Say What?: 5 Tips for Avoiding Common Dialogue Mistakes
The key to writing good dialogue is to be as realistic as possible without boring your reader. You want your characters to sound convincing, but you don’t need to include the minutiae of everyday speech—the how’s the family exchanges that happen when you run into an acquaintance in the grocery store, for instance. On the other hand, overly dramatic or expository dialogue is so far from the reality of how people speak that it will distract readers from your story.
Here are a few guidelines to help you avoid common impediments to writing believable dialogue.
1. Don’t monologue.
Some moments call for a grand speech. Most of them do not. Resist the urge to have your characters launch into a long, rambling explanation of their backgrounds or motivations. No one does this in real life, unless they’re speaking to a therapist or dictating to the ghostwriter undertaking their autobiography. If you find yourself having to explain things through dialogue, one of three things might have gone wrong:
a.) You haven’t developed your characters well enough through their actions;
b.) You haven’t paced the plot so that important information is revealed gradually throughout, or;
c.) You’ve underestimated your readers’ ability to put the pieces together.
None of these is good! Fix the underlying problem, and you’ll probably realize you never needed that monologue to begin with.
2. Only use verbal quirks for character development.
In real life, people pepper their speech with um and uh and like and you know and a host of other sounds and phrases. Of course, the prevalence of these quirks in everyday speech does not need to be reflected in your novel’s dialogue, BUT certain quirks can be used to give readers a better sense of your characters.
Maybe one of your characters is particularly deliberate or nervous when speaking in social situations. They might use um quite a bit. If this is the case, the frequent use of um should be unique to that character. (Note: Avoid the clichéd technique of showing a character is ditzy by having them say like frequently. It’s been used so much that it borders on caricature at this point).
3. Historical doesn’t have to be histrionic.
If your characters are from a bygone era, it makes sense that they wouldn’t use modern slang. While it is important to avoid anachronism, be careful not to wander too far off in the other direction.
Just because your hero is a courtier of Charles II doesn’t mean he needs to say Ods-fish! at the beginning of every sentence. Similarly, Victorian women need not ask for smelling salts unless doing so is crucial to the plot, and even though medieval knights may very well have peppered their speech with the word forsooth, that doesn’t mean the knight in your novel has to say it more than one or two times, if that. Bottom line: don’t overdo the archaic language.
(If you were wondering, Ods-fish is a corruption of the old curse “God’s flesh” and by far my favorite word in the history of exclamations.)
4. Don’t use caps lock!
This one’s a bit controversial, and I must admit I’ve seen all caps dialogue used to good effect in novels. But generally speaking, caps lock is a crutch used when an author can’t convey strong emotion through context or through the content of the dialogue itself. If you’ve done a good job setting the scene and developing your character, readers should know that the character is shouting without help from the font size.
5. Don’t forget to listen.
Keeping in mind that the point is not to replicate exactly the details of everyday speech, listen closely to conversations happening around you to get a sense of the cadences and rhythms of it. Sometimes conversations move quickly back and forth, as is the case with banter; sometimes they are awkward and halting; sometimes they are uneven, with one person consistently speaking at greater length than the other. If you’re having trouble writing dialogue, don’t forget that inspiration is all around you. Just remember to remove the ums.
Got any other dialogue-related questions? Ask away in the comments!