One of the main things I’m trying to do is perfect my dialogue, as a newbie writer it’s definitely not my strongest suit. However, it is one of the most important things to get right when writing a novel, readers (including me) absolutely love snappy and well-written dialogue. Whether it’s witty banter, or emotive declarations, dialogue is key to keeping your readers’ interest.
I can’t give you the secret to perfecting your novel’s dialogue, sadly (because I don’t have it -maybe there isn’t one!), but I can share the potential pitfalls and advice that I have come across in my research.
Let’s talk dialogue.
Before we get down to the bare bones of conversation itself, let’s take a little look at dialogue tags. I mentioned this in my post Editing your Novel, so feel free to keep scrolling if you’ve just read that. Still here? Let’s proceed.
Dialogue tags are the bits that tell you who is speaking, e.g. ‘said Steven’, or ‘shouted Denise’. There are three schools of thought that I have come across on this subject, and they are the following:
Said is best – many authors believe that ‘said’ is the most innocuous and least likely to disrupt the reader as they don’t even notice the tag when reading.
Said is boring – some authors think that using said for the majority of interactions is repetitive and dull.
Dialogue tags are bad – these authors prefer to use action to demonstrate who is speaking, avoiding dialogue tags altogether.
I’ll be honest with you, when I was writing my first draft I fell into category one. I used ‘said’ 90% of the time, and a handful of alternatives like ‘asked’ (the second least obtrusive dialogue tag, apparently) the rest of the time. If you’re writing your first draft and have read many writing blogs you’ll know that most of the advice says to just get your story down on paper, don’t worry about making it pretty or coherent, just write it. So, that’s what I did. It wasn’t until I finished the first draft and was about to start the second that I read more articles on editing and found that, actually, I prefer category three.
So, now a major part of my rewriting is removing dialogue tags and making sure that the surrounding action tells the reader who is speaking. It’s making for a much cleaner, more stream-lined story, and I’m all for that.
This is one of the things I know I really need to work on – giving my characters distinct voices so that readers can tell them apart and they don’t all just sound like me. How do you do this? I have no idea. OK, I have a couple of ideas, but they may or may not wor for you.
Accents & Dialects
First of all, from what I’ve read it’s almost always a bad idea to suggest an accent by misspelling words or otherwise making their dialogue stand out from the other characters’. You’re much better off just telling the reader at the beginning ‘she spoke with a strong Cockney accent’, or ‘he was French, if his accent was anything to go by’.
I think there are certain places where writing in dialects can work, but you are running the risk of offending readers if it’s not done sensitively.
If you read Wuthering Heights at school like I did, you’ll recognise this from Joseph the servant’s dialogue. He’s a broad Yorkshire gent and most of his dialogue is completely unintelligible (even I couldn’t understand half of what he said and I’m from Yorkshire!). Now, I don’t think any Yorkshiremen were upset by Emily Bronte’s representation, and I wonder if that’s because the Brontes were from Yorkshire themselves, although I don’t believe they spoke in a dialect like Joseph’s. My point is, use this technique sparingly and do your research!
A good way to emphasise someone’s background in their dialogue might be to use slang terms and phrases that are common in that region. I’ve tried to incorporate the odd local turn of phrase into Aria’s speech, as she’s supposed to be from near to where I live in the Midlands, but too many cliches and well-known sayings can annoy readers. Plus, she’s a teenager, which has its own lingo, separate from any regional dialect.
Personality-wise, my characters all vary pretty strongly, and that can be tricky to convey through dialogue. Aria is quite hot-headed, reckless and stubborn, so she can be a bit sarcastic and snappy at times, but she’s ultimately loyal and big-hearted. The things she says and the way she says them tends to have a lot of emotion behind it – teenagers tend to feel things very keenly, so I’ve tried to demonstrate that.
As for the Fair, they’re a remnant from a previous time so they speak in a more formal tone and register than Aria. I’m trying to show this by using more traditional words and removing contractions, so instead of “don’t”, I’m using “do not”, etc. It’s not quite as simple as that, but that’s the crux of it.
As individuals, Xander is a more reserved, cool person so he speaks relatively little and his interactions show (in theory) that he is standoffish. Rainer is the mentor and he’s taken on an almost fatherly role to the rest of the group, so he’s quite warm but in a way that reveals his position as a respected elder. He is encouraging rather than critical and openly cares, even if sometimes it’s tough love. Kiefer and Coulter are both cheeky, funny guys who love a bit of banter, but they’re two sides of the same coin. Kiefer is rebellious and willing to take a stand when he believes something isn’t right, whereas Coulter is much more obedient and respectful, to the point where he ends up doing things he disagrees with because he’s been commanded to by his superiors. Then we have the twins, Aro and Quade. Aro is a lover not a fighter, he gets dragged along by his older brothers, but is not really interested in going on missions or battling enemies. Quade on the other hand wants to be taken seriously by his brothers, but he is highly-strung and immature so he always ends up the butt of the joke.
The key to portraying your characters’ personalities through their dialogue is to know them inside out, so fingers crossed I’ve managed to convey all of that in the book!
Finally, dialogue needs to have purpose. It needs to advance your plot, add to your story’s conflict or expose something about your characters. Preferably all three!
When you speak to your friends or listen to a stranger’s conversation in a coffee shop, you’ll notice that there are a lot of pauses, filler words like ‘um’ and ‘er’, and random interjections. You need to cut that out when writing. You only want to include the important stuff and none of the padding, fictional conversations should present a reduced, polished version of the real thing. Have you ever noticed that when people speak on the phone on TV, they never say goodbye? They just hang up. Because goodbyes are unnecessary to the story, they’re just padding. Be sparing with your hellos and goodbyes, and any other social niceties that don’t add to your story.
Create conflict within your conversations. They don’t all have to relate directly to your main conflict, even a small one will ramp up the tension and keep your readers’ interest. Use your dialogue to show the difference between two characters’ motivations and goals. It doesn’t have to be an argument, or a direct disagreement, but opposing opinions and desires will give readers an idea of the characters’ personalities and the upcoming action – if done right.
This is something I need to work on, I struggle to make a conversation sound natural without including fluff and filler. It’s definitely one of the things I’ll be focusing on during my editing process.
And, that’s where I’m at so far! It’s not an exhaustive list of dialogue tips so hop over to Google and check out a few more articles if you’re looking to perfect your characters’ conversational skills. I can recommend 9 Rules for Writing Dialogue from Novel Writing Help.
See you next time!