***I’ll begin with a disclaimer. I know this will shock you (NOT LOL). I am not a professionally trained writer. I don’t have a degree of any sort. And I don’t have any books on any ‘Best Seller’ lists. But I have read about a million books (only a slight exaggeration) and I’ve been writing and learning the craft for many, many years.***
Conversations. We have them every day (unless you’re an introvert, then you might strive to go as long as possible without having any at all lol). And, though some conversations may be strained and awkward, most flow freely and are full of speech short cuts, run-on sentences, partial sentences, mis-used words, etc. etc. . . . You get the idea. Conversations do not typically follow the rules of proper language.
Well, those same ‘non-rules’ apply to writing conversations – or the fancy writer term – dialogue. I read A LOT, like really A LOT, and I frequently volunteer to read other writer’s work to give them feed back and constructive criticism. In all that reading, I’ve come across wonderfully written and engaging dialogue. The kinds of written conversations that make you feel like you’re right there listening in like the proverbial fly on the wall. But, I’ve also read some dialogue that was physically painful. So strained were they that I felt bad for the characters for having to say what the author was making them say.
I don’t claim to be an expert on any phase of the writing process. But as I stated before I’ve written A LOT and I’ve read – A LOT lol And comfortable, realistic conversations between characters is a MUST for a reader to be able to fully immerse themselves in the story. My books tend to have what might border on too much dialogue, but I love writing it and I’ve gotten more than one compliment on my execution of delightful character conversation.
The proper use of dialogue is powerful. You can create tension, show excitement, fear, and anger all by using the right words when your characters are talking. Dialogue is the perfect means of bringing out your characters personalities. My characters spend a lot of time talking, arguing, and whining to me in my head and it’s my job to bring that to the page. To me, that is a ton of fun.
So with all that being said, here’s my two-cents worth on what it takes to make believable and engaging dialogue:
- First and foremost – don’t have your characters say things you wouldn’t say. Now I know there are going to be characters who are different than you whether it be background, ethnicity, or any number of other factors. Hold on, I’m not making my point very well here. What I’m trying to say is to read your dialogue and make yourself REALLY think about whether you’d actually hear someone say what you’ve written. I’ve read some dialogue that made me think ‘Oh my God, do you hear what you’ve written??? Come on, that literally hurts my brain.’ (Yes, I’ve actually thought that lol)
- Immerse yourself in your characters lives – For me the process of writing dialogue isn’t really a process. When my characters are talking to each other (sometimes they talk waaaay too much and I have to gently – or not so gently – nudge them back on track.) Like I need to do to myself now lol. As I was saying, when my characters are talking, one of two things happen to me, either I fall into the role of one of them (typically the MC) or I observe them like I’m there in the room with them (when the conversation doesn’t include the MC.) When you allow yourself to become part of the story, it’s much easier to write believable conversations.
- Don’t be too formal – This is a biggie! One the most common and most cringe-worthy type of dialogue I’ve come across is inappropriately formal conversation. Now I know sometimes formal dialogue is as necessary in writing as it is in life. For example, you wouldn’t say “Hey Dude, how’s it hangin’?”, to a judge (unless you’re aching to experience a jail cell). Hopefully it would be more along the lines of “Good morning Judge Crenshaw, I hope you’re having a pleasant morning.” There are historical time periods that might require a more formal tone which is what you’d need to do if you want the reader to feel like they’re there – but that’s a whole other blog post we won’t go into today. But overall, don’t use formal when informal is what’s needed. Use contractions! Can’t, don’t, won’t, I’m, etc. – you get the point. Cannot, do not, will not, I am, etc all create a more formal dialogue.
- Don’t be afraid to use slang or dialects (just don’t fall into the cliche trap) – This topic is an expansion of the previous one. If you want your reader to relate to your characters, you have to make them people they like and want to know; people they can relate to. (Unless you don’t, but we’ll touch on that later). If your characters live in the south, let that southern drawl shine. Through dialogue you can show not only ethnicity, region, age, education level, confidence , shyness, etc, you can also show emotions and state of mind. Just be careful not to stereotype people. You have to be very, very careful not to offend your readers by using out-dated and cliched speech patterns and dialects.
- Run on sentences and partial sentences – Two things that are usually complete and “absolute”* (*FYI – I do NOT believe there are any truly absolute rules in writing) no no’s. But to me both types of sentences are A-Okay in dialogue. Think about it. When you’re excited, you might run two or three or ten sentences all together in your rush to convey what’s happening – the same would hold true if you were terribly frightened. Or, if you’re uncertain, angry, reluctant, scared, etc you might use a fragment or even a single word.
This topic is more intense than I thought and I’ve decided to break it into multiple parts. Keep checking back for part two. I hope this article helps you when you delve into dialogue. Just remember – HAVE FUN. You’re creating a whole world and people as well as a venue for your reader to escape the realities of life 🙂
Love and blessings – Rylee