How to Get the Most Out of Your Dialogue
Every writer understands the importance of dialogue – it conveys information for the reader, it hints at things, it reveals character, creates conflict and it moves the story forward, so to get the most out of it, writers must use dialogue wisely.
The idea of dialogue isn’t just there for your characters to say something. They have to say something because it matters to the story and because it’s part of the story. And that’s why well written dialogue can entice the reader to become involved with the characters.
Poorly written dialogue, however, can devalue the story because often what the characters say isn’t part of the story and doesn’t matter to the story, which is why writers should use every element of dialogue available. Make it effective.
Make It to the Point
Your characters are telling part of the story with their conversations. Your story relies on their input, but they have no time to chit chat about mundane stuff like the weather or next door’s roses. Dialogue doesn’t need padding. It isn’t about long-winded exposition, either, so don’t go to great lengths by having characters explain everything and don’t have characters talk endlessly about unimportant stuff.
Dialogue works when it gets straight to the point.
Use dialogue to reveal something about your characters. This helps give dialogue some depth and dimension. Drop hints about your character’s personality, inner emotions or his/her motivations by showing the reader how they talk, what they say and how they say things.
Readers will pick up on these interactions. The tone of voice, pitch, the kind of words spoken and facial expressions all show the reader, which acts as subtext to character revelation.
You don’t have to rely on descriptive actions scenes to show conflict. Dialogue is also a great way to heighten conflict. That’s because characters are not happy and nice with each other all the time. The reality is that what people say in conversations can sometimes cause tensions. Some things are said in anger. Some things are said with spite or aggression, or they deliberately say things to escalate situations, which can cause conflict with other characters within the conversation.
Dialogue has to be dynamic, interesting and sometimes provocative. That’s why arguments, disagreements and emotional situations can provide dialogue with the conflict it needs to lift it from the page.
Conflict and emotion are closely connected; always entwined. Without a doubt, emotion is a powerful factor in storytelling, whether through actions or through what characters say.
Effective dialogue needs emotion as much as it needs conflict. What a character says to the other in an argument might hurt, or it might be the opposite if love is involved. Emotive dialogue can show the reader the character’s deep emotions and inner feelings beneath the surface – the kind of stuff the others characters don’t get to see.
Make It Realistic
If the dialogue isn’t realistic, the reader won’t believe a word your characters say. In other words, conversations should reflect a sense of realism and be appropriate for the genre and target audience.
If you’re writing a historical novel, what characters say should reflect that era. A young adult fiction would use more street talk and sound gritty. Not only that, but realism extends to how people are when in conversation. They sometimes talk over each other, or stumble over their words in they are nervous, or they suddenly stop mid flow. Have characters but in and cut off another character while speaking.
Sometimes what characters don’t say is what makes dialogue interesting. A character’s silence can often say much more beneath the surface – it can imply or hint at things the reader will see, but the other characters might not.
Use Actions with Dialogue
In real life conversations, people love to gesticulate or play around with things like a pen, or a glass or something else. Dialogue breaks make the dialogue effective because you can’t have people talk endlessly without some small break, otherwise it will annoy the reader.
Characters do stuff at the same time as they are talking – moving around a room, doing a chore, eating or drinking, scratching their nose, writing something down... These beats help provide rhythm to longer dialogue sections. They make dialogue more realistic, and they allow the writer to show characters reacting to the conversations.
One of the best ways to get the most of out of your dialogue is to use dialogue tags wisely. Don’t go crazy with alternatives to ‘said’. The reader doesn’t want to read something like ‘he honked’, ‘she barked,’ ‘he laughed’, ‘she squawked’ every other word. Too many can jar the reader and prove annoying.
‘He said/she said’ is inconspicuous by nature. They’re easy on the eye. We almost forget they’re there because they blend in so well. It’s fine to use an alternative to ‘said’ once in a while, but limit how many you use.
So, to get the most from your dialogue, bring in all the elements available. Remember, characters have to say something because it matters to the story and because it’s part of the story.