There’s a fine line that you have to tread when you’re creating dialogue. You have to manage to write words that sound natural and normal coming out of your character’s mouths while at the same time crafting them to sound better than most conversations. I’ve been told that I write good dialogue. I don’t know if that’s true. I’m obviously biased in my own favor. I’m told that it’s witty and fun and I feel like I’m cheating, because honestly I’m surrounded by witty and fun people and I feel like I’m just reflecting that. Let’s say that you’re not lucky, though, and the people you’re surrounded by are less like Oscar Wilde and more like something that has crawled out of a cave. What then?
First, even cave-speak has it’s place. Not all of your characters are going to be into banter and witticisms. Some are naturally the straight man, only uttering monosyllabic responses and using hand gestures. That’s okay. That’s one of my big things—make the words fit the character. Sometimes I’ll get edits that will say, “I don’t think Sam would ever say this.” Believe it or not, I love those edits. It means my character has become such a living force that my editor is arguing about words that I have made up for them. She can tell when they don’t fit his mouth. It makes me do a happy jig.
Dialogue should be multipurpose. It should advance plot, naturally, but it should also tell us about your characters. It should not, however, be used as a plot-info dump. That’s the difference between this:
“I don’t need your weapon, I have this,” she said, raising an ancient sword.
“Where did you get that?” he growled. “Give it back. Now.”
“I do not need your weapon, because I stole this one from your house about five minutes ago,” she said.
“I recognize that sword! It is the magical sword from the house of Usher, the one my family has been protecting for generations. It can only be wielded by the chosen one! You are wielding it, so you must be the chosen one, though I cannot believe such a thing right away. You are going to have to prove it.”
Neither of these are the best examples of dialogue, but I think you get the picture. Info dumping is clunky. So is not using contractions. If you don’t use a contraction, it should for a good reason. Same thing goes for slang and dialect—there should be a very good reason to use either. Both dialect and slang can be a good world-building tool when used properly. In Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper series, she uses a few slang words like cove, looby and so on. They aren’t over used and it’s clear from context what they mean. It doesn’t stop or slow down the reader, and builds Beka’s character and world at the same time. How? When we meet the upper classes, they don’t use these words, so we know where Beka sits on the class spectrum by using them.
Overuse can be distracting, though. If people can’t read your book or understand anything going on, they put it down.
So how do you gain an ear for dialogue? Well, I can give you some hints. Listen. A lot. Go to a coffee shop and be creepy and eavesdrop on conversations. Write down interesting things that people say. What makes them interesting? If they say boring things, how can you use those lines to make something interesting? Take some dialogue you’re having a hard time with and read it out loud. Does it sound natural? If that doesn’t work, have someone else read it out loud. Watch movies and read books that you love—how do those characters talk? Listen to word choice and pacing. Using actions and description to break up dialogue can create the pacing that you want.
“Man, I love pie. Pie is the best. I could eat pie forever. What kind of pie is this? I think it has berries.”
“Man, I love pie,” he said, licking his fork. “Pie is the best. I could eat pie forever.” He stabbed something blue with his fork and examined it. “What kind of pie is this?” He stared at the blue glob some more. “I think it has berries.”
The actions and description give the dialogue pauses and slows it down naturally. Also, now I want pie, just maybe not the one I just described.
Homework: Write some really horrible dialogue. I mean really try to make it the worst conversation you’ve ever written. Consciously writing bad dialogue is harder than you think (though we all seem to manage to write it unconsciously quite easily!). Have fun with it. When you’re done, examine it. What makes it terrible? Word use? Too many words? Not enough? Does it reveal anything about the characters? Now take the same dialogue and try to write it well. What’s changed?
Lish McBride’s author website: www.lishmcbride.com
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