I’m kinda cheating on today’s blog post, mostly since I wanted a chance to update a few of my older (and in my opinion more helpful) posts. But also because I’ve spent most of the day writing and my brain’s in a bit of a fail mode otherwise. Today’s is all about dialogue.
Dialogue is one of my personal pet peeves when I’m reading a novel. At least bad dialogue – or dialogue that isn’t used properly – is. I can understand that, it’s not easy to write, but it IS one of the easiest things to screw up. Good dialogue can invest you in a story – it’s one of the most prominent ways that you can show your character’s personality and give them life. Bad dialogue can and will pull you right out of the story without a moment’s notice.
So what’s the difference? How do you know if you’ve got good dialogue or bad in your stories? My first rule of thumb is the verbal test. Can you speak the dialogue aloud, and does it flow naturally? This is a pretty simple test, but it’s got a lot of factors. It’s also the biggest and most difficult test to get through. Does the dialogue sound natural for the characters? A character with a genius IQ and lackluster social skills won’t speak the same way as someone from the wrong side of the tracks. They might not even use the same words. Not even just that, but the way they’d speak would be different, depending on their personality and situations.
Read your dialogue aloud. Just the dialogue. How’s it sound? Now if you were ad libbing it, how would you change things? Think about it like this: if the scene’s already written, you know what the characters are saying. Walk away from the computer, and try to reinact that same conversation – how different would it be if you weren’t reading it off like a script? What parts would you cut right past, and where would you make changes? Now ask yourself why you’d do that?
A lot of times, I think it’s easy to hope the dialogue tags will be a band aid to make it sound the way you want. She whispered, instead of she said. He wondered, instead of he asked. But think about it this way. If you’re talking to someone who’s popular, and they’re asking a question in class, are they going to use the exact same words that someone who’s incredibly shy would use? Would they ask the question in the same way? Or would one of them ramble? That’s not something that dialogue tags can achieve alone.
While you’re reading your dialogue aloud, does it sound like a conversation people would have? Most people use contractions, they’ll use slang, and they’ll be brief. Good dialogue has a rhythm to it, a cadence. It’s how people talk. I liken good dialogue to a movie, myself. It helps tell the story. It flows from one scene to the next. Dialogue is punchy, and it’s direct. If your book was a movie, how would the dialogue compare to something else you’ve seen? Would it work on the screen? Or does it go on for too long?
Now when I say ‘does the dialogue flow’ I’m talking about conversational rhythm. Does it sound natural? Would a conversation actually progress that way? There are times, however, where you’ve got to take just a tiny step back and remember you’re writing a novel, too. Sometimes, the way people talk won’t translate perfectly to dialogue, and you’ve got to keep an eye out for that.
There are shows on television that have amazing dialogue. Joss Whedon usually gets a lot of awe for this, but it’s not just his dialogue but the way he plays with language and turning a phrase. Gilmore Girls (especially the earlier seasons) have a punch and a speed to their dialogue that gives it a fresh sound. Battlestar Galactica, Weeds, etc. And then there’s reality programming. Depending on what genre you write in, there’s usually SOMETHING on television for you.
The next rule of thumb is how long does it go on for. Be honest, aside from telephone conversations, how often do you have a random conversation during a tiny snippet of your day that runs for ten or fifteen minutes? Sure, a few, right? But how many times do you read those conversations, with all their segues, in a novel? Not quite as often.
As the author, I think a good philosophy is ‘get in, get out.’ Dialogue should only ever last for as long as it’s absolutely necessary to achieve what’s needed in the scene. Yes, most conversations would include more, or be longer, but you’re looking for brevity. Too much dialogue is going to screw up your pacing. Do you really need to start the scene with the beginning of the conversation? All those hello’s and how are you’s? Or can you jump right into the crux of the discussion, and then follow that up with setting the scene? Especially in one of those scenes that really amps things up – jumping right in is way better than letting your character wax on and on about what dress she should wear that morning. Remember that at the end of the day, your dialogue is just words on the page. And if it goes on for too long, you’re going to drag the reader down with you. So ‘get in, get out.’
Everyone knows That Guy who just talks and talks and talks and never seems to shut up, (in this blog it’s me, right?) but as the author of your story, you’re the one who’s got to jump in and make those executive decisions. You’ve got to cut your characters short sometimes, just to keep things moving.