DISCLAIMER!! I am not an expert or a professional. I am sadly not a bestseller either. These tips are written from my own personal experience as a writer and as a reader. I hope you find them helpful if you are struggling with how to write convincing dialogue.
You see, dialogue is my thing. I love reading it and I love writing it. I am guilty of slightly cringing when I come across dialogue that does not convince. The prose might be beautiful, the descriptions breathtaking, the plot gripping and so on, but if the dialogue is stilted, stiff or unconvincing, it will annoy the hell out of me and make me want to stop reading…
Show not tell? As writers we hear this mantra all the time and it is an important one to understand. You do not want your narrator, whether first or third person, ‘telling’ the reader everything. There are many ways to avoid too much telling, and using dialogue is one of them. Let the characters do the talking. In short, let them speak! You don’t need to keep telling the reader that Brian said this and Lucy said that; let the people talk! If the characters are talking, they can do some of the ‘showing’ for you. Instead of using the narrative voice to tell the reader what is going on, allow the characters to talk and have conversations that put this information across. Conversation is fascinating if you think about it. Think about what people mean, but do not say. Think about whether they are lying or exaggerating for effect. Think about what their body language can convey to the other characters. Does Brian scratch his beard when he is thinking? Does Lucy tug at her lip when she is nervous? Don’t rely on reams and reams of pretty narrative to get your story told, or to move your plot along. What is a story without its characters? Use them and let them speak, let them do the telling for you, in their own way.
Visualize your characters. Every time you write dialogue, you should be able to see your characters in your head. Obviously you will know, or you should know, what they look like. Write down their general descriptions such as age, sex, hair colour and build so that you don’t forget. But more importantly than that, build them in your mind. See them completely. Know their face as you would know the face of someone in real life. Learn their mannerisms. Do they stammer or stutter? Do they bite their lip? Do they brush their hair behind their ears when they talk? When your characters start to speak, when you start to fill their mouths with words, see them in your mind. Know every little detail about their physical presentation, so as you start to write the words, it is like having a little movie playing inside your head.
Read dialogue out loud. As you write it, as you start to make the characters speak, read the words out loud. Become them. Become their mouthpiece. Don’t worry about accent, just say the words as they would say them. Let your face become their face, along with any nervous twitches, throat clearing or wiping of noses. Read it out loud as you write it down and it should become obvious if it sounds wrong. Personally I read it out as I am writing it, and then read it out loud again when I am going back over it. This usually points me in the right direction and helps me pick out any words or phrases that do not feel real.
Pay attention to people when they speak. Sounds obvious, but sadly not all of us are terribly good at listening these days. We are often good at talking, good at voicing our opinions, but how well do we stand back and really listen? Practice this craft and you will be rewarded with a deeper understanding of the way that people speak. People do not speak in long, flat, monotones of dialogue. They break their speech up with pauses….their voices go up and down, their body reacts as they speak, releasing sighs, laughs, coughs and eye rolling. All sorts of things go on when people speak. They frown, they make faces that convey their opinions on things they are hearing or seeing. They interrupt and talk over each other, they trail off, or get distracted and change the subject. Watch and listen and where possible take note. When people are talking around you, become a silent observer. Listen in on conversations on the train or the tube or the bus, or while in the shops, in the Doctor’s waiting room, in the school playground. People are everywhere and they are never quiet! You can learn so much about speech and will find it easier to apply all these quirks to your own characters.
Don’t force things on them. Okay, you want them to help you ‘show’ not ‘tell’ too much. But don’t use them like puppets either. Don’t force your opinions into their mouths and be careful that you are not making them say something that is not realistic, just because it helps you push the story forward. Know your characters inside out and know what they would say and what they would not say. Dialogue is all about personality. Yes you need to drive your plot forward, so you need to move the characters about and you need to be in control, but just not too much. Be subtle. Think about how your characters will react. Imagine they are real and exist in your life. They come to the shops with you, they eat meals with you, they go on walks with you. Now ask yourself, would they really say that? And in that way? Or are you just wanting them to?
Be realistic. Think about your characters before, during and after you make them speak. If they are a teenager and it’s been a long old time since you were one, are you really getting it right? Are you sure you know how young people speak now? What about regional aspects? Not just accent but regional phrases and cultures. Would they really say it the way you have written it? Think about gender. Think about every aspect of your character’s personality and life. Does their background effect the way they speak? Are they quiet and withdrawn? Do they mutter? Be consistent or it will come across as unconvincing. Use dialogue well and it will really help bring your characters to life and encourage the readers to fall in love with them. Make your characters individuals who speak differently to each other. One will speak one way, and one another. Some people say ‘um’ a lot, some people start sentences with ‘so’ or ‘like’. Some people have a favourite swear word…
Avoid cliches/predictable dialogue. Hard to avoid unless you are aware of what they are, or can be, but my advice would be to read, read, read. Only when you have read really bad, contrived and cliched dialogue will you know what it is! If you’re not sure, just think about things people would never say in real life, and imagine that. Over dramatic, over the top, overly wordy or descriptive, that kind of thing. Who talks like that in real life? Well I suppose some people do, and if you are writing about them, then fair enough. However, bear in mind that if things get too predictable every time your characters speak, then something is lost. Remember that one of the main reasons characters fall flat or fail to convince the reader, is poorly written dialogue. You want your readers to believe in your characters, fall in love with them or loathe them, want to be friends with them or wish they could take them to the pub for a drink. This is not going to happen if your characters to not speak like real people.
I think that is all! For now…!