Writing better dialogue starts with character development. What does their voice quality and style of speech tell your readers about the character? Now think about their educational background, favorite subject, personality type, and basic nature. How can these influence how you write that character’s dialogue?
Do any of your friends have distinctive styles of speech or use certain phases consistently? Most people have favorite expressions and they can tell a lot about the person: where they’re from, how old they are, how educated they are, what they like, etc.. In some parts of the country it’s called “pop” and in others it’s called “soda”, some people call their mother “Mom” and others call them “Momma”. A scientist might say “scat”, where a child would say “doo doo”, and somebody else “dung”. A person who idealizes a celebrity may try to imitate their speech patterns.
Do’s and Don’ts
One of the 12 Steps for Writers is to make each of your characters sound distinctive. Because a story in which all the players talk exactly alike isn’t too interesting, not to mention it can puzzle the reader as to who’s who.
Using “said” to clarify who is speaking is fine, but don’t rely on other attributes such as “shouted” or “exclaimed”. Those kinds of verbs are crutches. The dialogue should imply the way it is said. Or use an action or body language to add to the words. Examples: “Go to Hell,” he said slamming down the phone. “I can’t believe you did that,” she said, crossing her arms.
Sometimes it will be necessary to even leave off “said” because the conversation is moving so fast. In order to create dialogue that rings true the characters have to talk the way real people do, which includes interrupting each other. If you keep the characters distinct and only let one speak per paragraph, then the reader won’t become confused.
The number one mistake to avoid is “reader feeder”. This is when the conversation is designed for the sole purpose of feeding the reader information the writer wants them to know. People don’t say things like, “We adopted him from Korea so he looks different from our other kids.” Details such as this belong in narrative or in indirect dialogue, where the writer gives a summation of a conversation.
Mainly, the reason for characters to talk to each other is to provide tension in the story and move the plot along.
Think Like An Actor/Director
For an actor to bring a scene alive he must have an agenda. After all, a story consists of how a character reaches his goal and how others try to stop him. So every conversation and scene must get him closer to, or further from, what he’s after. What does the character want from the person they’re talking to? What does the other person want from them? The writer must know what is behind the dialogue on both ends.
The agenda isn’t what is spoken/written, it’s more what is not spoken/written. In acting this is called subtext. When you watch actors perform, you might think: What she actually means is…. Or, what she is really thinking is…. Remember, characters, like real people, don’t have to tell each other everything or the truth.
Flip through some novels or short stories you’ve read and find some passages of dialogue. Read through it, stopping after every line and consider the subtext behind it. Then look at dialogue you’ve written and do the same. What do each of the people talking want to achieve?