Hello and welcome to part 2 of Writing 101. This second lesson is all about dialogue. Dialogue is one of the most important elements of your writing. I always say the three main elements are dialogue, character and plot. Dialogue is what makes the story move along and bad dialogue is a major element which turns readers off. You could have all the other various elements in place but if your dialogue is not great then it is difficult to keep a reader’s attention. So without further ado, let’s discuss what makes great dialogue …
1. Natural Dialogue
Your dialogue needs to be natural. It needs to be like the voices you hear on a regular basis around you only on paper. Absorb yourself in how people speak in shops, cafes, bars, wherever. Get into a habit of doing so if you are not naturally nosy (or as many writers including myself like to say naturally curious and observant). Not all writers are introverts but I think there is a reason why most are. They observe. They listen more than they talk. So in consequence they absorb everything. Of course it goes without saying to be discreet about it. I have heard that writers have even recorded conversations they have heard to bring a naturalness to the dialogue in their work but I’ve never went that far and I wouldn’t advise anyone to either. I don’t think people would like their conversations recorded. But just take in how people speak. And when you come to writing the dialogue in your pieces, don’t feel pressured to write it in a way which you think sounds better for a reader. Write it naturally. Readers will respond and identify because it’s how they speak.
2. Every Piece Of Dialogue Doesn’t Have To Be Vital
I have heard the advice many times that every piece of dialogue has to mean something and has to be vital in bringing your story forward. While I partly agree with that advice I wouldn’t fully endorse it. Yes, most dialogue has to mean something whether it’s to bring your story forward or to give readers an idea of who your character is or how the world perceives your character. But at the same time as I said in the first point, your dialogue needs to be natural. And in natural conversations there isn’t some vital meaning behind every single piece of dialogue everyone says. So yes, use dialogue to improve the overall effect of your story but don’t sit with writer’s block trying to make every word of it mean something. Otherwise they won’t be natural, human and rounded characters and you’ll probably either get nervous to write any dialogue or produce very contrived characters that no one can identify with.
3. Add A Bit Of Comedy
Obviously there’s a time and a place in a story. But even in the most heartbreaking stories if they are long enough (a poem or short story you may not get the opportunity in) there can be snatches of witty dialogue. If you have two characters that are very close the comedy sentences they say to each other will spill out very naturally if you let them. Comedy writing or comedy moments are difficult to write. They are a lot harder than some people think. But when they happen, they are gold. Many people try to force the comedy moment and that never really works out very well. Let your characters do the work for you a bit. Think of someone with great wit. Base the witty element of the person on them if you are struggling to come up with a witty character from scratch. Then let them go, let them do their thing. Don’t be scared readers won’t get the joke. They probably will and if not, they aren’t going to base your entire story on that moment. Also high brow humour isn’t always received very well. By all means do it because it can work as beautifully as low brow humour but make it accessible. Don’t be showing off your intelligence. That isn’t received well. And one final pointer, humour is not an opportunity to be in some way prejudiced. Your readers come from all walks of life and backgrounds. The surest way to lose them is to use them as fodder for “banter.” It is never big and it is never clever. And it’s a very unwise writer that does that.
4. Be Consistent
The key to ensuring that the dialogue is consistent with who your character is is to know your characters inside out. You need to know your characters a million per cent better and more than you’ll ever put about them in your piece. You might never put in what they eat for breakfast but you need to know whether they’d have cereal, toast, a bit of everything or whatever. You need to know whether they read books. If so, what kind? You need to know their political beliefs, their religion or lack of, their hopes, their dreams, the inner yearnings of their heart. In short, you need to know pretty much everything about them. Some writers do this through notes or character profiles while others simply do it in their head. The decision of how you do this is completely up to you. It’s just what makes you comfortable. But whatever way you choose, you do need to know them very well. When you do, their dialogue flows very consistently because you know what they’d say, how they’d respond in various situations and how they feel about things.
5. Language Isn’t Everything
There is often a lot of dialogue that makes no sense. A lot of people find that it sounds “melodious to the ear” or “enticing to read” but then you read it and you have no idea what it means. And a reader has got to know what they’re reading. Otherwise they can’t identify with the character or follow the story. That isn’t to say the reader is not intelligent enough to pick it up, it’s more a case of does the writer even know what they mean? Or are they using “flowery” language to impress without it meaning anything? Dialogue needs to be clear whatever language you use. If you use “enticing” and “melodious” language, you still need to make sure everything is very clear for your readers. The most important element of dialogue, along with being natural, is creating a feeling and an emotion between reader and character. If you fail to do that, language becomes pretty meaningless no matter how “enticing” or “melodious” it is.
Key Points Summary
- Your dialogue needs to be natural.
- Absorb how people speak in everyday settings. Observe. Listen. But be discreet.
- Every Piece Of Dialogue Doesn’t Have To Be Vital. On one hand, dialogue has to mean something whether it’s to bring your story forward or to give readers an idea of who your character is or how the world perceives your character. But on the other hand, your dialogue needs to be natural. And in natural conversations there isn’t some vital meaning behind every single piece of dialogue everyone says.
- Moments in dialogue where there is comic moments should never be forced.
- If you struggle with comic dialogue, think of someone witty you know.
- Make high brow humour accessible.
- Never use comedy to attack specific groups of people. Your readers are from all backgrounds and walks of life.
- The dialogue of your characters needs to be consistent with who they are. Know your characters inside out.
- Language is never a substitute for clearness, feeling, emotion or a connection between character and reader.