Dialogue is one of the most difficult parts of writing. On the one hand, you want the dialogue to feel organic, you want the reader to believe that this dialogue could very well be a genuine conversation. But on the other hand, real life conversations are full of pauses, filler words, and lots of slang, and using too much of that is distracting.
What’s a writer to do? Here’s 3 things I’ve learned from writing that may help you craft better dialogue.
#1 Establish voices for your characters.
Each character should have their own voice, their own style of speaking and depth of vocabulary. In His Name Was Zach, Abby tends toward lighter language and jokes, whereas Zach tends to be curt, often replying with little more than a grunt and a nod. Doing this not only makes the characters more authentic, it lets you keep dialogue tags to a minimum.
And, of course, stick with those voices. It would make no sense at all for a character to go from a walking thesaurus to a third-grade vocabulary. The only time you should change a character’s voice is if the character herself has changed. For instance, in Her Name Was Abby, there is a character transformation going on with Abby (as with all teenagers), and if you’ve read His Name Was Zach you can sense this in the way she talks, making it unnecessary for me as the author to explicitly state that she’s changing.
#2 Make your dialogue match the action.
In His Name Was Zach, there’s a particularly chaotic scene at one point: several characters, armed and angry, are all shouting at each other as hostages are taken and a recently-killed person is grieved. In this scene things are happening very fast, but there was a lot of dialogue that needed to be written. So how could I write the sufficient back-and-forths without slowing down the scene?
I wrote nearly an entire page of just dialogue, no tags. I did this to magnify the confusion of this whirlwind scene of heightened tension and anger, intending to leave the reader breathless after this string of angry shouts. But, though I omitted dialogue tags, I made sure to phrase the dialogue so that the reader could easily recognize who was saying what.
On the flip side of that, if a particular conversation is slow, halting, and maybe uncomfortable, you can take a few lines to describe the scenes around the characters as they struggle to find the words to say. This conveys the appropriate speed (or lack thereof) of such a scene to the reader.
#3 Find a balance of good grammar and authentic voices.
I alluded to this in the opening paragraph, but if you’re an aspiring writer, chances are you’ve got a firm grasp on grammar. You know not to end sentences with a preposition, you use ‘an’ when the following word starts with a vowel (unless it’s a long ‘u’ sound), and so on. But we don’t often speak like that. It may not be grammatically correct for your character to ask, “Where’d you come from”, but “From where did you come” is just not a believable line.
But beware of inconsistent application of this. Hearkening back to my first point, if a character has impeccable grammar when introduced, then he needs to retain that kind of speaking. Likewise, characters going from common vernacular to ‘ye olde English’ (looking at YOU, Mr. C. S. Lewis) is confusing and frustrating.
There you have it! I hope you can use these tips in your writing. Do you have anything to add? Let me know in the comments!