New? Begin with lesson one.
Strong, natural dialogue is an invaluable tool. Characters come to life through the conversations they have with other characters and internal monologues. Actions might "speak louder than words," but personality, beliefs, and emotion shine through well crafted dialogue. Plus, it breaks up "walls of text," which can make your story easier, more interesting, and less intimidating for the reader.
When, where, and how should you use dialogue? How can you make it sound natural instead of wooden and awkward? How do you make each character have a unique voice without resorting to catch phrases every third sentence? If you can find a way to answer these questions, you're well on your way to creating dynamic characters and a story that moves along.
When, where, and how should dialogue be used?
One of the best places to compare and contrast work by beginning and experienced writers is actually fanfiction.net. For a lot of beginning writers, familiar worlds and characters create a safe haven to explore the craft, and posting fan fiction is a quick and easy way to get feedback. So, it's a good place to find examples of first works. Some are also content to stick with creating stories in their favorite fandoms, so they continue writing and posting when seasoned. Given fan fiction's reputation, you might be surprised by the quality writing you can find if you look hard and long enough to uncover it.
You will run into two extremes when reading work by new writers.
The first avoids dialogue at all costs or has no idea how to format what drips and drabs of it they include. The result is a "wall of text" with few to no paragraph breaks. It becomes easy to lose your place within these stories, and the pacing is difficult to discern. Many readers will even go and comment they didn't read the story at all because there was no way they were going to attempt working their way through such an enormous block of words.
The second writes all dialogue with no description. More often than not, this devolves into what is referred to as "talking heads," that is to say a string of dialogue with no clues as to who is speaking to whom. This produces an image of two faceless figures standing and talking at one another without doing anything else. No matter how engaging the topic might be, this tends to get tedious if not confusing after a few lines.
The trick is leaning how to balance dialogue with description. Stories need both unless your protagonist is the only sentient being left alive. Think about what your characters are doing. If they gesticulate, show it. If they're working or traveling while talking, give your readers clues to this. Give them snapshots of the character's surroundings. You don't have to include a tag with every line of dialogue, but make sure to include one often enough to keep who is speaking clear for the reader.
How do you make dialogue sound natural?
Have you ever come across a story or movie where the characters sounded more like robots than people? Natural sounding dialogue can be a difficult thing to write. Most beginning writers either write everything in their vernacular or err on the side of being formal at all times. This results in a monotone script where there's no difference in the patterns of characters or between speech and exposition.
So, how do you avoid this?
It's confession time. I've always found dialogue the easiest part of writing, so I'm not sure how effective of a teacher I'll be here. It's always felt more instinctive than anything to me, so this is the first time I've ever tried breaking it down.
However, after giving the matter considerable thought, I've come to the conclusion this is the result of my personality. Being a curious but painfully shy child, I spent the majority of my childhood and adolescence in silent observation of those around me. For as long as I can remember, I've connected words and speech with music, from singing in church to comparing touch typing to learning to play the piano. Each language, accent, and individual has a distinct rhythm to it. Reading aloud makes these apparent. Poor grammar, clunky phrasing, and hiccups in word choice ring out like sour notes once your ear is trained to hear the melody of the language.
I'm unsure if any of what I just said will make sense to you. Chances are much of it is an artifact of how my own mind works. However, I still urge you to spend time people watching. Give active listening a try when people are speaking to you or conversations are happening around you. Internalize how real individuals communicate, then apply this to your characters. Imagine them as real people, and they're actions and speech will begin to sound more natural.
When you go back to edit, read the dialogue aloud. Does it sound like a conversation between two people? Does the word choice, rhythm, and formality match your characters? If not, try swapping a couple of words for synonyms, adding or subtracting contractions, use a descriptive phrase to create a natural pause, or cut extraneous words to speed things up.
How do you make characters sound like individuals?
Another thing that gives new writers trouble when writing dialogue is not making it sound like someone's talking to themselves when it's three or four characters speaking. How do you change it up without resorting to catch phrases?
This question goes hand in hand with the last. Part of making dialogue sound natural is creating an individual voice for each character. Once again, get a firm idea of your characters. Imagine them as real people while you're writing, and they'll begin to differentiate in your subconscious.
If you find you need more help, the editing phase can be your best friend. You'll find almost everyone has verbal ticks they aren't aware of having. I'm not talking about having actual catch phrases, but we all have certain words we're overly fond of using. Chances are, you'll find yours when you begin editing your manuscript. Pick one or two and assign them to a particular character you're having trouble giving voice to, and then ruthlessly slash those words from everywhere else in your manuscript but the instances it already exists within that character's dialogue. There you go, instant voice.
If you have any questions about writing dialogue, please speak up in the comments below. It is an extensive topic, and I realize only the tip of the iceberg has been touched on here. We will most likely touch on this topic once again in the editing phase of the course, but you don't need to wait until then if you have questions, comments, or concerns.
Continue on to description.
A. B. England is a small business owner, mom of two, novelist, all around geek, and avid crafter. She loves mythology, fantasy, and all flavors of science fiction.
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