Dialogue is an important part of your book because it’s a chance for your characters to show their true colors and for you to move the plot along in a way that’s enjoyable for your reader. Dialogue usually is less dense than paragraphs of action or description, so readers zip through it. Many people like how quickly they read it. Dialogue makes it seem like your story is moving, which, for the most part, is what you want it to be doing. Here are some tips on how to write effective dialogue.
The Role of Dialogue
Dialogue wears many hats in a novel. One of its most important tasks is to show your characters’ personality. The words, grammar, phrasing, accent, and topics that they speak about reveal more about who they are than your descriptions of them ever could. A hunter might hear a gunshot and recognize its rapport, estimate its distance away, or even guess its trajectory. Someone unfamiliar with guns might mistake it for car backfire. These bits of knowledge, observation, and expression will come out in the way they speak.
The role of dialogue is to characterize, but it’s also to move the plot along. It’s not helpful to write scenes just to illustrate the way your protagonist speaks. That’s not inherently interesting. Make sure that all dialogue serves a purpose, and that purpose should be your plot. There’s no need for a “hi there how are ya” talk. If that happens, make sure the scene complicates a relationship, drops facts, foreshadows events, or has a tangible purpose. People like to read dialogue, but small talk is as boring on paper as it is in real life.
Up the Ante
Your dialogue will become more effective when you use it to up the ante. This is especially true with conflict, the heart of any story. A character mulling a grievance against another is conflict, I guess. However, watching that fight take place is way more interesting. It ups the ante. Cussing someone under your breath might provide temporary relief, but the stakes aren’t very high. They increase dramatically if you say what you’re thinking (or muttering) out loud to someone else. Once that other person has a chance to respond, there is conflict—possibly a lot of it. Since conflict is the cornerstone of a novel, the more, the better.
Advance the Plot—But Be Careful
Dialogue should always advance the plot in some way. It isn’t just a bunch of chit-chat; it should move the plot forward. However, there’s a warning that comes with this bit of advice, and that is be mindful your dialogue doesn’t do what narration or exposition should. Don’t have characters talk about observations your character could make in her own head. Have them talk about it if the other character notices something your protagonist doesn’t. In that case, the plot is moving forward by introducing a new clue. It also helps with characterization. Why didn’t your protagonist notice this clue? What does she not know? What information source does the other character have? See? The plot is thickening merely from the conversation. Make sure your dialogue does the same. Every scene should reveal something new. If your dialogue does that, it will be interesting and effective.