10 Tips to Dynamic Dialogue

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Sure, you find yourself talking to your characters. That’s not a bad thing at all, really. In the first place, you can use your dialogue with your characters in your stories. The downside is, you have to be about a dozen different people for each novel–a lot less for shorter fiction. If anyone accuses you of being schizophrenic or having a multiple personalitydisorder, tell them you’re an author. They’ll understand.

Here’s another big downside to creating dialogue and pretending to be different characters in your book: they start sounding like you. Yup. Every single one of them. Same pauses, same expressions, same intonation, same vocabulary, same expletives.  You might get your main characters right and give them a couple of unique identities with unique dialogue, but the rest of your characters could be a whole cast of mini-yous. That could be a real complication if you want to create spin-offs or create a sequel or worse, a series. The other major complication is when your dialogue is just a conversation that doesn’t really go anywhere, pretty much like your daily conversations about what you had for breakfast/dinner/supper, how your day went, what’s on TV, what you’re reading, what’s on the news, etc. This kind of dialogue is mundane and can just drag on forever, boring you readers, and getting your story nowhere.

The big question is: How do you get great dialogue and avoid the pitfalls? Here are 10 tips to improving dialogue in your stories.
1. Model your dialogue on different people. If your character is a cop, go watch a cop and listen to him speak. If he’s a detective, he’ll speak differently from a beat cop. If your character is a doctor, observe how doctors speak. Find a doctor to listen to so your character sounds like a real doctor.
2. Consult experts to test read your dialogue. If your character is in a highly specialized field such as law, consult a lawyer to make sure your dialogue sounds like a lawyer is speaking, especially in workplace scenarios, i.e., courtroom dramas.
3. Watch a lot of good TV or movies. It’s the next best thing to finding a real live expert to follow, model your characters after, and check your writing for authenticity.
4. Drop all the expletives, especially if they’re your favorite bad words. You can convey ideas effectively with accurate, precise language without having to pepper your writing with cursing. In the first place, it’s distasteful. In the second place, it’s weak, especially if you use it all the time. In the third place, it makes for difficult reading. Finally, it’s really pointless. It doesn’t do anything except make your characters a little more colorful, but if you need to resort to expletives to liven up your writing, then you simply are not a good writer.
5. Drop the foul language. As in real life, foul language is a major turn-off. Even if you have a character with the tendency to speak foul language because they never got their mouths washed out with soap, it doesn’t mean you have to fill your story with the same language. There are milder, more socially acceptable alternatives for all expressions, no matter how crude or foul. There are also more creative words that can be just as effective. Of course there are advocates of stark realism who will insist that it is part of the character. Challenge your vocabulary and skill by learning how to suggest or imply the foul or crude language. That way, each reader can supply their favorite bad words according to their tolerance or culture levels. Furthermore, see #5.
6. Drop all the filler words such as er, hm, mm, um, uh, unless they accurately represent what the character is saying at the moment. If you happen to have a character who stammers, it’s enough to show the stammer in a single conversational line and limit it to the occasional word spoken nervously. In some cases, punctuation is effective enough–or more effective. Use ellipses, hyphens, and dashes to indicate pauses or breaks in speech, or use a dialogue tag.
7. Drop word mannerisms such as now, so, like, well, and, and whatever other word mannerisms you find appearing at the start or end of most sentences. This works not only for dialogue but for the rest of your writing as well.
8. Drop the small talk. Unless it is extremely necessary to show small talk, skip it and go straight to the meat of the matter. In the first place, it distracts the reader. In the second place, it often digresses from the important topics. In the third place, it wastes time and ruins the pace of your story.
9. Drop the pleasantries. This is also small talk. You don’t need to talk about the weather or ask how everyone else is before getting to the point. Just get straight to the point. In the same way, you can dispense with long drawn-out goodbyes unless you’re trying to make a point or that’s what the story is about or it’s an important part of the story. In most cases, it probably won’t be.
10. Limit some word use. Dedicate a few words or phrases to specific characters. This usually becomes a character’s signature phrase. However, don’t have your character saying that signature phrase all the time. You don’t need to remind your readers that’s what a particular character says all the time, all the time.

Show, not Tell, with Dialogue

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Many of my writing students avoid dialogue because they struggle with it, and rightly so. Creating convincing, concise dialogue is a challenge that compounds writing stories. What they do not realize is that dialogue helps writers show rather than tell.

Consider the effect, for instance, of writing:

She wore an attractive, brightly-colored dress.

This is you, the author via your narrator, telling your reader what she wore.

Compare that to the effect achieved by the following:

“Do you like my dress?” Darlene said as she twirled in a full circle, flouncing the skirt as she did. “I think yellow looks good on me,” she smiled.

In the first example, your writing presents the reader with adjectives for a dress, but does not provide any action. The reader will either gloss over the sentence or, if imaginative, create an image of “she” in the dress, which could be yellow, orange, red, yellow-green, or some other bright color or a mixture of colors. Neither does the reader have the vaguest idea what the dress looks like. Is it long or short? Loose or fitting? Straight or flouncy? Unless you elaborate on that sentence by adding more descriptions, there will always be a lot of room for interpretation—sometimes more than you want.

In the second example, we know who “she” is—Darlene. We know she’s wearing a dress and it has a skirt that flounces as she twirls. We know the dress is yellow. More than that, we know Darlene likes the yellow dress and is light-hearted, expressive, and in a good mood. How can we tell? Because someone in a bad mood wouldn’t care much about wearing a bright, cheerful yellow; a more serious person would not be caught twirling to show off a dress; nor would an introverted or shy girl twirl, show-off a dress, and more than that, think aloud that they looked good in anything.

While the color or style of a character’s outfit might not always be relevant, sometimes we need to include more vivid descriptions because they provide readers with a clearer picture of your story. The trick is not to weigh down your story with bulky descriptions that can be made more memorable and effective with dialogue.