Getting to know a character deep down is necessary before you can turn that character loose in a scene. When we let those characters roam around our pages, they usually speak and interact with others, and that’s when writers often get into trouble.
I won’t bore you with basic rules. There’s an overabundance of articles and books devoted to such. We all know the rule that only one character should speak per paragraph and the dozens of other accepted rules we follow in fiction. But let’s dig deeper for the finer points of good dialogue.
Authors often say that dialogue is the most difficult part of writing a novel. That’s because dialogue should convey the attitude, mood, temperament and general psyche of the character—a tall order to say the least! When characters speak, the words should convey what those characters are thinking and feeling.
Good dialogue takes practice, trial and error, and surely several edits. I don’t often think about editing the dialogue during my first draft. The nuances to consider are too subtle and it takes my mind away from writing the story. But with the first edit, I start adding the psychological and philosophical layers that make the character real and believable.
Dialogue helps the reader get into the character’s mind and the following are some rookie mistakes that should be avoided:
Using dialogue for what’s already been described in narrative: In storytelling, you provide information either through dialogue or narration. Use one or the other. Don’t duplicate. For instance, don’t have your character talk excitedly about the flavor of some food and then narrate how much the character is enjoying the meal. We get the point! Gestures also go a long way to suggest enjoyment and it uses a minimum of words. A short description of body gestures often expresses emotion or communicates thoughts better than a couple of sentences of narrative or dialogue, and it helps readers relate better to our characters.
Superlatives in dialogue: Adverbs like “very” and “extremely” don’t come across as meaning much. Use an action verb to convey feelings behind the words. For instance, “She was not very satisfied with my plan” sounds flat. A better phrasing would be, “Her furrowed brow told me the plan troubled her.” That gives a better visual of the character’s thoughts.
Literal Dialogue: One of the best examples of this is the one word answer “yes” or “no”. Staccato answers may create dramatic tension (think an interrogation) and that’s fine, but not in normal conversation. Answers should convey the “yes” or “no” intent but be stated in words that propel the story forward. Each word of written dialogue should move the reader toward the next sentence. Otherwise, the emotional connection between reader and character is lost.
Characters that state the obvious: This goes along with being too literal. We want to make sure the reader gets what we’re writing, so we belabor the point. Readers are smart. They connect the dots and usually follow the intent of specific dialogue. We don’t have to spell it out unless, of course, the intent would not be noticed otherwise.
Overuse of names in dialogue: Names of characters should be used sparingly. The usual rules are to use a character’s name ONLY during an introduction, for dramatic emphasis, when several people are in a room and a character is addressing a specific person, or during long speaking interactions between two people so that the reader doesn’t get lost with who’s saying what.
Too many tags: Tags are the “he said” “she said” descriptors that tell us who is talking. Tags should be used sparingly and only to keep the reader focused on who’s speaking. Studies show that readers often skip over the tags as they read dialogue.
Using tags to convey emotion: Tags tell us which character said the words. The emotional content of speech should be conveyed by the speech itself or by a gesture. To state, “he said, angrily” lacks imagination and conveys little. A better way to communicate a character’s anger is with a gesture (“He clenched his fist and pounded the desk”) or with expressive dialogue (“Impossible!”)
Formal dialogue: Dialogue should sound like people do in real life. Overly formal dialogue may have its place with a specific character, but everyday people don’t usually say, “That is an interesting and unusual red door.” They’d say, “Cool red door, never seen one like that before.” When editing dialogue, read it out loud. If it doesn’t sound natural, then IT ISN’T! Change it to normal speak. Otherwise, you cause the reader to pause because it doesn’t feel right in the reader’s mind. And when a reader pauses, you break the reader’s concentration and lose the dramatic tension of the story.
Using only complete sentences in dialogue: Yes, we’re told to use complete sentences in writing, but modern fiction is written for belief. It is the ultimate believable lie! That means we can use contractions and incomplete sentences when necessary to help the reader connect with our characters.
Too much dialogue at once: Long bouts of dialogue bore readers, and they begin to skip past it (and maybe miss important information). Break up dialogue with some narration and some back and forth dialogue between your characters. And be succinct! Make each word and each sentence count toward moving the reader forward into the next sentence.
Exposition in dialogue: Giving background information to the reader can be tricky. Background is a necessary part of the storytelling process. But what is too much or too little, and when do you give this information? Too much at once is called “info dumping” and it overwhelms the reader. Background information should be doled out slowly, some in narrative and some in dialogue, and only enough to continue the story without confusion.
The problem with dialogue exposition is that the character already knows this information, so why would he or she mention it? There has to be a good reason for characters to state what is already known; if not, it comes off as false and awkward. The same rules apply to flashbacks. They can be effective tools for background exposition. Without a specific and immediate purpose, however, they simply confuse the reader.
Good dialogue is a great tool for moving a story forward and having the reader connect emotionally with your characters. Bad dialogue, on the other hand, is a great reason for a reader to move on to another book.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!