Dialogue is one area in which many new writers seem to struggle.
I'm not sure why.
I think it has to do with the faulty notion that literary fiction has to be formal, which can lead to your characters having very unnatural speech patterns.
It surprises me, too, whenever I see dialogue without liberal use of contractions - as if people say 'I am going to leave this place. I bid you farewell,' as opposed to, 'I'm off. See ya.'
Convincing dialogue is about having your characters sound 'natural'. Studying dialogue in movies and TV can go a long way in helping you define what is regarded as 'natural sounding.'
Unfortunately, listening to real people talk is not going to help you.
In real life, people speak aimlessly without particular regard to sentence structure, punctuation, or even sense sometimes.
If you've ever tried to transcribe taped conversations you'll know this to be true.
People speak with lots of pauses, fractured phrases, a liberal dowsing of um and er and slang.
They use their facial expressions to denote meaning and when they're sure the other person understands them, will leave things unsaid and move on.
This is not a great technique to copy when you're writing fictional dialogue.
Reading your dialogue aloud can help.
Even better, getting someone else to read your words aloud will help you notice what sounds right.
If your reader stumbles or doesn't seem to get the sense you mean, you will have to revisit your dialogue.
But what is natural sounding?
One word: simplicity.
People don't usually speak in long compound sentences where the active propositions are very far from the front of their minds.
For instance, this is unnatural:
"I heard from a good friend of yours, Leslie, that you were considering a vacation. Is there a particular place you had in mind?'
It's more likely this person would say:
"Leslie said you're thinking about a holiday. Where are you going?"
Similarly, the other person wouldn't answer:
"I gave much thought to this issue and decided that, on balance, my preferred destination might be Bognor."
The most likely response would be:
Pare down your dialogue to the minimum - giving the most appropriate response up front. People generally speak without thinking first.
Talking is automatic.
This is the kind of dialogue you should aspire to - characters speaking spontaneously, with no time for reflection.
Here are four pet 'don'ts':
1. Don't let characters state the obvious - in real life, people (except mothers) rarely do this, as in, "It's raining," when everyone's outside getting soaked!
2. Don't use characters to tell the reader about the plot - or convey expositional info.
People don't do this in real life either - especially when your characters know all the details. of their own story.
3. Don't have a character ask two questions in a row - and then the respondent answer them in order. Nobody sane does this.
4. Don't try to write accents in dialogue.
While this practice used to be a favorite trick of bygone literary authors, it's nowadays regarded as affected. Plus it's almost impossible to read comfortably.
It's often said that you shouldn't write dialogue that doesn't move the action along.
However I've seen this 'rule' broken so many times that I no longer believe it!
While it's true you don't want to have lots of character interactions that don't go anywhere, to me there's nothing wrong with people discussing the weather, their health, offering tea and biscuits, and saying supposedly 'forbidden' words like 'hello', 'okay', 'all right', 'goodbye' and 'thankyou'.
It's more natural for a start.
The issue of dialogue is important.
Many modern novels are at least 30% dialogue - sometimes up to 70%.
So, while you want to keep your dialogue minimalist to be the most effective, remember that the key to compelling dialogue is conflict.
Having characters agreeing with each other is dull.
If you want a quick takeaway, the 'rule' is simple:
Use dialogue for character development and to add color, yes, but mostly, have your characters arguing and/or debating their emotions, actions, points of view and their agendas.
Because that's what will keep your readers reading.
© Rob Parnell
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