Dialogue is a vital element in contemporary fiction, no matter what the genre. Done well, it can work hard, revealing character, developing relationships, modulating the pace, adding color and tone to your novel’s atmosphere, conveying essential information without “info-dumping”, and helping to drive your story forward. Done wrong, it can undermine the reading experience and make your writing seem amateurish and clumsy.
But credible dialogue, as with any othr aspect of good writing, doesn’t just happen. It takes knowledge, time, and skill to create. It needs as much editing and rewriting as everything else. Ask any qualified writing tutor or professional editor and they’ll tell you without hesitation that getting dialogue right is often a real challenge to new, inexperienced writers.
If you struggle with dialogue, or you’ve had work rejected because of it, or you’d just like to improve how you write dialogue in fiction, the first thing to do is check to see if you’re making any of the five most common mistakes. So, let’s look at those now. We’ll also look at ideas for how to fix poor dialogue as we go.
1. All your characters sound the same
Rather than working to enhance characterization, everyone in your story or novel sounds like everyone else. If the reader can’t tell who’s speaking from the dialogue alone — that it’s the heroine rather than the villain, for example — then it fails your characters as much as your reader. Your reader will get confused and your characters will seem flat.
Common reasons for this problem are that you haven’t drawn the characters clearly in your own mind; or you haven’t given enough attention to dialogue in real life conversations or in published writing; or you’re being lazy and throwing down imitative, clichéd forms of speech.
Make notes about any character in your story who has a significant amount of dialogue. Think about their childhood; who raised them and where; their education or lack of it; what voices and accents they heard; whether they are introverted or extroverted; the work they do; and their core relationships. You must know your characters inside out— especially your protagonist — if you want to give them unique and identifiable speech.
Train your ear to deliberate listening. Listen to conversations with family, friends, and work colleagues; those you overhear in public; reality TV shows, interviews, documentaries, and news broadcasts. Listen with your eyes closed and ask, what about a person’s speech makes it recognizable?
Look for vocabulary, rhythm, pitch, intonation, slang, idiomatic expressions, shyness or confidence, mannerisms and quirks. Notice how people may say one thing while they mean another; speak formally or intimately; use innuendo or implication; probe for information; gossip; show passion or disinterest; or close a conversation. Think about how you could use these factors in your fictional dialogue to give each character their own distinct voice.
But if you write down real life dialogue word for word, you’ll soon see that it doesn’t seem “authentic” on the page. People ramble, go off on tangents, lose their train of thought, interrupt each other, and prattle on about irrelevancies all the time. Authentic-sounding dialogue in fiction is an artifice, a part of the writer’s craft.
So, you must read lots of good dialogue and do so with a critical, analytical eye and ear. Choose your favorite stories and novels with unforgettable characters you love. Re-read them, marking out the dialogue of each character as you go.
Ask yourself what about one character’s speech distinguishes them from another? Look at the word choices the author made, the length of speeches, any slang or catchphrases, any hint of personality expressed in the dialogue alone. Listen to radio drama, too — always based on dialogue — and think about how the scriptwriter makes each character’s speech patterns unique.
2. Mouthpiece dialogue
Mouthpiece dialogue happens when you use a character in your story to speak your own mind to the reader, to dump a slab of information — the notorious literary crime of “info-dumping” — or to fill in back story. The result is something clumsy and unnatural that doesn’t convince as the speaker’s authentic voice. Any fictional character’s words must resonate with who they are and show their mind, not yours.
As an example, you may find you’ve written dialogue that goes something like this:
“The thing is, Charlie, we can’t repeat the mistake we made last year. You remember, when we lost the race because you turned up still drunk from the previous night. I had to lift you into the boat and wrap your fingers round the oars. The rest of the team rowed hard, but we hadn’t a chance with you in that state, had we? And you remember what the coach said? She said if that happened again, she’d disqualify us all.”
Do you see what’s wrong with this? Nobody talks like that. It’s also safe to assume that Charlie remembers how she let the team down last year and what the consequences of repeating the mistake will be this year. So, why is her friend telling her this? This is an info-dump to fill in back story. It’s just disguised as dialogue.
Now, with a little editing, you could still use this dialogue to give a bit of background while expressing character and moving the plot forward. How about this:
“Get your coat. I’m taking you home. I’m sick of sitting in this bar watching you ruining your liver and our chances of winning tomorrow’s race. Not this year, Charlie. Now move it.”
That’s still not perfect, but you can see the improvement, right? You’re still getting important information across to the reader — about Charlie’s alcohol problem and the fact it lost them the race last year — but the dialogue sounds more authentic, expresses emotion, shows the character of the speaker, creates narrative tension, and moves the story forward.
3. Characters who speak with perfect grammar
You may, occasionally, want to write dialogue with perfect grammar if it’s in keeping with the character’s personality, education, and status, or in a scene taking place in a formal context such as a courtroom or university. But even then, the chances are slight. No-one speaks in perfect grammar, not even the Queen of England.
The rules of grammar govern the written word. They do not govern speech patterns. When you put words into quotation marks, the rules of grammar apply only in so far as they help the reader to understand what the character is saying. For example, the following speech is grammatically correct, but it sounds unnatural:
“It was not the case that I had wanted to go to Angela’s dinner party. Indeed, I had hoped that I would have been able to avoid the occasion. Unfortunately, as my hosts had decided that they would have liked to have gone, so must I. You understand my discomfort, do you not?”
Even in a historical novel — a Regency romance, for example — this would seem inauthentic and clunky. When writing dialogue, go with the ear rather than the rules of grammar. And note that contractions are fine.
“I didn’t want to go to Angela’s dinner party. I’d hoped to get out of it. But my hosts wanted to go, so I had to go with them. You understand, don’t you?”
Again, you could keep working on this to make it more authentic-sounding without losing the meaning. In dialogue, while avoiding cliché and not over-using foreign words or transliterations of dialect, you can be much freer to express character. So, we might make the same statement as above like this:
“I didn’t want to go to Angela’s dinner party, did I? I done me best to get out of it. But with me hosts going and not wanting to be rude, I had to go, didn’t I?”
The same speech expresses a quite distinct character. Could be a cockney from London’s East End. Or how about this:
“No, I did not wish to go to the dinner party. I tried to get out of it, but for me it was not easy. My hosts wanted to go, and it would have been rude not to go with them. You understand me, yes?”
Once again, the same information, but a unique character. This is, perhaps, a person for whom English is not their first language. One more:
“I didn’t want to go to Angela’s damn dinner party. Jeez, I tried to get out of it. But my hosts wanted to go, so I had to. You understand that, right?”
The use of idiomatic expressions, foreign words, and dialect is fine, but use them only enough to suggest the speech pattern to the reader’s inner ear. Avoid this, for example:
“But I ad not wanted to go to ze dinner partee of Angela! Oh la-la! I deed all I could to get out of eet. But my osts wanted to go, so I must also, tu compris?”
That’s too difficult to understand. Go easy on the dialect or accent inflections. Often, rhythm and certain verb constructions are all that’s need to convey a foreign person speaking. A German, for example, following the rules of their native grammar, might place their verbs like this:
“I am waiting, but she comes not to the house.”
That’s enough to