As a Wheatmark book editor, I’ve noticed that one of the most common hindrances to good writing happens in dialogue. In many cases, dialogue comes across sounding unnatural, stilted, and sometimes even downright corny (jeepers, Mr. Wilson). The dialogue dilemma seems to challenge even the best writers I come into contact with. So I thought I’d add my two cents worth into the pot on how to improve dialogue.
As a former reporter, I used to rely on dialogue (or quotes, as we newspaper people like to call it) to help break up a story and bring more personality into the news. I usually tried to put a good, catchy quote right after the lead paragraph as a “hook after the hook.” If the quote was good enough, I sometimes even led with it. Of course, there’s a huge difference between newspapers and books, but some of the same principles still apply. Dialogue is a great way to add more life to your book. It also helps the reader get know your characters and their personalities by showing the reader their personalities instead of just telling about them.
When done incorrectly, however, dialogue can become your book’s worst enemy. Here are a few tips that may help you create better dialogue.
1. Make your dialogue sound natural. People talk in contractions and slang. So make sure the dialogue in your book uses these. It may help to read your dialogue out loud to see if it sounds natural to you and your friends. And don’t forget about the idiosyncrasies of human interactions when your characters speak. For example, people don’t always pay strict attention to every word that’s coming out of your mouth when you’re talking to them. Often, they cling to one aspect of what you’re trying to say and then take that portion of dialogue and start a new train of thought. Sometimes they change the subject altogether. And sometimes they’re not even listening. Incorporating these idiosyncrasies of normal human behavior into your book’s dialogue will help your make-believe world become real in your reader’s mind.
2. Make sure your dialogue matches the personality of your character. If you’re a 70-plus-year-old who is writing for young adults, you should probably spend some serious time around young adults before writing your book. They don’t talk like you used to talk when you were their age. The slang has changed, along with the meanings of certain words. Their issues have changed, too. If you don’t have any young adults that will let you “hang” with them, it may help to watch some teen oriented movies and read other popular books for young adults. The same thing goes for your elderly characters—they shouldn’t sound like teenagers. And make sure that your characters carry the same personality in their dialogue throughout the entire length of the book. A college professor shouldn’t start to sound like a Midwestern farmer halfway through the book. Consistency is very important for the reader to get to know your characters and begin to identify with them.
3. Don’t use dialogue to provide information that wouldn’t be natural in a normal conversation. For example, dialogue is not the best venue to provide your readers with background information for the story. Except in limited circumstances, dialogue is also not the place to tell your reader who is talking. I cringe every time I read something like this:
“Well, Steve, I was thinking the same thing, but…”
Do people really say each other’s names in dialogue? Pay attention the next time you’re in a conversation. They hardly ever do, unless they want to get your attention or emphasize the name for a specific reason.
4. Don’t be afraid of the word “said.” Said is a word like and, is, to, and a. It’s hard to overuse. In fact, it actually helps the reader focus on the dialogue, and not on the mechanics around the dialogue, if you do use it. If you try to avoid overusing said by replacing it with words like exclaims, mused, and protested, you may distract the reader away from the dialogue. This doesn’t mean you should never use these fancier words. It only means that they should be used sparingly when there is darn good reason to use them. And that “darn good reason” is not to avoid using the word said. The dialogue itself should tell the reader that the character is “musing” or “exclaiming.” If it doesn’t, then you probably have a problem with your dialogue.
5. Keep your dialogue short. People don’t often launch into long, uninterrupted quotes unless they’re telling a story. Long-winded dialogue also defeats one of the main purposes of having dialogue included in your book: to break up the rhythm of the writing so that it is more enjoyable and interesting to read.
6. Punctuate it right. Novice authors often get confused about how to punctuate dialogue. Periods and commas always go inside quotes. This even applies when only the last portion of the sentence is dialogue. For example:
Pete shifted his weight and squawked in a hoarse whisper, “You don’t understand.”
Different speakers should also be in separate paragraphs—even when they are talking about the same subject. This helps the reader identify that a different person is talking.
That’s all the dialogue issues I can come up with for today. If you think of any others—or have any questions—please post your comments and questions. I’d love to hear from you.
Wheatmark book editor and designer