Dialogue is one of the most difficult aspects of writing to master. There are many pitfalls to avoid.
This is dialogue that does not sound like natural speech.
This is dialogue that does not advance the scene or your understanding of the characters.
This occurs when one character uses another character’s name to establish identity. People rarely say another person’s name back to them. It is the character trait of a stereotypical used car salesman.
Overuse of Modifiers
This is the overuse dialogue modifiers such as shouted, exclaimed, cried, whispered, stammered, opined, insinuated, or hedged. Modifiers such as these can be useful is small doses, but don’t rely on them to convey your character’s moods or thoughts. Use the word “said” unless you have a good reason not to.
- Write down the things you say over the course of the day. Examine your speech patterns. You don’t have to get every word. You may find that you say less than you think. Many people speak in short statements. You might find you rarely speak in complete sentences.
- Find a crowded place such as a restaurant, a bar, or a shopping mall. Write down snippets of the conversations you hear. Avoid trying to record whole conversations. Follow along for a brief exchange and then listen for your next target.
- Test responses to the same question. Think of a question that will require at least a little thought. Ask it of several different people. Compare their responses. Focused on their words. Write them down as soon as you can.
- Record several different TV shows. Some choices include: sitcom, news, drama, talk show, infomercial, sporting event, etc. Write a transcript using just the dialogue and people’s names. If you don’t know the names, just use a description such as announcer or redheaded woman. You can also transcribe two shows of the same genre. Use one show you like and one you dislike. Compare dialogue between fiction and non-fiction shows. Look for such things as greetings, descriptions of physical actions, complete sentences and slang. Look for verbal ticks such as like, you know, uhhhh, well, etc. Compare how these dialogue crutches change according to the show format and quality.
- Rewrite one or more of the shows in exercise 4 as prose. Try to recreate the show as accurately as possible. Note how easy or difficult it is to work in the entire dialogue from the show. Does it seem to flow naturally and read well? Does it get in your way? Rewrite it, eliminating any dialogue you feel is unnecessary. Try not to change dialogue until your final draft. Work with what you have. You don’t have to rewrite the whole show. Do enough to be sure you have the feeling for it.
- Rewrite one of the the transcripts from exercise 4 using as much of the dialogue as possible, but changing the scene. Change the setting. Change the people’s intent. Change the tone. Observe how easy or difficult it is to give the same words a different intent.
- Write the dialogue for a scene without using any modifiers. Just separate each statement by line. Write down the conversation as it flows. After you complete the dialogue, add narrative description. Don’t add dialogue tags such as “said”, “shouted” or “ordered”. Instead, work the dialogue into the action as a logical progression of the statements. Finally, add any dialogue tags that are absolutely necessary. Keep them simple such as said, told, or asked. Again, only put them in if you cannot find other options. Compare this to the previous dialogue you have written. See what you like or dislike about the changes.
- Write a scene in which one person tells another person a story. Write it as a dialogue, not just a first person narrative. Clearly have one person telling the story and the other person listenin. The second person should ask questions or make comments. The first goal of this scene is to have the story stand alone as a subject. The second goal is to have the characters’ reactions to the story be the focal point of the scene.
- Write a scene in which one person is listening to two other people have an argument or discussion. For example, a child listening to her parents argue about money. Have the third character narrate the argument and explain what is going on, but have the other two provide the entire dialogue. It is not necessary to have the narrator understand the argument completely. Miscommunication is a major aspect of dialogue.
- Write a conversation between two liars. Give everything they say a double or triple meaning. Never state or indicate through outside description that these two people are lying. Let the reader figure it out. Don’t be obvious. Don’t let one character accuse the other of lying. That is too easy.
- Write a conversation in which no character speaks more than three words per line of dialogue. Again, avoid crutches such as explaining everything they say through narration. Use your narration to enhance the scene. Don’t use it to explain the dialogue.
- Write a narrative or scripted scene in which several characters are taking an active role in the conversation. This can be a difficult aspect of dialogue to master. The reader must be able to keep track of the motivations and interests of all the characters. This can be especially difficult in prose. The time between one character speaking and the next is often interrupted by action or description. See how many characters your can sustain within the scene. It must still make sense and be engaging.