One of the marks of a novice writer is poorly written dialogue. Dialogue is not conversation.
“But why?” Philomena asked.
“Here’s why,” the author replied.
The purpose of dialogue is to move the story along–to advance the plot, reveal character, or to give the reader important information.
So here’s an example. Read it and decide if it fulfills the above criteria.
“What are you doing?” Ted asked.
“I’m reading a book,” Jill answered.
“Oh. Are you enjoying it?”
“Not really. It’s boring.” Jill closed the book and laid it on the table beside her.
Now read the same scene, written differently.
“Wasting time reading again, I see. Do you ever do anything else?” Ted gestured toward the book in Jill’s hands.
“Some people read to escape.” Jill closed the book and laid it on the table beside her. “Maybe you’ll figure it out some day if you ever manage to stop thinking about yourself for a millisecond.”
So…do you catch my drift? The first example is conversation. The second is dialogue.
Here are a few simple tips for writing effective dialogue:
- Re-read the exchanges between characters in your novel. If they sound like conversation, delete or rewrite them.
- Avoid having characters answer questions directly. Answer questions with questions or by being evasive or creating banter.
- Listen to how people talk and reflect natural speech patterns–clipped phrases, single words, interruptions, etc.
- Don’t use dialogue as an information dump (exposition). Reveal backstory creatively and incrementally. We don’t typically sit down and tell people our life story in one fell swoop.
- Go easy on dialogue tags. Let the writing shine. The reader knows who is speaking when from paragraphing and needs few actual tags.
- Learn how to punctuate dialogue correctly. The rules can be confusing.
Writing great dialogue takes skill. Become a student of the craft by reading, watching television and movies, and studying conversation among people. Then practice, practice, practice until each character in your novel can be identified by their own distinctive voice.
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