In my humble opinion, dialogue can make a story. It can also smash it to smithereens. Even if all the other elements (plot, internal conflict, external conflict, characterization, etc.) are perfectly aligned, stilted and unnatural dialogue is the fastest way to undermine all that hard work. In an effort to prevent that, here are a few of my tips for writing realistic and relevant dialogue.
We'll start with a snippet from No Sweeter Love, my debut release from Ellora's Cave.
Former lovers, Emily and Ryan have just seen each other again after ten years.
This is what I could've written.
“Stop staring at me like that,” Emily shouted.
“Like you hate me and love me. I don't like it.”
He was making her really nervous and she was still so mad at him because he'd left her years ago.
“You're still argumentative, aren't you,” Ryan noted.
Instead, we have this.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she said.
His frown morphed into a tight smile, revealing killer dimples. “Like what?”
“Like I just spit in your cereal and like you want to eat me with a spoon. It’s weird.”
Her mind was whirling with a decade’s worth of images and feelings. Just seeing him again had rattled loose a million questions, a million old hurts and longings.
He laughed. “Still not afraid of anything, huh, Em?”
• Dialogue tags. He said. She said. Those are my favorites, and I use them sparingly. Don't try to get fancy: ejaculated, screamed, gritted, growled, hissed... There's a long list of potential dialogue tags. Do you really need them? Unattributed dialogue only becomes a problem if you’re writing long passages between your main characters or there are three or more characters on the page. If your characters are talking, then they should also be doing. What do they see? What do they feel? If you do have multiple characters on a page, then you’ll have to use names instead of pronouns, otherwise you'll confuse your readers. (There’s always an exception to the rule, right?)
• Remember that dialogue is actually spoken, meaning it’s a sound. A person can’t smile or run a noise. Strong dialogue should evoke the emotion you need to convey so any use of a descriptive dialogue tag would just be redundant.
• Dialect and accents. I once described my writing style as Sex and the City meets Dukes of Hazzard. I like writing smart and sassy southern women who might say y’all, darlin’ and sugar—but not in every sentence. With dialect and accents, a little goes a long way. Overuse will a) jar your reader from the story and b) sound silly.
“Y'all wanna go down t' crick and dip y'all's toes inna water. I reckon it ain't cold.”
Huh? I'm not even sure what that sentence says and I wrote it.
• Remember dialogue is interactive. Your characters are talking to each other, not at or over each other. Make them engage with each other, and you'll engage your readers. This is where their chemistry will shine. If one asks a question, then the other should respond in some way. If one is flirting, then the other can either be shying away or playing the game. Dialogue is the perfect way to showcase conflict and characterization. Which brings me to…
• Keep in character. If your heroine is a sixteen-year-old vampire slayer, then chances are she’s not going to be discussing the presidential election. If your hero is king of a faraway land, then chances are he’s not going to be using the word “ain’t.”
• Dialogue is not filler. You’ve lost your way. Your middle is sagging a bit. “I know,” you say. “My hero and heroine can have a disagreement.” You proceed to write four pages of dialogue where your characters argue about the weather. Is this action? Well...technically, yes. Is it conflict? Well...literally, yes. Is this integral to your plot or central to your story? No. Cut it.
• As you know…no! A brief stroll down memory lane is okay. Making your characters outline and discuss in detail some incident from the past that they both know already, just so you can share the information with your readers, is a sneaky and boring way to dump backstory. Don't do it.
In closing, here are a couple of my favorite exercises for writing dialogue.
• Eavesdrop. Don’t worry. No one has to know. Do you enjoy writing at a local coffee shop or other public place? If so, take five or ten minutes to actively listen-in to what the man and woman or the kids at the next table are saying. They’re not going to know that you’re transcribing their conversation. Let your fingers fly. Don’t worry about punctuation or anything like that. Just get down the gist of their conversation as best as you can. Too shy to try that. Record and watch your favorite television show. Take notes. Once you've completed the above tasks, analyze the dialogue. Do you notice speech patterns specific to males or females? Do they have accents? Can you tell their ages, professions, or socio-economic status just by their word choices?
• Read aloud. This is literally the easiest way to hear any oddities.
Example: My nine-year-old daughter wants to go out for yogurt.
“Father, I do not want to go to the ice cream shop. I would rather have yogurt.”
Read that aloud. Yikes. She's a scary, little robot child.
“I don’t want ice cream. Let’s go get yogurt.”
Ahh. There's my kiddo.
Note: Most people use contractions when they’re speaking. Also, if they’re having a one-on-one conversation with someone, chances are they won’t address the person by name, at least not frequently.
• Examine your own conversations. How often do you and your significant other talk about, let's say, the brand of cat food you're going to buy, your child's report card or fuel prices. I bet you discuss the mundane more than you'd care to admit. It's important to reiterate: we're writing romance. We're telling a love story and, fingers crossed, it's filled to brimming with emotion, conflict, sexual tension and passion, culminating with the happiest of endings. But we only have so many words to tell that story. Therefore, your characters' dialogue must mean something and serve a purpose. Keep in mind, at all times, your goal is to move the story forward.
So, can you share some of your favorite tips for writing dialogue? As a reader, how important is dialogue to you? I'm looking forward to reading your responses and suggestions. Thanks so much for visiting.