Let’s Talk About Dialogue

A large chunk of any story is going to be characters talking to each other, and it’s something you absolutely have to get right.  Here are my tips for effective dialogue:

  1. Pay attention to all rules of writing except where you need to deviate to demonstrate voice – One of my pet peeves (I have many) is people saying, “It’s dialogue.  Grammar, etc. doesn’t matter.”  I couldn’t disagree more.  If writing, whether poor structure or overuse of words, distracts in the text, it distracts in the dialogue.  The balance comes in trying to create a specific voice for a character.  Sometimes the additional authenticity outweighs the distraction.  You have to make that determination.
  2. You are not trying to capture an actual conversation – Alfred Hitchcock (I think I’m attributing the quote correctly) said, “A story is life with the boring parts removed.  BWFoster78 said, “Dialogue is a conversation with the boring parts removed (I came up with that all by myself.  Clever huh?).”  Never show the exchange of greetings.  Don’t start speeches with “okay” or other throw-away phrases.
  3. Dialogue can be a battle – The best dialogue captures tension.  One person speaks.  The other person doesn’t even necessarily answer anything to do with the first person, instead going on the attack.  A conversation like this can show as much action as a physical fight.
  4. Keep it simple, stupid – Whenever I cringe at a piece of dialogue, it’s usually because the author, though they keep their prose tight, tend to go on and on with the dialogue.  Don’t be redundant.  Cut deep.  The problem with this approach is that it can lead to the speech sounding stilted. 
  5. Make the dialogue personal – Expose the character through the pattern of the dialogue, the word choice, the style, etc.  Include feelings.  This tip tends to be in direct opposition to Tip 4.  Use your judgment to balance the two.
  6. Eliminate speech tags when you can – The only purpose of a speech tag is to identify the person speaking.  If you can do that with an action, all the better.  Note that you have to change paragraphs in this situation when another character acts.  Make sure, however, that the reader always knows who is talking.
  7. Don’t overly use names inside the quotes – You can get by with it occasionally, and, when you do, it adds emotion.  Overuse dulls the impact and distracts.
  8. Keep it snappy – Characters speak in fragments.  They cut each other off.  They use contractions.
  9. Don’t try to insert too much exposition – “As you know, Bob, dialogue needs to move the story along and can be used to impart necessary information to the reader.  Too much exposition, especially poorly done, can be cringe-worthy though.”
  10. Don’t overuse exclamations – It’s fine to use them sometimes!  Just don’t do it all the time!  It gets really annoying!  See what I mean!
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