As it’s National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo for us cool kids – I thought I’d offer some advice on writing dialogue. As ever with writing advice, feel free to pick and choose. What works for me doesn’t always work for someone else.
Dialogue can be one of the most difficult things for writers to get right, especially, as in my case, you’re attempting to portray the speech patterns of people who live in a made-up world. Depending on genre, you need to establish early on what idiom your characters are speaking in, i.e. are they going to be conversing in a medieval form of speech – rich in ‘my lords’, ‘your highnesses’ and sundry others – or will their speech be more modern?
It’s a good idea to start by establishing some basic rules for dialogue in your world, if we’re dealing with a world modelled on an ancient era how do people address each other during a formal gathering? How would a slave address his master? Making these rules and sticking to them throughout your novel will add to the sense of your world being a real place with long-established customs.
One of the pitfalls of writing dialogue is in the tendency for it to degenerate into a simple, often dull exchange of information in order to advance the plot. Obviously, some aspects of the plot should be progressed through dialogue, but it’s important not to make every conversation a question-and-answer session.
Having your characters talk about their past, instead of introducing them with a biographical prose description, is an effective means of bringing them to life. It also sells the notion of characters bonding through shared knowledge. Dialogue is also a great way to reveal aspects of character; an extrovert will talk more than an introvert, but the introvert may actually have something more interesting to say.
One method of making your dialogue more interesting is to observe the different ways people converse in real life, friends will banter whilst the conversation of strangers will be more stilted. Good dialogue will reflect the tone of your scene, a moment of conflict will usually involve terse, clipped speech, or perhaps none at all, whilst people engaged in a light-hearted social gathering will talk at length and with humour. Whilst you should endeavour to make room for humour in your dialogue, be careful about not overdoing it and make sure it’s actually funny – there’s a reason why relatively few people make a living writing comedy.
Whilst you should draw from real life in crafting your dialogue, don’t try to mirror real-speech in your writing. The way people talk in reality is rarely reproduced in fiction for the simple reason that it tends to make very little sense when written down verbatim. You have to find a balance between the reality of human dialogue and the need to convey necessary information to the reader.
By all means, watch movies for inspiration, but don’t try to ape the dialogue of well-known screenwriters, it’ll just sound like a parody at best or a poor imitation at worst. There are enough Tarantino imitators in the world penning endless speeches full of comic-book or TV references. Such imitators invariably miss the real lesson to be learned from Tarantino’s dialogue which lies in how it reveals the true nature of his characters – see Jules’s speech at the end of Pulp Fiction: ‘The truth is that I am the tyranny of evil men and you’re the weak.’
Finally, a quick word about attributions and the oft demonised adverb. Put simply, the S word is not your enemy. When penning your first draft it may feel tedious to repeatedly write ‘he said’, ‘she said’, but it’s something readers often barely register. The main watchword with dialogue is ‘clarity’, you need to make it clear to the reader who is speaking at a given time. Once you’ve established this it’s advisable to drop attributions altogether until you need them again, and when you do in most cases a simple ‘said’ is enough.
That being said (see what I did there?), feel free to put ‘asked’ or ‘enquired’ if it’s a question, or ‘demanded’ to illustrate a character’s anger. ‘Replied’, ‘answered’ and ‘responded’ are also perfectly fine, as are the more emotive ‘snapped’, ‘sighed’, ‘grated’ or ‘grunted.’ I’d advise using overly emotive attributions sparingly, such as ‘raged’, ‘exploded’ or (Dark Gods forbid) the now thankfully mostly defunct ‘ejaculated’. Using adverbs is a common method of adding emotion to dialogue but is, as Stephen King pointed out at length in ‘On Writing’, frequently over-used: ‘she said dully/softly/testily/moodily/extravagantly’ and so on. In most cases, the emotion of the character’s speech is most effectively conveyed in the dialogue itself and the scene that surrounds it. As an exercise take a look at a long passage of dialogue and replace every attribution with the word ‘said’ and remove any associated adverbs. You might be surprised how well it reads.
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