All month long, we’re talking about characters and how to make them as realistic and lifelike as possible, through their mannerisms, conversation, and behaviors. Click Here to see where it all started!
Today is my favorite topic, because I’ve always loved to write it.
You’d think it would be easy, and yet dialogue is one of those things that’s incredibly tricky to master. If you don’t get it right, it can make your book clunky and your characters unbelievable. It can be the thing that makes your book into a masterpiece, or the thing that prevents it from getting there. So you’d better know how to do it, and you’d better do it right.
Here’s the thing:
People talk a lot. Your characters should, too. But did you know that it doesn’t all have to be in properly formatted dialogue? You can have a ton of dialogue in your story without ever having any actual dialogue at all.
This is especially true if you’re writing in first person. Your characters can zone out while someone else is talking, or you can take a short paragraph to say what someone said while interjecting thoughts into the mix. Oh yeah, and all this can be done without having anything in quotation marks.
Check this out:
We talked for hours and hours about the pros and cons of packing up and moving away. He thought it was better if we went, better for the kids, better for our family, better for our peace of mind—but that was a load of baloney. He wanted to move for him, and I knew it. I made sure he knew it, too. I tried to listen to his arguments, he tried to listen to mine, but we never could reach a decision that way. We’d been good at it when we were younger. What happened to us? I didn’t know. So I listened, I rebutted, and I stood my ground. I did what I always did, what I knew how to do. So did he. By the time I looked up at the clock, it was three in the morning. How had we been talking so long? It wouldn’t be over soon.
There's no dialogue there, and yet you get a sense of what’s being talked about and begin to understand the mind of the character whose thoughts you read. That’s the beauty of writing. We don’t have to always say things aloud.
But that’s not the only way to better your dialogue. Obviously, at some point, the dialogue is actually going to have to be in quotation marks. People will have to actually say something. There will be a conversation relayed via text.
In this case, you need to make sure your characters are talking like real people. Use contractions, for goodness’ sake. I can’t tell you how many writers think this is bad form, because of what they learned in school. Well, this is fiction you're writing, not a term paper. Throw the rules out the window. Use fragments. Write run-ons. Do things your teachers told you not to do, and do them more in dialogue.
But above all, no matter what, if you’re writing traditionally formatted dialogue, please, read it aloud. Do this while you’re editing. Read the conversation aloud, and make note of where it sounds stupid—because trust me, we all write some stupid dialogue from time to time. Reading it aloud will help you fix that.
If your people aren’t talking, then something’s definitely wrong. So when they are, take your time with it. Refine it. Hone it. And don’t forget what you’ve studied during people watching, to determine how to make your dialogue as realistic as possible.
Please, for all that is good in the world, don’t have a character monologue. Unless they’re giving a speech, no one does that and it just gets uncomfortable for your reader.
And your editor.
Associate Editor, Etc.