Good dialogue is very hard to do and some writers are much better at it than others, just as some actors are much better than others at doing accents. Good dialogue is dialogue that a reader hardly notices as good or not, but bad dialogue sticks out painfully, dragging the whole book down. Poor dialogue is certainly one of the things that can contribute to rejection, not on its own but then poor dialogue is most unlikely to be the only thing wrong.
The first thing to know about writing dialogue is that you should not try to write exactly as people speak. If you did, you’d have lots of ums, vast tracts of nothingness and many non sequiturs. At the same time, you mustn’t write dialogue that the characters would actually never deliver. So, we devise a kind of stylized representation of speech, something that feels very natural. In essence, good dialogue is not about writing as we speak; it’s about not writing as we would not speak.
Dialogue is usually best broken up into sections, separated by narrative. You are not writing a film script or a play – unless, of course, you are, in which case you are boiling a whole different kettle of fish. You do not have to relate the whole conversation; in fact, you shouldn't. Most parts of a conversation are way too boring to set down. Yes, no, I don't know, and OK should all be reduced to their absolute minimum.
Oh, God - so should Oh, God. Amateur writers put loads of standard minor expletives in their dialogue but, again, the fact that a real person might have used a word doesn't make it deserve a place in your book. This is not about being prudish and avoiding swearing - probably the topic of another blog post - but about creating flowing, strong dialogue.
- As I say, too many yeses and noes. Better to replace some of them either with nodding / shaking of heads – though that can quickly become repetitive – or with the rest of the sentence and context indicating positive or affirmative.
- The blatant provision of information for the reader, which the characters would already know and therefore not say. For example, “Gosh, Sally, I hardly recognized you. You used to have dark hair with a fringe and now it’s a blonde bob. Did I tell you I recently saw Samantha, your younger daughter, the one who went round Australia? Lovely girl. She’s married now, of course, and they have a baby on the way.” Bleurgh.
- Dialogue tags – I'm going to tackle this in the next post, but dialogue tags are when we say, for example: he replied, she opined, he queried, she reiterated. Where possible, stick to said, asked, or nothing. I will show you how on Friday.
- Anything which makes it hard for a reader to hear the words in his head – this means that using dialect of any sort becomes very tricky for writers. You have to be very confident in your reader and in your writing to get away with the heavy use of an accent which that reader doesn’t speak. Trouble is, sometimes it would be absurd not to use dialect to some extent, if that’s how the character would speak, but do try to keep it toned down. Think of your reader.
I admit that dialogue is not something I find easy or something I shine in. Perhaps that's why I'm extra careful with it and extra aware of when I get it wrong. I spend a lot of time trying not to get it wrong. Good dialogue sings and makes your story sparkle and come alive. Bad dialogue is horrible and drags a book right down.