Dialogue can be pretty tricky, but it’s one of the most important pieces of your story. Readers prefer a lot of ‘blank space’ in books, which means you don’t want paragraphs and paragraphs of narrative. You want to liberally sprinkle your story with dialogue. Dialogue can serve many purposes; it can help you show instead of tell, it can reveal personality traits about your character, and it can move the story forward.
Dialogue isn’t exactly my biggest strength, but when I am reviewing or editing a manuscript, I can certainly tell if dialogue is not done well.
Here are some tips you might want to consider:
Don’t say things in narrative, then repeat the same thing in dialogue
“I’m leaving you.”
He was leaving her? She couldn’t believe it. “I can’t believe you’re leaving me.”
While it’s great to show some emotion, some kind of internal thoughts, you don’t want to use the precise comment you use in dialogue. You can do something like:
Her heart dropped to her stomach. Shock froze her vocal cords, and she couldn’t speak for several moments. Finally, she found her voice. “I can’t believe you’re leaving me.”
Don’t reveal things in dialogue that the character already knows, just to share the info with your reader. That sounds unnatural and contrived.
“Your brother, Hank, who runs the saloon, stopped by my ranch.”
Hank’s sister (to whom the speaker is speaking) already knows Hank is her brother and that he runs the saloon. She might not know he stopped by, but you could revise it to: “Hank stopped by my ranch.” If you want readers to know Hank runs the saloon and is her brother, you can weave it in elsewhere, naturally. You don’t want your characters talking to the reader, you want them talking to one another.
Don’t use character names in dialogue too often. People do not normally speak that way.
“Sally, you know I tried to save him.”
“Yes, Frank, but he died on your watch.”
“But Sally, you have to forgive me.”
“I’m sorry, Hank, I can’t.”
Believe it or not, I’ve seen dialogue where character names were used this frequently.
Use contractions, because people speak that way. Even high society people use contractions. This is probably a bit different in Historical novels, but contemporary people typically speak in contractions.
Which sounds more natural?
“I do not know what do to. I did not think this would happen. I would not have come here had I known.”
“I don’t know what to do. I didn’t think this would happen. I wouldn’t have come here had I known.”
(Of course, in good dialogue you wouldn’t use these staccato sentences and have the need for so many contractions in a row, but I am making a point. :))
Use tags sparingly, and for the most part, ‘said’ is the one you should go with. Although I admit, I use a ‘whispered’ or ‘gritted’ from time to time, it’s best to avoid a lot of those types of tags. Using action instead of tags is less jarring and also helps make it more ‘showing.’ You actually almost never need a tag, even ‘said.’
“I can’t believe you did that,” she cried.
“It was for your own good,” he defended.
“Since when do you know what’s best for me?” she railed.
“I can’t believe you did that.” Her voice cracked with the pain of his betrayal.
His eyes implored her. “It was for your own good.”
She gave a bitter laugh. “Since when do you know what’s best for me?”
When in doubt, read your dialogue aloud so you can see if it sounds natural. You can usually tell by listening to how your characters speak.
I hope you find these tips helpful, I have to be ultra-aware of making sure my dialogue is acceptable, because it’s not something that comes naturally to me. How about you? Is dialogue one of your strengths? What are some things that bother you about dialogue you’ve read?
And one more thing… “GO Red Sox!!!” she shouted enthusiastically. 😉