Are you working on your first popular fiction novel or a short story you'd like to submit to a contest, anthology, or magazine? How you portray your characters interacting with each other is critical for bringing them to life on the page. Following are some tips I posted several years ago that newbie fiction writers and aspiring authors will still find useful.
Dialogue is one of the first things agents and editors look at when they receive a manuscript for consideration. If the dialogue is wooden, stilted, or artificial, most agents will assume that the rest of the writing is amateurish, and the manuscript will be quickly rejected. Here are some concrete ways to make your dialogue more compelling and natural-sounding.
A. Dialogue needs tension, conflict and emotion!
This one is huge. As Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy say in Writing Fiction for Dummies, “Dialogue is war! Every dialogue should be a controlled conflict between at least two characters with opposing agendas. The main purpose of dialogue is to advance the conflict of the story.”
1. Leave out the “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, and you?” “Nice day,” stuff, and cut to the chase. Skip past introductions and all that empty blah-blah small talk.
2. Avoid any kind of long monologue or dialogue that just imparts information, with no tension or emotion.
3. Don’t use dialogue as “filler” – if it doesn’t advance the plot, heighten the conflict, or deepen the characterization, take it out.
4. Include lots of emotional or sexual tension and subtext in your dialogue. Silence, interrupting, or abruptly changing the subject can be effective, too.
B. Loosen up the dialogue.
The most common problem with dialogue for new writers is that it often sounds too stiff and formal. Here are some easy, quick tips for loosening up the dialogue to make it sound more natural:
1. Read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound natural? Can you cut some words out, or use more common, everyday conversational words, rather than more “correct” words? In conversation, use “bought” rather than “purchased,” “use” rather than “utilize,” etc.
2. Use contractions. Change “I am” to “I’m”, “we will” to “we’ll”, “do not” to “don’t”, “they will” to “they’ll,” etc.
3. Break up those long, grammatically correct complete sentences. Nobody talks in complete sentences in informal conversations with friends (or enemies) and family, especially in stressful situations. Frequently, use some short sentence fragments, and one-word answers.
4. Don’t have one person go on and on about a subject. Fiction is not the place for a lecture on a topic, or somebody speaking at length about himself. It’s not natural, and your readers aren’t interested in long monologues! Have the other person interrupt to ask a question, give their opinion, seek clarification, change the subject, etc.
C. Keep it real!
Avoid unnatural dialogue caused by having the characters say things they would never say, just to impart some information to the readers! An extreme example of this would be a character saying to his sister: “As you know, our parents died in a car crash five years ago.” Or even the more subtle, “As your lawyer, I must advise you…” Using dialogue this way to get some information across to the reader is artificial and a sure sign of an amateur writer. Work the information in subtly, without having one character say something that the other would obviously already know.
D. Give each character his or her own voice or speaking style. Make sure all your characters don’t sound the same (like the author).
First, pay attention to differences in gender, age, social status, education, geographical location, historical era, etc. Some characters, especially professionals, will use more correct English and longer sentences, while others will use rougher language, with a lot of one- or two-word questions or answers, sprinkled with expletives.
Then, think about individual personality differences within that social group, and the situation. Is your character: Shy or outgoing? Talkative or quiet? Formal or casual? Modern or old-fashioned? Confident or nervous? Tactful or blunt? Serious or lighthearted? Relaxed or stressed? And give each character their own little quirks and slang expressions, but exercise caution when using slang or expletives. (More on that in another article.)
E. Gender differences.
Bear in mind that men and women tend to express themselves differently.
- In general, men are terser and more direct; they usually prefer to talk about things rather than people or feelings; and they often use brief or one-word answers.
- Women, on the other hand, like to talk about people and relationships; often hint at or talk around a subject, tend to express themselves in more complete sentences; and often want to discuss their feelings.
- These differences are especially important to keep in mind if you’re a female author writing dialogue for male characters, and vice-versa.
F. Other tips:
1. Avoid “talking heads” – pages of unbroken dialogue, with little action or description.
- Move the characters around the scene, and indicate their reactions, gestures and body language:
“…as they walked into the kitchen,” “They pulled up in front of the police station,” “He crossed his arms,” “She got up and started pacing.” “He touched her arm.” “She gasped in alarm.” “He clenched his fists.” And so on.
2. For dialogue tags, use mainly he said and she said (and asked for questions), which are non-intrusive, rather than words like remarked, conjectured, queried, interjected, insinuated, pronounced, and uttered, which draw attention to themselves and can be annoying.
3. Also, beware of using non-speaking words as attributes, like “That’s so nice,” she smiled, or “You bet,” he grinned. You can’t “smile” or “grin” words! But you can say, “You bet.” He grinned and waved as he pulled away.
4. However, in addition to he said and she said, words like shouted, whispered, mumbled, yelled, murmured, and screamed are very useful for advancing the plot and ramping up your imagery.
5. Avoid the dialogue tag if it’s obvious who’s speaking.
6. But do make it clear who’s speaking. Readers don’t want to have to back up and check to see who’s talking now.
7. Try to use action tags (beats) instead of dialogue tags, such as:
Shelley hung up the phone. “That was Carole.”
Mark tensed. “What did she want?”
8. Avoid having the characters constantly using each other’s names. Once in a while is good, but don’t overdo it.
For tips on how to write dialogue accurately, see: "Dialogue Nuts and Bolts." Also, "Some Dialogue Don'ts".