Dialogue makes or breaks a piece of fiction. When it’s good, it breaks up long sections of descriptive prose and keeps your story moving. It also provides a window into the relationships and power dynamics between your characters. Most stories need dialogue to keep readers engaged.
That said, poorly-written dialogue can tank an otherwise fantastic story. As you revise your novel draft, cut out anything unnecessary and stay mindful of point of view. These dos and don’ts will help guide your way.
Don’t break point of view with exposition in dialogue.
Characters who know each other well need very little context for their conversational exchanges. Consider what your characters would actually say to each other and leave your dialogue at that. If you stuff too much info-dumping exposition into your dialogue, you’ll pull readers out of your main character’s point of view.
For example, I would never say to my husband, “When do you want to drive to Pennsylvania for your parents’ annual Fourth of July party?” If I needed readers to know all that information right there in that paragraph, I’d include most of it outside the dialogue like this:
“When do you want to drive up to your parents’?”
Part of me wanted to leave Friday night — get the most out of the two-hour drive to Pennsylvania — but part of me hoped he’d suggest Saturday. Maybe even Sunday, arriving just in time for the Fourth of July party.
Also, be careful with names. Most of us write them into dialogue far more often than we say them to others. In real life we tend to use names to get others’ attention, not as filler words.
While this may seem challenging, it provides an excellent opportunity to develop tension in your scenes. Your characters will feel more authentic and readers will wonder about the things left unsaid.
Do keep it short and sweet.
Think about how your favorite books and TV shows use dialogue. It keeps your audience engaged in appropriate doses, but they’ll zone out if you use too much. Readers need some action every once in a while to put the dialogue in context.
Apply this logic to individual pieces of dialogue as well. Avoid giving your characters lengthy monologues. Real people typically don’t talk for several minutes at a time without interruption. If you need to show that your character does ramble on inappropriately, do readers the service of showing other characters getting antsy or trying unsuccessfully to interrupt.
If you find yourself writing long sections or even entire scenes of dialogue, ask yourself if readers need to see all of it on the page. All dialogue should serve a purpose in your scene. It either needs to reveal something about characters or plot or help readers understand relationships between characters.
Don’t include the small talk.
In real life, small talk fills awkward silences and eases people into deeper conversations. You don’t usually need to do this in your book. Small talk on the page feels frustrating and unnecessary — a distraction rather than a complement to your story.
You can eliminate most small talk by either replacing it with description or starting/ending your scene in a slightly different place. Show how characters enter and exit the scene rather than dragging the reader through every hello and goodbye. Or start your scene in the meat of the conversation and use description to orient the reader. When you cut the small talk, you might find yourself tightening the surrounding prose as well.
Do give your characters unique voices.
Ideally, your characters should all sound different in readers’ minds. Real-world people have a wide range of speech patterns and personality quirks that make them sound unique. Revising your dialogue can help you gain a deeper knowledge of your characters. Do they speak in long sentences or short and choppy ones? Do they know how to articulate complex emotions or do feelings come out as anger or anxiety? Do they interrupt frequently or wait their turn to speak? Do they speak directly or passively, with lots of I thinks and justs and I was wonderings?
You’ll get a feel for this by listening carefully to how the people around you speak. What does their speech say about their personality, social status, or level of comfort with the situation at hand? As you revise your written dialogue, always read it out loud for flow and character. Like with many writing skills, this one will develop with time and mindfulness.