What characters say can be just as important as what they do. I know we say that actions speak louder than words, but you’d be amazed how much dialogue can do for your story when it’s done well.
Probably many of us think we fall somewhere in the middle of the dialogue spectrum—not terrible, but not great either. A lot of writers struggle with dialogue because they don’t know how to make their characters sound different from each other, or they’re not sure how to pace the dialogue between characters to make it sing on the page.
So, what are some tactics you can use to turn good dialogue into great dialogue? Here are a few thoughts.
1. Listen to others talk.
One of the best ways to study dialogue is to listen to people talk. How do people communicate differently through tone, inflection, or accent? What do people say both directly and indirectly in their conversations? How do their worldviews and personalities come through in their speech?
But there is one catch. You can’t take real life conversations and plop them into your book. Yes, you can listen to and study the way people talk, but real-life only sounds stilted in fiction. For example, how we greet people and start conversations is incredibly boring when translated to the page.
“Hi, how are you?”
“I’m good, how are you?”
“Good. How’s the family?”
“Good. And yours?”
And on and on it goes. There’s nothing snappy or distinctive here. You might mix some action or description in, or skip the pleasantries entirely and get to the meat of why these characters are talking. In real life, we ramble and repeat ourselves without really noticing. In fiction, that won’t hold the attention of a reader.
2. Establish relationships and dynamics.
Your characters all have unique relationships with one another. They may be siblings, lovers, enemies, or friends. How will two friends communicate vs. two lovers? When you understand the relationships between your characters, you can develop a dynamic in their dialogue.
The dynamic is how the characters react and play off each other when together. For instance, siblings may call each other names or bring up things from the past. Two lovers may tease each other, whereas enemies will threaten each other. You can have so much fun in your dialogue, especially when the relationship between characters is complicated. This means their dialogue will be rife with tension and emotion. This is what readers want to read and what keeps them invested in both the story and the characters.
3. Be honest.
You’ve probably heard the advice to stay true to your characters no matter what. And you should, especially when it comes to dialogue. If your villain is the type of guy who swears, then let him do that. It will sound fake if you hold back, but I’ve certainly seen plenty of authors get creative with swear words.
Remember that your characters are not you. Just because your character does or says something, doesn’t mean you would say or do that thing in real life. You’ve created a unique person with his own backstory, experiences, and outlook on life. He may be terrible or the most honorable person ever. Stay true to him. Be honest about who he is, even if it scares you a little. Writers tell the truth about people and the world even when it’s hard and uncomfortable.
The goal is to have the reader hear the words in the character’s voice, not yours.
Spend some time in conversation with your characters and learn more about how they relate and communicate with others. You may be surprised at what they have to tell you when you loosen your “authorly” control.
What other methods have you applied to your own writing to help improve dialogue? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
Megan Burkhart (writing under the pen name Megan Lynne) is an award-winning writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her recent awards include the 1st place Tar Heel Award for her speculative fiction novel and an honorable mention in the 87th Annual Writer’s Digest Competition in the inspirational category. Megan is also a junior agent with Cyle Young Literary Elite and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing. Find out more about her at meganlynneauthor.weebly.com