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Writing Good Dialogue

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Mon Jan 04, 2010 9:40 pm
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beckiw says...

Dialogue is natural. It is something that we hear everyday and, for the most part, do not notice. We hear accents, inflection, amusement, anger and many other emotions and intentions. As humans we automatically decode what we hear without consciously thinking about it.

As a writer, dialogue is as important to me as the description.

Sometimes however I have found that writers can be so concerned with getting description absolutely right, taking large amounts of time and effort to make sure that it is as perfect as they can make it, that they almost ignore dialogue. The words that their characters speak become secondary and something that is just slotted in without much thought.

This is a shame and can greatly damage the believability and readability of the work and can ruin all that great description.

What I have tried to do here is to give a few pointers on how to look out for the pitfalls of bad dialogue and how to improve the dialogue so that it enhances the written piece as a whole.

What Not To Do

Emotionless dialogue is the main problem I find when I read stories. If you have emotionless dialogue it can really hamper your story and the connection that readers will have with your characters. No writer wants that.

Two main things to watch out for when writing dialogue –

Perfect English – By Perfect English I mean speaking in grammatically perfect sentences and in perfectly formed words. In Life we don’t speak like that, we shorten both words and sentences and speak in colloquial terms. Of course as writers we want to write correctly, and indeed we should, but when it comes to dialogue that is not necessarily a good thing. It can create unbelievable dialogue that is hard to connect with and read.

Examples –

Perfect English - “I do not wish to do that thank you very much.”

Other - “I don’t wanna do that thanks.”

I know how I tend to speak and it’s not in complete perfect English. Of course there are exceptions; if I were to write a character that was of noble birth or a character that just lended themselves to that way of speaking, then I would consider using perfect English. However you would not expect say a market trader to talk like that, would you?

Think about the way your character would say things, would he/she have an accent? Would he/she drop letters from words? For example, Spinnin’ (Spinning) or ‘orse (Horse). All this helps to define your character and say who they are without telling the reader in an overt manner. Just like listening to someone in real life will tell you about them.

Info Dumps – You have to be very careful when fitting exposition into dialogue. Of course in most stories you have to have an element of exposition, otherwise your reader may not know what is going on. However, if you can’t get it into your description because it seems unnatural or is not working it doesn’t mean you can just dump it all in the dialogue and make your character explain everything. You run the risk of boring the reader and again creating emotionless dialogue.

Examples –

Info Dump – “20 years ago I talked to your mother and she explained everything to me and now I will explain it to you because you are the chosen one and you have been born to save the human race. Why? Because it was written in an ancient prophecy and it will come to pass because that is what happens with prophecies and…”

Other – “It all began that night, that night your mother came to me…came to me for help. She told me of the prophecy, of your powers, of your destiny…”

I’m not saying that it’s always bad to have exposition in your dialogue. It isn’t but you have to be aware that it needs to have drama to it, it needs to have emotion and it needs to show something of your character; as all dialogue does.

Other bad dialogue points would be –

Not taking the situation into account – This happens far too often. If your character is dying then they shouldn’t be talking like another character that isn’t. There should be some strain or difficulty getting words out. If your character is running there should be something to show the physical exertion. In my opinion you should not rely on tags to do this for you, which leads me onto my next point.

Don’t rely on tags – Tags being the description at the beginning or end of your dialogue. Yes use them, use them perhaps to enhance your dialogue, more to give clues as to how they are feeling, but don’t rely on them to do all the work for the dialogue. Why? Because they probably won’t end up doing anything at all. The dialogue will most likely still fall flat and still be somewhat emotionless.

How To Combat Bad Dialogue

So how do you combat bad dialogue? One of the things to do is think about what dialogue is really there for? To push the story on, yes you could say that but one of the most important reasons for me is characterisation.

I use dialogue to show something about my character. Who they are and what their personality is like.
Some ways to show this in dialogue are –

Rhythm – Everyone speaks slightly differently. They have different rhythms in the way they talk and different accents and a multitude of things. This should be considered when writing dialogue for characters.

Reference – Everyone will reference different things when they talk. I am a film buff so I will most likely reference films to explain things or when I make comments. Some people may be really into books so they will reference different books and so on. If you do a fantasy, say you have a princess who has never been out of the castle before. She will probably reference things in her environment. Also a character has a history and just like an actor the writer has to think about what went before and this will also have an affect on how the character speaks and what references they will make.

Personality – Everyone of course has a different personality. You should be showing this in the way they speak. Say you have a person that is a hippy; they would talk different to someone who has anger issues. For me the hippy would talk more slowly, more drawn out in long vague sentences perhaps, whereas an angry character would be more abrasive or irritable and fast-talking using short staccato phrases or words.
So consider the character’s personality when writing dialogue.

A more practical thing you could do is to read your dialogue out loud. This can help you identify unnatural phrases. You could even have someone read it with you and perform the different characters.

Just think of dialogue as a writing tool and keep in mind that it should be given as much consideration as your description.
'The creation of a single world comes from a huge number of fragments and chaos.' - Hayao Miyazaki

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Tue Jan 12, 2010 5:03 pm
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Demeter says...

This is a great article and I will definitely try to learn from this :D
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Wed Jan 13, 2010 7:32 am
Maddy says...

Wow, this is great advice! I often have trouble with dialogue. I never thought to use rhythm to differentiate characters and to make the speech more believable. Thanks for writing this!
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Wed May 04, 2011 8:15 pm
Teardrop says...

Really nice article. There's a lot of good advice in it! A lot of the stuff you said I would have never thought of, but I'll be sure to keep your advice in mind! Thanks for posting, it really helped me out!
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Fri May 13, 2011 4:33 am
Yuriiko says...

Wow! A very helpful article! Thank you so much. ^^
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Sat May 21, 2011 6:07 pm
Matthews says...

Great article! I do 'Info Dumps' a lot...I just noticed. Grr! Well this was very helpful, so thanks! :P
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