Jan 01 2008
This article will help you write better dialogue in novels.
1. Avoid niceties.
Bland lines like “it’s nice to see you” and “how are the kids?” should be removed. Every sentence of a conversation should either advance the plot or develop a character.
2. Readers hate paragraphs of exposition and info-dumping.
“As you know, John, this is what we were working on together right before the book started.” First, any sentence that begins with “as you know” or anything similar probably needs to be rewritten. More generally, if you have to impart a significant chunk of information to your readers, it’s usually more effective to handle it out of conversation. For example, you could show one character’s letter or e-mail to another. One advantage of an e-mail is that, unlike dialogue, the readers aren’t constantly interrupted by interjected dialogue.
3. Please avoid conversations that don’t do anything.
In real life, people chat aimlessly. “How was your weekend?” That’s fine… in real life. In fiction, dialogue should always be goal-driven. Aimless conversations are boring. What do your conversants want to accomplish? For example, if one character is trying to uncover some embarrassing secret that the other character is trying to hide, that will give your dialogue focus and a reason for us to care. The best conversational objectives are concrete and pose one character against another.
Authors sometimes feel that they need dialogue to develop a character. That may be true, but developing the characters is your objective, not theirs. Give the characters a reason of their own to engage in the conversation and that will help flesh out the dialogue as a dramatic conflict, rather than a freestyle psychiatric session.
4. Don’t mislead your readers.
Generally, it is wise to avoid conversations where characters offer dishonest, incorrect or otherwise unreliable information. Unless you have set your readers up for intrigue, conflicting data will probably cause them to feel confused rather than intrigued.
If you must include dishonesty, please make it immediately clear that the character may be (or is) lying and why he has a motive to do so. Mystery writers have more leeway here.
5. Conversations with more than three characters are hard to follow.
Each additional character makes it much harder to understand who’s saying what and who’s trying to accomplish what. The most enjoyable conversations are almost always two-sided.
Having too many parties is especially problematic when some speakers play the same role. For example, if two parents are scolding their son for smoking, they’re probably interchangeable. If you see duplicate characters like this in your own writing, you should eliminate as many as possible. On the other hand, you may find it profitable to embrace the presence of many characters by fully differentiating them, their goals and their mindsets. For example, maybe the mother thinks her son’s smoking habit is really dangerous and wants to punish him, but the father smoked in school and doesn’t think it’s very serious. The son wants to play his father against his mother to escape punishment. This conversation provides an interesting role for all three participants. If the two parents had played the same role (both wanting to punish the kid, for example), including both probably wouldn’t make sense.
6. Conversations that gain or lose tension too quickly are typically less effective.
I’ve seen pieces horrifically close to this: “Honey, I asked you twice this morning to take out the garbage.” “I hate you.” “I want a divorce.” Scale your tension!
For example, if you wanted a conversation to end in a divorce, try this. The wife reminds him to take out the trash and he counters that she hasn’t done her housework in a week. She snaps back. He raises his voice and she runs off muttering. They glower at each other for the rest of the day. They fight again that evening. Over time, a divorce will become increasingly plausible for this family.
7. Don’t have your narrator overanalyze the conversation (“I had him right where I wanted him”)
First-person narrators sometimes feel the need to explain each verbal thrust as they’re jousting with someone. (“I remembered that he had claimed to be out of Miami when the crime was committed. I only had to get him to admit that he was at the Dolphins game and he was sunk.”) Don’t tell us why each move he’s making is so brilliant. If your speaker is genuinely crafty, that should be obvious.
Perhaps your readers won’t immediately appreciate why his strategy is crafty. If we won’t remember why it’s so important to place the suspect in Miami during the game, for example, then your character can explain his strategy to an ally beforehand. That’s a much better approach than trying to describe it to the reader as he’s trying to carry it out. It’s easier to appreciate the strategy if we understand what the plan is beforehand rather than just getting a piecemeal take on his next move.
Each conversation should include a scene and body language. Where are your speakers conversing? Try to show them interacting with their scenery. At the very least, remind us where they are. If two characters are talking in a rowdy sports bar, for example, the ambiance will be very different than in a corporate boardroom.
Characters should also be mindful of who they are speaking to. For example, the President will speak very differently at a campaign rally (to his supporters) than at a diplomatic summit (to other world leaders). Closer to home, you probably speak differently with your boss than with your peers or subordinates.
9. Don’t let your characters repeatedly refer to each other by name.
Do your conversations sound like this? “I love you, John.” “I love you too, Martha.” “I know, John.” It’s smoother and more natural to identify the speaker of each line by using tags like “he said” or “Martha said.”