Writing good dialogue in fiction is more than just a necessity—it’s an art. Too often, writers have a tendency to view dialogue as merely a tool to record conversations between characters. While that may be the case in real life, it isn’t in fiction. In fiction, writers only need to show what is necessary to tell the story. This includes dialogue.
Good dialogue has a few key components: it functions to move the plot forward, it reveals character relationships, and it gives the reader information about the character’s interior/emotional life, thoughts, and motivations. If dialogue doesn’t do those things, then it should be cut. But that’s not really enough to make dialogue interesting, is it? So what can be done to make dialogue strong and dynamic?
Here are a few techniques to try:
Give Your Characters a Voice
Do you talk the same way as your best friend? The professor at a university? An old, gruff war veteran? The fact is, depending on our walks in life, the way the we speak is varied. Our experiences have a lot to do with the manner in which we speak, including our grammar, punctuation, the idioms we may (or may not) use, and our vocabulary.
Dialogue has the power to reveal a great deal about your characters by giving them a unique voice. You wouldn’t write a high powered lawyer speaking the same way as a cowboy, right? Their voices are different and the way they think about the world is different. This needs to be shown through dialogue.
One of the absolute best things about dialogue is that it moves the pacing of a story along, breaking up the prose. Large chunks of text can be intimidating to a reader. Don’t make the mistake, then, of replacing paragraphs of text with paragraphs of dialogue. Dialogue has the ability to be pithy and to the point.
This doesn’t mean that every dialogue exchange has to be two or three words. In fact, you want to avoid chit-chat. Dialogue isn’t the place for this type of exchange, for example:
“It’s good to see you.”
“How’s the weather today?”
“I think it’s going to rain later.”
“Good thing I brought my umbrella.”
Something so mundane can be accomplished just as easily with: “They greeted each other.” As this dialogue does nothing to move the plot forward or reveal anything about the characters, it should go.
Ask: What Does this Dialogue Reveal?
Speaking of revealing, refer back to the functions of good dialogue I mentioned above. It can be summarized like this: dialogue reveals. When trying to come up with a passage of dialogue, remember to ask yourself—what does this reveal? It should do more than simply convey information. Afterwards, your readers should know more about the character’s emotions. The plot should also have moved forward.
Likewise, the dialogue should reveal a great deal about the relationships between the characters. If a character is speaking to their best friend, for example, they should have a far easier and more comfortable way of communicating than they would with their boss. At the same time, let’s imagine that character has something they want to hide from their best friend. This conversation would go completely differently than it would if all was well between the two characters.
Avoid: “As You Know, Bob”
Ah, the classic info dump. “As you know, Bob,” is a clichéd way of trying to squeeze information into a passage for the benefit of the reader that the characters would already know. Always avoid this. An example might go something like this:
“We have to diffuse the bomb quick!” Sally said.
“But how are we going to do that? The criminal mastermind said if we cut the wires we would be toast!” Bob said.
Sally smiled. “You know I studied advanced bomb-making in engineering, Bob. I can handle it.”
Sound terrible? Of course. Don’t do it.
Use Dialogue for Showing Not Telling
If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ve had “show don’t tell” hammered into your writing rule book. Here’ more info on how to do more showing and less telling in your story: What’s all the Fuss about Show vs. Tell? Dialogue is an excellent place to make use of this skill. Because of it’s incredible ability to reveal, you can use it to make quick work of showing character emotions. For example:
“I’m so angry!” Sally said, feeling rage grow inside her as she stared at the grammar book.
“I’ve had it with these silly rules!” Sally banged the grammar book against the table.
Just remember: it can be fun. The better it is, the more a delight it is to read, as well. So take some time to study the fine art of good dialogue and take your writing to the next level.