How to Write Dialogue
It’s a shame when I read good stories that have bad dialogue. In my experience as an editor, I find myself rejecting otherwise great pieces that are let down by dialogue that just doesn’t seem to gel together. I’m even guilty of it myself and when I’m revising my own pieces for publication, the dialogue is something that gets rewritten at least two, maybe three times. To me, dialogue is incredibly important because, aside from the narration, it’s the main means of driving a story onwards and showcasing characterisation. Dialogue really is half of the story and, unless you’re writing an experimental piece that doesn’t use dialogue (if you are, please send it to me – I really want to read it) you really need to make sure it’s done well if you want to engage your reader. You’ll often hear about how the best stories have memorable characters and expressive, realistic dialogue. There’s no question that you need to get it right to succeed, but what I’ve noticed is that a lot of writers don’t actually understand the purpose that dialogue serves in a story (yes, it actually has one, and it isn’t meant to be there just to represent characters talking to each other), and that’s why they’re getting it wrong. There’s a specific trick, I’ve found, to writing dialogue. Do you want to know what it is? Listen up:
Dialogue and conversation are not the same thing.
When someone says that good dialogue flows realistically and sounds believable, they’re actually commenting on the fact that the dialogue isn’t at all like a real life conversation. You see, for many people, reading is about escapism – real life is different to what we’re reading about in a good book, and we read so that we can experience something different. As writers, we cater to this by telling our readers a story that’s suitably more exciting than their everyday lives. We skip over the mundane, boring bits (which is why we never hear of James Bond washing up after dinner or Harry Potter having a morning shave) and focus mainly on the action. We intrinsically know, as writers who make up fake realities and characters, that what we’re portraying isn’t exactly real life. Rather, it’s just a diluted representation of real life, heavily edited and censored to make it interesting, with only select elements of the real thing included to make it more believable. What you may not know is that this philosophy is also key to writing good dialogue – in a narrative, dialogue exists to drive the story onward, to showcase the personalities of the characters and to provide characterisation. It serves a specific purpose, which isn’t true of most conversations you have in real life.
Go out and listen to a conversation (or, if you’re lucky enough to have friends and you’re not a lonely hermit like me, go out and have one) and pay attention to how it plays out. For one, you’ll notice that the participants stutter and falter a lot, and lose track of their chain of thought. There are a lot of “umms”, “ahs”, yawning, repetition and digressing completely off topic. That;s due to the fact that when we’re in a conversation, we make up what we say on the spot, and that we often have trouble articulating ourselves, and we can even get distracted and move on to talking about other things. This isn’t the same as dialogue, and it doesn’t serve the same purpose as dialogue. Much like the rest of our writing, dialogue is simply a heavily doctored representation of the real thing. Unlike real conversation, dialogue is carefully thought out and written to convey a specific meaning. It’s tweaked and adjusted so that it provides the reader with a specific type of information – it has a point and exists to convey its point. Good dialogue is actually just a very keen trick that we’re playing on our audience: we’re stripping out the boring, unnecessary stuff and only giving them the meaningful part.
Don’t approach dialogue as if you’re writing a conversation. It’s not a conversation, it’s part of a story. Approach it how you’d approach writing any other passage of narration. What is the specific information you wish to convey? What are the best words to convey this information? Does it sound like something your character would say? Forget writing a good conversation and get yourself into the mindset of telling a good story.