Beginning writers are temped to copy how real people talk. Dialogue in fiction is more than just a conversation between the people in the book. It serves many purposes. It moves the plot along, reveals character and improves pacing.
Good dialogue is reminiscent of the way people actually talk, but it shouldn’t exactly sound like it. Yes, you should listen to people’s conversation and notice phrases, diction and expressions used. Carry your notebook and write down slang or funny sayings. You might be able to pepper your character’s speech with these things. Pay attention to the way people interrupt each other or hide their true feelings with what they say. Be careful not to just imitate real conversations. In reality people meander and go off on tangents. They add one association to another and wander all over the place. The dialogue in your story has to have a focus and function in your story.
Dialogue is also a perfect place to employ the old rule of ‘show, don’t tell’. If a character is a bully it will show in his manner of speech. If he is boisterous or shy, it will be depicted in his way of speaking. What a person says and how he or she says it expresses personality.
Start a new chapter or scene with a conversation between two people. The conversation can indicate what happened between the end of the last chapter or scene and the beginning of the new, and thereby letting time pass and move the plot forward. Dialogue can also fill the reader in on what occurred in another setting or in a subplot of the story.
However, it is tempting to use direct speech to explain too much. Doing this leads to clumsy dialogue that stands out as unnatural and awkward:
“Some authors overdo it,” he called out, taking her hand and focusing on her hazel-colored eyes. “They add action description in the middle of their direct speech.” He shook his head and sighed. “It breaks up the pacing,” he said. “It’s just not a good idea.”
Using action in the midst of a line of dialogue has its place sometimes but it’s usually best done precisely and sparingly. Otherwise you slow down the movement of the scene.
When I visit schools I still see posters with “Verbs to replace ‘say’” on classroom walls. I wish teachers would stop with that practice. Attributions after dialogue should not draw attention to themselves. “Said” or “asked” suffice in most instances. If possible, let the reader infer who is speaking from context.
Great dialogue works on many levels. It needs to be concise and cut down to the best lines only. How do you know you have it right? You do it the same way you test all other parts of your text: leave your work-in-progress alone for a while and come back to it after a few days. Re-read. If it sounds good, it probably is. If it sounds trite or artificial, revise.
Monika Schroder’s author website: www.monikaschroeder.com
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