I don’t have to tell you the importance of good dialogue. People quote memorable lines from all sorts of works, all the time. They’re assimilated into our culture, and live on well after the writer him- or herself.
You know what else we quote, though? Memorably bad lines. So let’s make sure your dialogue stays in the “good” category, shall we?
Lots of things go into solid dialogue, but here’s an easy smoke-test to ensure what you’re writing is realistic: pretend you’re portraying your characters in a movie- don those little persona hats in your mind- and speak the dialogue aloud. Right now. If your nose scrunches up with confusion, or you cringe in embarrassment, trip over the wording, or double up with unintentional laughter, change it to whatever more naturally flows from your mouth.
Sure, sometimes you want crazy, over-the-top bombast. Maybe you’re writing a new cartoon series for The Tick (in which case, I love you). Most of the time, though, you’ll be dealing with scenes where real people interrogate, conduct business, shoot the bull, or probe their feelings for one another. Trust me, what looks OK on paper doesn’t necessarily sound good out loud. If it doesn’t sound good out loud, it won’t sound good in your reader’s head. While he’s busy snorting, or going “Huh?”, he’s no longer in your story.
Here are some other quick tips for dialogue:
Unless you’re writing lines for Commander Data, use goddamn contractions. You are never going to hear someone enunciate every word in a real conversation. It is extremely stilted and unrealistic. Speak those last two sentences aloud- seriously, right now. See how awkward they are to say? Shortening and simplification happen in every language. Don’t fight it.
Give everyone a unique voice.
We all have tics, expressions we use all the time, and other verbal habits. Decide on one or two “fingerprints” for each character. When you’re doing it right, the dialogue itself can clue the reader in to who said it, without the aid of dialogue tags. If you use accents, use one word here or there to represent the accent (“I reckon I done left that sumbitch upstairs.”). Do not go full Strangelove. (“MEIN FÜHRER, I KEN VOK!”)
Not everyone has to be precious.
So much of modern TV is clogged with series wherein every single character has a gargantuan vocabulary and bon mots for every situation. I can’t stand that. Have witty characters, sure. Have buddies joke around with each other, great- but everyone doing it is annoying and unrealistic.
Combine talking with advancing the plot.
Characters sitting/standing around jawing at each other becomes boring fast. This is why I personally shy away from eating scenes, because people just sit there blabbing, and the plot stalls. There’s plenty of opportunity within dialogue to interact with the setting, establish body language/behavioral habits, or have the characters working on something while they talk.
All that said, your dialogue had better be in service of the plot, too- revealing important info, setting up future scenes, establishing character. Don’t waste the reader’s time with meaningless talk that doesn’t lead anywhere.
Dialogue tags aren’t evil.
Said, replied, etc. A lot of people say to avoid them. I don’t agree. They’re not necessary for every single line, I’ll give you that. However, I really don’t like it when dialogue tags disappear from a talk-heavy scene. Remind me occasionally who is saying what, because otherwise I lose track- then I have to go back and count paragraphs to figure out whose line belongs to whom, and that vexes me greatly. If you combine action with your talking, as described above, you don’t have to worry as much about this.
The best time to eliminate dialogue tags is during rapid-fire exchanges, where you want to keep the pace up. Establish who’s talking at the top, then let them take off.
What are your favorite tips for good dialogue? Please share in the comments!