Writing dialogue is an author’s equivalent of tightrope walking. It’s all about balance…and of course a little flare. I’ve heard tons of advice on how to craft the perfect dialogue—often contradictory. I’ve had missteps in my learning curve (falling from a tightrope isn’t pretty. Everyone needs practice. No one does it right the first time!)
My first piece of advice is this: beta readers/critique partners are your equivalent of a net. Don’t let yourself face plant. This goes for all aspects of writing, not just dialogue.
After this, proceeding along the learning curve gets more complicated. I shy away from blanket statements because balance is always the key. But, I do have five rules to share (#5 is the fun one!)
RULE #1 All rules are made to broken
RULE #2 Dialogue should read naturally, the way that people really talk.
The number one piece of advice I’ve heard about dialogue is to write it how people actually talk. If your dialogue is overlay formal or info dumping it’ll read awkwardly (Just the word we want to describe out tightrope act!) If this advice is being thrown at you most regularly, then you need to listen to how people talk.
Example set #1
1. “Hello, Jesse Sprague. I see your hair is blue today. It wasn’t on Sunday when I last saw you. I like it.”
This is stiff and formal. It feeds the reader facts like a person’s last name and pointing out when they last met. Both parties know this information, so neither would be likely to say it.
2. “Hey! Wow, you changed your hair. Seriously, Jesse, I never thought you’d go blue but it suits you.”
#2 is more natural. All the same info is there (though no specific date is given for the last meeting it is implied they have a previous acquaintance with the word “changed”. However, depending on the character and place in the novel, this might be too long winded.
3. “Wow! Look at your hair! Blue? It’s unexpected, but it suits you.”
Of the three the most natural and the briefest.
You’ll notice two of these examples “work”. That is because as I said, nothing is definite in writing. As a writer it is your job to figure out if your balance has shifted too far one way or the other and compensate.
RULE #3 Have you ever heard how people talk? Don’t write like that!
Mentioned a little less than rule #2, rule #3 is a direct contradiction. Or is it? As you write more and more and listen to people talk, it becomes apparent that real conversations are boring. When people talk, they often ramble, get sidetracked and use inside knowledge that readers wouldn’t understand (and shouldn’t be expected to learn.) Now here is an imagined conversation with my brother…And for consistency, we’ll talk about my lovely hair (it was that or octopi, don’t ask.)
Example Set #2
1. “Hey, Jess-bess. Get bored again?”
“I haven’t had Chinese food since the last time we got together. Maybe get some later?”
“Shit. I think I have sunburn. Can you check?”
“You’re a bit pink. Water, water water!”
“You’re a pain in the ass. Should we sit inside or out?”
“Inside it is.”
Let’s parse this. I could literally have had that convo with my brother. It’s also bizarre, hard to understand, and… it’s boring. Yuck! Boring is as bad as awkward! We need flare.
2. “Hey, sis. New hair color again? I swear every time you get bored you mess with your poor hair.”
“You know it. I had to start fiddling.”
“Will you be in the mood for Chinese later? I’ve been craving that soup we got last time. I think I found a claw in the bowl…now you know that’s authentic!”
“Let’s drop that subject. You got a sunburn– there on your nose.”
“Yeah, I burnt up yesterday—drank plenty of water though. Just goes to prove mom isn’t always right. Water doesn’t fix everything. Shall we sit inside or out?”
“It’s windy. I’m not in the mood for the air’s gropey fingers.”
“Inside it is.”
Now, #2 has flare and it’s easier to understand, but it still includes too many topic shifts so the reader has no way of knowing what is relevant. The Chinese? The hair color? The mom reference? The weather reference? And most damning, #2 is no longer natural. I’d never have that conversation with my brother.
3. “Hey, Jess-bess! Blue hair? Looks nice.”
“You look pink—get some sun? Were you drinking enough water?”
“Pain-in-the-ass. You sound like mom. Water doesn’t fix everything.”
“Speaking of, I’m thirsty. Let’s get a seat.”
“Inside or out?”
“Can’t you guess? It’s windy.”
“Inside it is. You and your aversion to weather touching you!”
#3 Is a better example of balance. It cuts the reference to Chinese food and dials back on the hair (let’s face it…probably not that important but might help you picture the character…and who doesn’t want to picture me?) But best yet, without the rambling it’s more interesting and also feels natural (though we know in reality, we probably yammered on more about the hair and brought up that weird restaurant my brother insists is authentic but I think is just dirty.)Theoretically I could take the sunburn out instead and leave the claw in the soup bit—it depends on where the story is heading.
RULE #4 Short and sweet—don’t waste breath.
People don’t talk in long-winded bursts. You can actually see this a bit in example #2 vs #3 above…the short way is more gripping and natural. Let’s delve a little more. Clearly I’m on a hair kick…so let’s stick with it.
Example set #3
1. “Every time I get bored with my hair, I try something new. Usually that’s every three months or so. I’ve done short, long, red, blonde, black. Maybe I’ll try tentacles someday, but for now it’s blue.”
“I’d like to see the tentacles.”
#1 is a speech, lots of information but not presented in a conversational fashion. Though there are two people one of them is just a cardboard cutout for the speech to be thrown at.
2. “I almost didn’t recognize you! Every time I see you, you look different.”
“I get bored with my hair a lot—what can I say?”
“Hey, I’ll probably do tentacles someday.”
“I’d like to see that!”
#2 This is a more natural give and take. Both parties participate. Some info is lost—but I’d put forth that not all information needs to be in there. I am curious how I intend to manage tentacles on my head, but that is a conversation for another day.
RULE #5 Personality talks!
Now here the fun one. Once you’ve got passable dialogue go ahead and play—add in character. Often when I’m first getting to know a set of characters I’ll make a list with their speaking habits and key traits like so (this example is from Deprivation my Victorian horror novella. Really, I’d do all the characters not two, but for the purpose of demonstration, this works.)
Claudia- innocent, instinct driven. Clever word sparring but would rarely speak her mind. Demure and highly aware of gender inequality
Victor- Pretty language, even poetic. Would flatter at every opportunity but seem too nice. Frequent mentions of God and the proper way of things.
Once I have my list, I’ll go through the full manuscript and make any necessary changes to make the dialogue more distinct to the characters.
First, I’ll show you my reconstruction of how the scene might have looked on first draft:
#1 “I am happy to finally meet you.” Victor took Claudia’s hand and brushed it with his lips.
“And you as well. I was afraid I might be a disappointment to you.”
“Never. You’re God’s creature.”
She found she wanted to say his name. To taste how it had changed since she saw him. “God does not concern himself with women, Mr. Varon.”
“You must call me Victor. Shall I call you Claudia??”
Claudia smiled. “I think you have that right.”
Not bad. It reads easily. I think I can do better (and luckily for you I have a final scene from the actual book!)
#2 “You are lovelier than I could have hoped. I am enchanted.” Victor took Claudia’s hand and brushed it with his lips.
“Am I a sorceress then to have enchanted you?”
“An angel sent from God.”
She found she wanted to say his name. To taste how it had changed since she saw him. “God does not concern himself with such trivial things, Mr. Varon.”
“You must call me Victor, and who are you to judge what God does? This is highly heretic of you. Shall I call you Claudia??”
Claudia smiled. She knew herself to be charming, and it didn’t bother her a bit to charm this man. “I think you have that right.”
This tells us a lot more about the characters. We get to see more of Claudia’s spunk and by Victor lingering on the God talk it makes it clear this is important to him as a character. You might even notice the lack of contractions in the final dialogue. Normally this is a bit of a no-no as contractions read more naturally. But for the Victorian folks I wanted to keep the formality and stiffness– so it’s actually telling you who Claudia and Victor are.
Still not sure? Okay! Another example.
To better demonstrate how personality can affect a dialogue. I will take some of the characters from my Watty award winning book Spider’s Game and have them all repeat the same line, as they might say it. I’ll use my wonderful blue hair as the subject.
You’ll notice that I tell you nothing about these characters. That’s intentional. The goal here is for you to be able to pick up something about who they are just from how they would say this line. Now not all of their personality will ever fit in one line. But my rule of thumb is that I (the author) should be able to tell who is talking in a conversation without tags (put in tags! This is not an excuse to cut them. Don’t make your reader work that hard!)
Original line: Wow! Look at your hair! Blue! It’s unexpected, but it suits you.
Darith- “What have you done to your hair! I hope you didn’t intend to go in public with me any time soon.”
Marim- “Wow! I never would have dared. I bet if you curled it, the sun would catch just perfectly on the blue!”
Silvia- “Blue? It suits you—might as well advertise to the world that you’re crazy.”
Halis- “Blue? Are you aware there was a tribe native to this world who would streak the hair of their pregnant women blue. They believed this made them invisible to jealous spirits. I could make you pregnant, if you like. We wouldn’t want to digress from tradition.”
Now, many of these examples are longer than the original. This wouldn’t be the case overall, since in writing a dialogue you would ostensibly be careful how much character you inserted into each line. Too much personality is hard to read. For instance, I’d never give Halis two historical rants in one conversation. Like in all else, use moderation. If a character swears have them do it once or twice in a convo. If they have a particular nickname they use have them use it once in a while not every line.
Now in conclusion…remember rule #1. Its #1 for a reason. Remember that writing is personal (some people don’t even like tentacles…) We all have to find our own paths that work for us. What works for me is only one way—more important than any piece of advice is what you feel in your heart and gut! Write on my lovelies.