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You’re on Your Own for Dialogue (But Here Are Some Tips Anyway)

Today’s writing-related Challenge of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, centers around storybook dialogue and making it believable.

Back on Tuesday, I wrote how dialogue could alternately be defined as “a major inducer of headaches for many creative writers.” And today, we’re going to do some exploring into the causes and cures of those literary pains.

Dialogue is one of those areas that many writers struggle with, and with good reason. While it seems like it should be the most natural thing in the world, it’s actually a skill set all to itself.

When we speak out loud, we have tones of voice to clarify our words at the very least. In fact, the auditory quality of our presentations can go a long way in making us sound good, perhaps even better than we deserve.

That’s a lesson I was reminded of in person earlier this year while driving somewhere with my mom. We had gotten into a perfectly polite political conversation, in which I delivered a 30-second monologue detailing my opinion on something.

Even as the words were coming out of my mouth, I realized I was spewing nothing but nonsense. I couldn’t get my thoughts in order, so my sentences weren’t really arranged in a coherent or logical manner.

But here’s the catch… I sounded coherent and logical. My voice wasn’t raised, my tone was even and, in a nutshell, I sounded like I knew what I was talking about.

As a result, my very well-read, high-IQ mom responded with, “That’s an interesting point” instead of “Jeannette, you’re an idiot,” as was really warranted.

And really, I’m not being too hard on myself with that commentary. What I said was complete gobbledygook, no matter how it sounded. I was saved by the tone!

Our messages can also be saved by gestures, expressions and body language if we’re speaking in person or via video. But when it comes to written speech, it isn’t auditory. It’s a very limited type of visual: just black words on white pages.

And that’s a major game-changer that’s not in our favor.

So here are some tips to employ when you’re writing dialogue:

  • Use contractions. In regular speech, we don’t use “proper” grammar. We say “don’t” instead of “do not,” “can’t” instead of “cannot” and such. Unless you’re writing a very specific kind of historical fiction or fantasy, your story is probably going to be stronger if your characters generally speak the way modern-day people speak.

  • Think about how you talk with your family, your friends, those younger than you or older than you, colleagues or figures of authority. Then translate those attitudes appropriately into your characters’ relationships.

  • If you’re unsure about a bit of dialogue, say it out loud. If you feel stupid or unnatural saying it, so does your character. Change it.

  • More often than not, try avoiding the words “that” and “of” in dialogue. We tend to skip over those while we’re talking, so whenever you catch your characters saying something along the lines of, “I think that we need to go right,” stop yourself and ask if it’s natural for “that” to be in there or not.

  • Don’t use dialogue to explain the plot. I know I touched on this before when I ranted against villainous dialogues, but I’m going to have to throw it in here as well. It’s not any of your characters’ jobs to break everything down for your readers. Your narrator is responsible for presenting the facts, and your readers are responsible for comprehending them.

That last dialogue-writing tip probably warrants an example, so here you go:

“But Johnny,” she said. “I thought the universe was supposed to implode at exactly five thirteen and twenty-two seconds tonight.”

“Yes, Gina. That’s correct,” he replied. “But we just learned that the doomsday machine that’s going to make the universe implode is based on the Mayan calendar instead of the modern-day Western World version we know of. So we still have time to stop it!”

What’s wrong with those lines? Just about everything, actually, but let’s focus on the dialogue-driven overshare.

While it’s perfectly okay for Johnny to give Gina updates and such, the amount of information he gave her is what we call an information dump. It’s telling for the sake of telling instead of for the sake of two characters interacting with each other.

You could also consider it to be plot masquerading as dialogue.

Details should be added more naturally into the story – maybe something along these lines:

“But Johnny,” she said. “I thought the universe was supposed to implode by now.”

“Oh yeah,” he replied. “I totally forgot you weren’t there at the meeting. That doomsday machine? It’s based on the Mayan calendar, so we still have time to stop it!”

Admittedly, both the original and revised copy are clearly cheesy and ridiculous. But because Johnny and Gina give less details in the second version, it comes across as less cheesy and ridiculous.

Which brings me to one final tip about writing dialogue…

The less cheesy and ridiculous you can make it, the better off you, your characters and your readers will be.

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