In writing, as in any aspect of life, it pays to know your strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses are the things you need to work on, strive for, aim to improve. Knowing a pitfall is there is the best way to avoid it. Equally, knowing your strengths helps you decide which direction to take with a story and where to put your primary focus. Your strengths give you confidence. Judging your own strengths is tricky and probably shouldn’t be done without the aid of unbiased third parties. But when you enjoy an aspect of writing, find it comes more naturally than other areas, and have fellow writers complimenting you on that aspect, you can tick it off as a strength.
For me, one such aspect is dialogue. I enjoy writing dialogue. I find it flows smoothly, especially once I know my characters well. I write faster when I’m writing dialogue, because I often find I don’t really have to think about it. Once I’m seeing that character interaction, their words and gestures are just there. But I know a lot of writers struggle with dialogue, or even hate it. Several people have told me it’s the thing they find toughest to get right. So I thought I’d have a go at pinpointing my dialogue technique to see if it makes sense to anyone struggling to get those conversations right.
Firstly, it’s about getting inside your viewpoint character’s head and feeling whatever it is they’re about to discuss. You have to know what the conversation will be about, but as in real-life conversations, you can’t know exactly what will be said until you’re saying it. So get a rough idea of where the conversation will go, but don’t stick to anything too rigidly. I often vividly imagine conversations between my characters – I really see and experience them, make a mental note of any crucial points that are made, and then write the conversation down later on. What’s written won’t ever be exactly what I initially imagine, but it shows me where the conversation needs to go and what needs to be said. It also gives me vital insight into the characters’ emotions during their conversation.
Then, when it comes to writing, you just talk. Let your characters voice the words they’d actually say. Feel what they’re feeling and have their conversation develop naturally. Dialogue is one area where sentence structure and precise grammar can lapse a little. We don’t talk in precise, perfectly structured sentences. We interrupt each other. We trail off. We stumble on words. We stop mid-sentence when something new occurs to us. This is how dialogue sounds, so it’s how it should be written.
And of course, a conversation isn’t just about verbal communication. It’s about body language too. Gestures, sighs, pauses, facial expressions. In order to make your dialogue really work, you have to incorporate those elements. Again, really see your characters as they’re talking, and you’ll visualise these gestures without having to think about them. Sometimes you can even use a gesture in place of a dialogue tag.
“I don’t know,” Jason said.
“I don’t know.” Jason shrugged.
(Note the difference in punctuation. In the second example, ‘Jason shrugged’ is a separate sentence.) To me, the second example is immediately more visual because of that gesture. It comes alive. You can see Jason as well as hearing him. And I think maybe that’s the key to good, readable dialogue. You have to be able to see the conversation as well as just hearing it.
So… my main points for workable dialogue:
1. Feel your characters’ emotions and let their words have the casual, imprecise ring of genuine verbal communication.
2. Make sure your reader always knows who’s talking. Use dialogue tags when necessary, but don’t overdo them.
3. Use body language to bring the conversation alive. Again, don’t overdo it, but if someone’s angry, show us through their facial expression. If someone’s nervous, have them fidget. If someone’s relaxed, let’s see that as they’re talking. Dialogue that consists of pure conversation with nothing in between is often flat and dull on the page.
4. Punctuate properly. Use a new paragraph each time the conversation shifts between characters.
5. Most importantly, have fun with it! Relax into the chat like you would with a good friend. Don’t overthink it.
I’ve probably left some things out, but those are what work for me. Love dialogue too? Go ahead and share your own tips!