A good conversation can change a character’s fate, establish a new plotline, or even end the world. Such a powerful tool is hard to master. Fortunately, a few easy tricks can dramatically improve just about character’s dialogue.
Dialogue Isn’t Exposition
There is a time and a place for complex explanations. Dialogue isn’t that place. While you can subtly show readers how the protagonist fits into their surroundings, setting a scene where the naïve newcomer asks the old hand every pressing technical, political, or geographic question you haven’t clarified yet is a bad plan. Dialogue should advance the story, but not like that. Such scenes bring the action to a grinding halt.
Realistic Dialogue Is Boring
It’s also hard to read. The sad fact is that real life conversations are vague, wordy, and overall bad prose. Everything in fiction alters reality to fit the page, and dialogue is no exception. Realistic banter features some extremely convoluted sentences, too. We all know that one extended family member who never stops talking. Don’t let your characters become your great aunt. Keep your sentences short, and don’t let anyone but a preacher give a sermon.
Give Your Character a Voice
Reading your work aloud is a common editing trick. Your brain processes words when you read silently differently than when you physically speak. It’s especially important to read dialogue out loud, though, because it’s supposed to read like speech. We’ve already discussed how dialogue shouldn’t mirror realistic conversations, but it can’t feel too stilted, either. The best way to hit this balance is to treat these passages as an actual conversation. Speak what you write. Recruit an assistant or two to read your work like a script if you have several speakers. You may find a nasty tongue twister, or realize that a particular passage is enhanced by one or two minor changes.
Make Sure Your Characters Don’t Speak Like Clones
If your characters aren’t clones, then you really have no excuse not to add some variety. You don’t have to go for a heavy accent to set characters apart, but something as minute as word choice can leave a huge impact on the reader. Let your characters’ identities show through their discussions.
Tie Words to Actions
He-said-she-said gets very repetitive very quickly. It’s possible to write dialogue without ever using these, though that is a hard skill to master. In the meantime, try replacing as many speech signifiers as possible with actions. After all, when people talk, they don’t just stand still and stare at each other. Illustrate the action surrounding the conversation, and remember that words often invoke action. Are they sitting or standing? Does their body shift when they tell a lie? Are they sweating or otherwise anxious?
Sometimes Silence Is Golden
Dialogue is wonderful, but not all the time. Be careful not to use dialogue as a crutch to avoid introspective scenes, tense stand-offs, or scenarios where a short summary would flow better than a full explanation. If your audience has already read a major revelation, don’t make them reread it every time a new character learns the details.
Enjoy experimenting with your conversations. They’re a chance to get close to characters who don’t dominate the story’s point of view. With practice, editing, and a sharp ear, your dialogue will come to life.