Let’s talk about dialogue…
One of things I hate most as a reader, is long winded discussions between random characters that add nothing to the overall plot, yet seem to drag on for eternity. You’ll find this a lot in TV series too – I like to call it ‘The Soap Opera Effect’. This is basically when something happens, let’s say John kisses his best friend’s wife, Sharon – ooooh scandalous action – but then this kiss is discussed for the next 50 pages or so by every character in the book! OK, some discussion is needed to make the most out of this dramatic event, but drawing a line under it sooner rather than later will help to move your story along. Pace is something that comes up a lot when you learn the craft of creative writing, and it really is more important than you think. A well-paced book will be hard for your readers to put down, one that dwindles with un-necessary scenes and dialogue will be thrown violently into the middle distance!
So what makes good dialogue? I can only answer that from my joint reader/ writer point of view. To me, good dialogue should either be giving away necessary plot points/ character information to the reader, or creating tension. In fact, this is something that you should check in your drafting process. Each word uttered by your characters should be scrutinised to ensure that it either adds to the character (or another character they’re talking about) or is pushing the plot forward. If you have a scene where two characters are discussing the weather, you need to delete it, unless of course one of those characters is an evil genius who has harnessed the weather for his own maniacal means. Woo ha ha!
Careful on your grammar in dialogue too. A missing comma or capital can make all the difference.
“I helped my uncle Jack off a horse today.” – What a lovely, helpful nephew.
“I helped my uncle jack off a horse today.” – Oh my God! What book am I reading?
See the difference a capital makes!
One of the best tricks for writing good dialogue is people watching/ eaves dropping. Get yourself in a nice busy place – a coffee shop, a café, a department store – and start listening in on what people are saying. I know it sounds awful, but the best dialogue comes from real life. I try to do this once in a while to keep my own character’s dialogue fresh and realistic; I don’t do it too often as, with my luck, I’d probably overhear a murder plot!
There is also good practice for someone writing YA who isn’t a young adult anymore. Keeping up-to-date with slang and how teenagers speak can make a real difference to your dialogue – it’s just common sense – innit?
Also don’t be afraid to write down things that you come out with. Quite often I’ll reply to a question or be deep in discussion with a friend and come up with a real gem of a sentence that I note down for later use. Just don’t pull out a pad at the time – people will think you’re crazy! Or incredibly forgetful! Or a secret reporter!
Read some scripts:
Scripts are heavy on important dialogue and reading a few can help to improve your overall efforts. Some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read has come from script writers. The BBC Writers’ Room has lots of interesting information, scripts to download, and even some script writing opportunities.
He said, she said:
Another important part of dialogue are the dialogue tags. Don’t just end each speech with ‘said’ try for something more descriptive and mix it up a bit. Here are a few tags to think about:
Acknowledged, admitted, agreed, answered, argued, asked, barked, begged, bellowed, blustered, bragged, complained, confessed, cried, demanded, denied, explained, giggled, hinted, hissed, hollered, howled, inquired, interrupted, laughed, lied, moaned, mumbled, muttered, nagged, pleaded, promised, questioned, remembered, replied, requested, roared, sang, screamed, screeched, shouted, sighed, spat, snarled, sobbed, threatened, wailed, warned, whimpered, whined, whispered, wondered, yelled
Try to avoid too many ‘ly’ words at the end of dialogue such as, ‘he said wistfully’ It falls into the show don’t tell category, so try to catch these in drafts and show the character as ‘wistful’ rather than going for the lazy option of the ‘ly’ word.
Who said what?
Good dialogue should flow, so using tags can be redundant. If you have two characters speaking, then you only need the odd tag, especially if they are using each other’s names e.g.
“Susan, what happened?”
“I’m not sure, it came out of nowhere.”
“The knife, Adam.”
“There’s no knife here…Susan, what’s behind your back?”
If there are more than two characters, that’s when tags become important. There’s nothing more annoying as a reader than being confused as to who is saying what.