(When I was first asked to write an article on this topic, I was blown away. This meant that somebody out there in the world must think that I write good dialogue. Somebody is asking me for advice on writing ‘really good dialogue’. I was over the moon. Then, as I began to analyze my methods, I realized I didn’t have any methods. I came to the conclusion while writing the article below that I may just be a savant. But, then, I feel that may be giving myself too much credit. Maybe I just get lucky? Maybe it was an accident that I ever wrote good dialogue? Maybe, they just wanted me to feel good? Maybe the author they originally had booked to write the article was crushed in an ugly double-decker bus accident? Maybe…
Writing Really Good Dialogue
(This article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct issue of the WCDR Word Weaver. Past issues can be found here. Most recent issues are available to WCDR members only.)
I was flattered to be asked to address the topic of writing great dialogue. Then I tried to tackle it. How does one write dialogue? It’s the one aspect of writing I feel I’m good at. My confidence level as a writer is low, but I feel confident with the dialogue I create. But to explain how to write great dialogue seemed way too daunting a task!
So I Googled it. None of the online articles had anything to do with my approach. They said, writing good dialogue is hard work; a great read is a hard write; it’s incredibly difficult to write good dialogue; you must know your characters before you can create great dialogue.
Bullsh*t, I say. For me, I must stop thinking before I can write great dialogue. Just write. Thinking gets in the way of dialogue. After I read a few articles and realized I couldn’t relate, I almost gave up. I don’t know my characters. Sometimes I can’t even remember their names after writing an entire novel with them. But I do know this: what I know about my characters I did not find out before I wrote their dialogue. To me, that notion is just ludicrous. I discover my characters as the dialogue comes out of them. The dialogue forms the character, not the other way around. Their words give me a true picture of who they are.
To write great dialogue, you can’t write what you hear on the street. People are staccato in conversation. They prattle on and change topics and say so much that does not pertain to the task at hand. In fiction you can’t do this. Every word must count. Dialogue has to be written MUCH better than real life conversation. It has to focus on the story and stay within its parameters. Great dialogue would probably NOT happen in real life, but done right and the reader will swear it sounds like real-life conversation. Like the rest of the fictional landscape, dialogue has to be larger than life. It’s a conundrum, really. Write dialogue too authentic and you’ve blown it, write it too stilted and unauthentic and you’ve blown it.
A writer needs to create individual personalities through dialogue and keep their characters on task while doing so. Characters will shape themselves and the story through their words. But knowing what they need to say to keep the story moving is only half the work. How they say things is important to the reader’s ear. This is why I read all my dialogue out loud by itself. I remove tags and the surrounding prose and then I have a conversation with myself to listen to HOW my characters are saying what they’re saying. And I speak the dialogue fast, so I can see where contractions would come into it in real life conversation. We’re a lazy bunch, us talkers. The use of contractions alone will go a long way in making your dialogue appear authentic.
As I sat down to write this, I discovered I might be a bit of an automaton when it comes to writing dialogue. Then I realized you NEED to be an automaton, to just write dialogue without thinking about it. Most people these days just open their mouths and speak. I’m not saying this is right, but it is the way it’s done. So when you’re in the grip of story, become your characters. Get inside their heads and spit out the first words that come into their mouths. That’s probably what they would say, and that’s also what would make them each unique. Stop thinking and start speaking.