Saturday, January 9, 2016

7 Basic Tips For Writing Better Dialogue

Whether you are a narrative-heavy author, or you lean toward more dialogue driven scenes, all authors have to agree on the importance of good dialogue. In some ways, all books are dialogue: a conversation between the writer and the story, between the story and the readers, and most obviously, between the characters. It's the latter, the dialogue between characters, that this post will be examining.

First off, what makes "good" dialogue? To answer that, we have to look into the purpose of dialogue within a novel.

The way I see it, dialogue must fulfill these 3 functions.

1. It develops characters
2. It moves a scene forward
3. It propels the plot and embellishes the narrative

Based on those three requirements then, "good dialogue" would not only be integral to the story, it would act as a way for the author to reveal the character's personalities, preferences, and drive to the reader. But it gets a little more complicated.

Imagine, for example, that you're writing a book about a young girl set in Victorian London. It's probably obvious that you couldn't have her tell people that they looked "cool,"or that something was "awesome." Even if she had a laid back personality, modern slang would jar the reader out of Victorian London, and ruin the character's voice. So we can add to the above - dialogue must suit the tone and voice of both the novel and the characters.

The problem above is nothing a little research can't fix. But "correct" dialogue can still come off as stilted, and jar you out of the story as well. So how do you find the balance between natural and accurate? There's the difficulty in dialogue right there.

This brings us back to the original question: how do you write good dialogue that doesn't snap the reader out of the story, and that helps the novel's flow?

It's different for every author and novel, but here are Seven Universal Tips for Writing Dialogue, whether your novel is in futuristic San Francisco, or Ancient Greece.

1. Always read your dialogue bits aloud, preferably to another person.

This might be embarrassing at first, but I can't stress its importance enough. When you read your novel aloud, you'll hear exactly how the character's speech patterns sound. So will your listener. Something that sounded okay in your head may sound completely different read out loud.

2. Watch the formality of your writing "speech."

This is one I've had a lot of trouble with in the past, as I was steeped in ancient literature for years! Alternatively, slang falls into this same category. If informal, slang-filled speech is the norm (i.,e., you're writing about greasers or flappers), use it sparingly. You want your readers to be following along, immersed in the story, not referring to Google every five minutes. The same goes for immense/rarely used words.

3. To convey a certain time period/era/type of character, a little bit of a foreign language, slang, or dialect goes a long way.

Some authors are stronger at this than others (Mark Twain, John Green, Cormac McCarthy, and Zora Neale Hurston come to mind), but this is one of the trickiest things to pull off. You don't want to date your novel (i. e., using too many 20th century specific words/phrases), and you don't want it to throw off the reader (see number 2).

As much as it is possible, leave your setting details to the narrative. For example: Make your readers feel like they are in the court of Louis XIV before you add any French. And then, when you add the French, think of it like cayenne pepper - a seasoning where a pinch pervades the entire dish. Make sure your French is authentic to the mid 1600's, and accurate for aristocrats and/or serving class. This can be a lot of work, but it will make your story feel more real, and read better, even if your reader knows nothing about 1600's France.

4. Listen, listen, listen to how people talk.

People are people - they tend to raise their voice at the end of a question, stop in the middle of a sentence, and lose their train of thought. While you don't have to replicate speech patterns exactly (and it would be tedious for both you and the reader if you did this!), a little bit of careful listening can give you a feel for how dialogue should flow to sound natural.

Listen to the people around you and think about how they might be thinking/feeling as they talk: did they pause because they were unsure, or because they are telling a lie? Now, I'm not encouraging you to over-analyze your friends and acquaintances! I just want you to examine speech patterns, and the way people actually talk :)

5. Read Screenplays or Stage Plays

Think about a movie or a play. Unlike a novel, a movie's narration is typically visual. We aren't told that this is Paris, we see the Eiffel Tower and know we're in Paris. This gives a movie a huge advantage in setting the scene. They can skip right to the characters and the dialogue.

Novelists have it a little harder, but it's still rewarding to look at how a scriptwriter handles character. Good dialogue often separates a great movie/play from a terrible one, and strong characters can sometimes rescue a mediocre plot.

So back to the screenplay: read a good, strong script/play (Casablanca, The Godfather, To Kill a Mockingbird, Schindler's List, Psycho, Oedipus the King, The Importance of Being Earnest, Henry V, etc). Study how the author uses dialogue to reveal the character's personalities and establish each unique voice. How do they incorporate humor? How do the characters interact among themselves - do they change how they speak around particular people?

6. In First Person - Even the Narrative is Technically Dialogue

First Person dialogue is different from third person dialogue in that the narrative is in the main character's distinctive voice. However, most people have a lot more internal dialogue than external.

For instance, if I see a girl with a shirt I like, my thoughts might look like this: That is an awesome Star Wars t-shirt. It has Han and Chewie on it, which is different. I love that color green. I wonder which film is her favorite? 

However, what I actually say is: "I love your shirt!"

See how much of my inner dialogue was left out? A more outgoing or talkative person might say more, or even pursue a conversation, but it was enough for me to say "I love your shirt," so I stopped there. This tells you that I'm more introverted, but have an active thought life.

Likewise, when writing in first person, make sure that you remember to stay in your character's brain. You don't have to detail every little thing that crosses their mind, but be conscious of how what they think and what they say might differ. While this can create unique difficulties within the narrative (you can only see through one character's mind), it also makes a more intimate bond between the reader and the narrator, immersing the reader in your story. A careful balance of internal and external dialogue can really help your reader understand the character and empathize with them.

7. Read! And Pay Attention :)

Sure, this is the first and best writing advice out there, but since we're looking at dialogue, think of a book that made you laugh or where the characters really stood out. Chances are, the author was good at dialogue. Reread one of your favorite novels and look closely at how the character's interact. How does the author space dialogue and narration? How does the dialogue fulfill my requirements from above? How much dialogue verses narrative fills a page?

Still lost and looking for examples? Here are some fun books and the corresponding skill they showcase:

#3 and #6 - Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt. 

Examine how Schmidt uses the first person narration to establish the time period, Holling's (the MC) personality and voice, and to drive the story.

#2 and #3 - Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke OR Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. 

Though both of these novels are fantasy, they do a superb job of reminding you that you are in a different era. Manners and customs are different, but never hard to understand. Also pay note to how the dialogue helps the worldbuilding.

#5 - Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias and Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hauge.  

You might not be writing a screenplay, or ever intend to, but both of these books will help you be a more dynamic storyteller. Learn from movies and TV, and apply those techniques to your own writing. For a good example of this type of writing in novel form, check out The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins is (surprise!) a scriptwriter as well as a novelist, and her action scenes really benefit from her visual media experience.

If you are a writer, did I miss anything? What are your tricks for realistic dialogue? If you are a reader, what books really hooked you? Do you have any favorite dialogue or quotes to share?