How to Write Dialogue
We have several conversations a day and spend our evenings watching fictional characters talk on TV, but when it comes to writing realistic dialogue, it can be hard to gauge what sounds natural. Dialogue is an invaluable tool in fiction; used well, it will lift a reader’s enjoyment of your work. But how can you tell if you’re using it well?
Don’t think of your novel as a screenplay
… even if becoming the next JK Rowling is Plan A for your writing career. We’re so desensitised to unrealistic dialogue on screen that authors don’t necessarily even realise they’re doing this, but from a practical point of view TV and film scripts can be quite limiting: every nuance of emotion needs to be audibly or visibly expressed (‘I can’t believe what I’m hearing!’). As a novelist you have the great gift of being able to narrate, omnisciently, without it really being noticed. Does your scene actually need dialogue or is there a subtler way of showing what you need to show?
Can you imagine yourself and your boss/sister/zombie grandmother (I haven’t read your book) actually having the conversation you’ve written, exactly in the way it’s written? People make grammatical mistakes when they talk, they use informal or incorrect contractions (‘There’s three of them’), they interrupt each other and they repeat and contradict themselves. Most real-life dialogue would be better expressed if we wrote it down rather than said it off the cuff. Natural-sounding conversation is surprisingly difficult to get right – but it really stands out when it works. It might help to read your dialogue out loud with someone else and check that it sounds like two humans (dogs, cyborgs, etc.).
…but don’t overthink it.
Don’t get so bogged down in realistic dialogue that you forget to keep things moving. (‘Do you take sugar?’ ‘Oh, no thanks – just a splash of milk.’ ‘I only have skimmed.’ ‘That’s fine.’ versus ‘I made her a cup of tea.’) It can be effective to show someone stumbling over their words but a whole conversation full of ellipses and false starts will quickly become distracting. Likewise writing dialogue in a character’s foreign or regional accent: a little goes a long way.
‘Don’t forget what happened last summer when you skipped your exams and ran off with that forty-year-old conman.’ This is a tricky one because very often you need to get your reader up to speed on things that have happened off-page. But if you find yourself having to shoehorn backstory into dialogue, think about whether it really needs to be spelled out or whether an allusion might be just as effective (‘I don’t need the police bringing you home at 3 a.m. again.’). Even on a smaller scale (‘How’s your wife?’ ‘Karen? She’s well.’), exposition can usually be worked around somehow (‘How’s Karen?’ ‘Really well. We just got back from Paris.’).
Learn from other writers
When reading, make a note of dialogue that you think is particularly good – or awful. What has the author done to make it so good or bad? How can their approach be used or avoided in your own work?