don’t write some binary rolling complex thought train all the time. Yes, dialogue should be action-reaction… but keep in mind that characters have motives, people want to steer conversations certain ways for different reasons. The trick is, simultaneously you have to keep the dialogue in a pace and form that drives the story. Don’t let your characters take over the narrative drive all the time.
3. Keep it simple. Shorter is often more powerful.
“I can’t have you second guessin’ yourself,” Bill said.
Owen worked his jaw, staring out the window as the rain collected and fell in wild paths down the glass.
“There’s no room for it. We won’t survive.”
“I heard you.” Owen turned, moving away from the conversation.
Okay, that’s just a random sample I made up. But you get the point. People often speak very simply, and from a writing/reading perspective, the more short and punchy something is, the harder it hits the reader. Granted, you want to vary sentence length and conversation based on the mood of the scene and of the characters. But the more you can trim the better. Just think of Pulp Fiction. One of the best and most memorable lines in that movie, a movie featuring plenty of outstanding dialogue is: “Zed’s dead baby.”
4. Get Some Distance.
Any writer worth his salt is going to spend a heck of a lot of time editing. As I’ve said in previous posts, editing is really the true bread and butter of writing. But when it comes to dialogue (and your story,) you’ll get so close to the words that you can become numb to them.
It’ll feel hard to tell whether you’re actually making positive revisions or just changes for the sake of changing. For that reason, It’s very very valuable to set your manuscript aside for awhile. Weeks, months, whatever it takes. Don’t look at it. Don’t even open it up. Read some other books you love, read some editing and writing nonfiction if you want. Come back to it once some distance has grown so you can be more objective and look at it with an honest lens. Otherwise, you’ll drive yourself crazy.
5. Use your voice.
When you re-read it, read the dialogue aloud to yourself. In character. It might feel weird, but do it. Try to act out each character as you speak their words. Hearing it all out loud does wonders for figuring out what makes sense and what doesn’t, what has normal speaking rhythm and what doesn’t. You want your words to read smoothly like spoken word.
6. Ultimately, put yourself / your stamp on your dialogue.
There’s all kinds of rules and guidelines out there for writing. Much like the ones I’ve put up above. But the bottom line is that millions and millions of stories have been written and told over and over. So at the end of the day, only one thing will seperate your story from anyone elses. Your voice. You as the writer, your feelings, your experiences, your own flavor to your dialogue. At the end of the day you’ll live or die by the unique elements of you as a writer that you bring to your story. So don’t steamroll what makes you you as a writer. Let it fly (within the context of your characters, ofc.)