Six Tips for Improving Your Dialogue: A WOW-Wednesday Post by Eileen Cook
Many readers describe dialogue sections of a book as their favorite. This is likely due to a few reasons:
- Dialogue gives us the sense of getting to “spy” into intimate conversations. (And who doesn’t like to hear what other people are saying?)
- Dialogue tends to increase the pacing of a novel. These passages read more quickly than long blocks of narrative.
- Dialogue reveals character, what they say/do when interacting with others tells us a lot.
As writers, dialogue allows us to reveal important information in an interesting way and to move the plot of the book forward.
So how do you make your dialogue leap off the page? Here are six tips that will help you improve:
1. Avoid the Boring Bits: Real dialogue is filled with unimportant information. (How are you? Fine. Sure has been hot. Yep.) When you include dialogue in your manuscript make it dialogue that matters.
- Why are the characters interacting? What is the purpose of the scene? If you cut it would it matter to the story?
- Try reading the dialogue out loud - how does it sound?
- Avoid too many adverbs (he said sarcastically, she said angrily, he said happily.) The emotion of what is said often can come through without this. “I hate your f-ing guts. I hope you die,” she said angrily. This line is repetitive. There aren’t many ways to say this lovingly.
- Do you use character’s names too often? The truth is we rarely do in real dialogue so be careful you don’t have too much:
“Good to see you, Brian. Are you ready for the test?”
“I tell you, Ryan, I am freaking out.”
“Don’t worry, Brian, it will be fine.
2. Dialogue Should Match the Character: Different characters should sound different from each other. What is your characters age, gender, level of education, ethnicity and how does that impact how they speak and the words they use?
- If you took the character names off the page, would it be possible for you to tell who is speaking just by what they say/how they say it?
- Think about your character- a teen boy from a small town in the South will “sound” different than a 40-year-old woman who moved to New York from England.
- Avoid stereotypes or going over board. Just because you want the voice to match a character keep in mind that not all people from a certain group talk a certain way. Also avoid writing huge sections in dialect/accent, it can get distracting for the reader.
“I dinna know lassie. Och, I be shamed terrible of wha happn’d.”
If the reader has to try and decipher what your character is saying it gets to be a challenge. Consider putting in just a couple words here and there, after that the reader will “hear” the accent without you needing to have it in every line
3. Dialogue Depends on the Situation: Think about the situation in which the dialogue happens. If there are guns being fired all around the characters, this is not likely the time for them to have a long conversation about their feelings. What they say will need to be short, more direct.
- Do you characters sound the same in all situations?
- How does your character sound when threatened? When relaxed?
- Who else might be around while they are talking? If they are talking to someone they have a crush on, but are surrounded by a group of her friends, they will likely talk differently as compared to if they were alone.
- Does your character sound the same when talking to different people?
- Write a scene where they talk to someone they are very close to as opposed to someone that they dislike.
5. Characters Don’t Always Say What They Feel: One of the biggest errors in dialogue is having characters say exactly what they think or feel. In movie dialogue this is called “writing on the nose.” The truth is, most of us are either too polite or scared to say what we think. Sometimes we know we can’t say what we want because it will get us in trouble.
- Write a scene where characters say exactly what they think and feel. Then rewrite it trying to show the reader what the characters think/feel, but don’t allow your character to say it directly.
- Does your character know what they think/feel? Often we confuse emotion. We come across as angry when in reality we are scared. For example, a parent may yell at a kid for doing something risky, when in reality what they are is horrified because the kid could have been hurt.
6. Using Location To Amplify Dialogue: We know that stories need conflict. Looking at where/when a dialogue scene happens can be an opportunity to increase conflict. What is the worst time/place to have a conversation? It would be a difficult conversation to break up with someone. It is even worse if that break up scene happens in some place that is public. For example, telling a best friend that you kissed their boyfriend is an awkward conversation. It’s worse if you tell her in front of a group of people at lunch. Or it might be worse if you tell her just after she admits that she’s in love with him.
- Look at where key dialogue scenes happen in your book or story. Is there a way to increase the tension in the scene by moving the conversation to another place or time?
7. Have Fun: The best part of writing dialogue? Unlike real life where once we say something (or are unable to think of the perfect comeback in the moment) in fiction we can always go back and revise. If you think of the perfect snappy sarcastic line for your character two weeks or two months after you finish a draft, you can go back and put it in.
Dialogue that engages the reader will pull them into your book. It allows them to get into the head of your characters and to feel that they are active participants in the story. If you find this is an area you struggle with things that can help include:
- Download film or TV scripts and look how it appears on the page.
- Read your manuscript aloud. Often what looks good on the page, sounds “wrong” when we hear it aloud.
- Practice makes perfect. Be patient with yourself, writing dialogue is a skill. The more we practice the easier it gets.
About the Book:
Harper is used to her family being hounded by protestors. Her father runs the company that trademarked the “Memtex” procedure to wipe away sad memories, and plenty of people think it shouldn’t be legal. Then a new demonstrator crosses her path, Neil, who’s as persistent as he is hot. Not that Harper’s noticing, since she already has a boyfriend.
When Harper suffers a loss, she’s shocked her father won’t allow her to get the treatment, so she finds a way to get it without his approval. Soon afterward, she’s plagued with strange symptoms, including hallucinations of a woman who is somehow both a stranger, yet incredibly familiar. Harper begins to wonder if she is delusional, or if these are somehow memories.
Together with Neil, who insists he has his own reasons for needing answers about the real dangers of Memtex, Harper begins her search for the truth. What she finds could uproot all she’s ever believed about her life…
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About the Author:
Eileen Cook is a multi-published author with her novels appearing in eight different languages. Her books have been optioned for film and TV. She spent most of her teen years wishing she were someone else or somewhere else, which is great training for a writer. Her latest release, REMEMBER came out in February 2015.
You can read more about Eileen, her books, and the things that strike her as funny at www.eileencook.com. Eileen lives in Vancouver with her husband and one very naughty dog and no longer wishes to be anyone or anywhere else.
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-- posted by Susan Sipal, @HP4Writers