Fiction is not real life. Fiction resembles real life, but it’s a story: a way to take bits and pieces from the real world and mold them into a structure that reveals, entertains, and enlightens. In the same way, dialogue is not a word-for-word transcript of the way people actually speak. Screenwriter John Trubly says, “Dialogue is not real talk; it is highly selective language that sounds like it could be real.” Good dialogue, he says, “is always more intelligent, wittier, more metaphorical, and better argued than in real life.”
Because dialogue is not a real-life conversation, authors can choose to only put into dialogue those lines that serve a purpose: those that reveal character or character motive, create tension or suspense, set the tone, or move the story forward.
Here are some tips to keep mind as you write dialogue.
1. Get rid of filler words.
Beginning writers often think “ums” and “wells” make dialogue more realistic, when in fact these words clutter the prose. Show a character’s hesitation or hedging in other ways. Delete um, well, uh, like, just, I mean, and other filler words.
2. Leave out routine dialogue.
Director Alfred Hitchcock said that story is “Life, with the dull parts taken out.” We don’t need to read “Hi, how are you?” or phone number exchanges, unless this dialogue serves a purpose. If it does not reveal character, or increase tension, skip it. Or write, “they said hello” and “they exchanged phone numbers.”
3. Consider your dialogue tags.
It’s best to stick with “he said” and “she said.” Remember that people can’t laugh, chortle, or snort words. Leave out most adverbs as well. What the characters are saying should be enough for readers to know how it is being said.
4. Combine dialogue with action.
If you want to give clues about how dialogue is being said, show emotion through a character’s movement, facial expression, or “business.” Maybe a character is slowly ripping up a tissue, or pacing around the living room as he speaks.
5. Make it clear who is speaking.
Leaving out some dialogue tags can help with the rhythm and flow of the prose, but make sure readers can tell who is speaking. If there is already a character action associated with a line of dialogue, this is an easy and appropriate place to cut the tag.
6. Don’t overdo accents.
The first thing Jim says in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is “Say, who is you? Whar is you? Dog my cats ef I didn’ hear sumf’n. Well, I know what I’s gwyne to do: I’s gwyne to set down here and listen tell I hears it agin.” Mark Twain got away with this, but you probably can’t. Instead, show accent through word choice and a few sparingly-used phonetic spellings. Flannery O’Conner is a master of this. “Who them children belong to, you?” Parker asks in her story “Parker’s Back.” “I ain’t married yet,” Sarah Ruth replies. “They belong to momma.” Readers need only a few clues to hear the accent.
7. Use profanity sparingly.
Like accents, too many curse words can distract the reader, even if it is true to the way a character would speak. And instead of using profanity when a character is angry, try showing the anger through action and carefully chosen speech instead.
8. Make your characters lie.
What can make dialogue interesting (and increase tension) is characters who don’t share what they know or who don’t say what they are thinking. Don’t be afraid of a nonlinear conversation, either. A character can choose to not answer a question, or to answer it a few lines later. And characters can say things the reader doesn’t completely understand, or understand yet. But don’t make dialogue so cryptic that readers are completely lost.
9. Read dialogue out loud.
Your dialogue should sounds natural and have a good rhythm. Make sure your characters don’t all talk in the same way.
10. Don’t leave out dialogue altogether.
Dialogue can be a welcome change from long stretches of prose, and dialogue can often make for an emotional or tension-filled scene. Dialogue also creates white space, breaking up chunks of exposition and description, which might become tedious to readers. Author Virginia Euwer Wolff says “I wanted the white space to thread through the story and give it room to breathe…I wanted the friendliness of white space on the page.”
What do you say? Time to write some good dialogue!