Dialogue is extremely difficult to write well. It’s probably one of the first skills authors pick up, but it takes years to refine and develop in a way that doesn’t leave every character sounding the exact same.
In reality, dialogue is a coming-together of several different elements. There’s diction and voice for each character, dialogue tags to denote who’s speaking, action tags to explain what’s going on while they talk, and sometimes internal thoughts running parallel to the dialogue itself.
One of the first aspects to figure out in refining individuals’ voice is whether there’s an overall theme running through the novel. Think of the movie Fargo, in which the accent was so iconic that just about everyone who’s seen the movie will lapse into the accent to repeat one of the lines. If your novel has a culture or group with different speech patterns, you’ll want this to be consistent throughout the novel. This should be considered a part of world-building; you should have it figured out before you even start writing.
On top of the group voice, each unique character should get a voice that matches their personality. A terse character should speak in short, clipped sentences, while a scholar might exhibit fewer traits of the group voice and speak in long, flowing sentences. Structure and style in dialogue provide just as much characterization as action, and in many cases a few sentences can be enough to make a character memorable for the rest of the book. One trick that you can try is to give someone a ‘crutch word’ that they use more than any other, perhaps to the point where readers begin to associate it with that character. Little things like crutch words help to humanize and distinguish a character, like Jesse in Breaking Bad.
Dialogue tags are best used sparingly and simply. While it’s true that you should avoid ‘he said… she said’ every line, you can’t solve the problem by breaking out a thesaurus. I swear, reading that someone ‘pronounced’ a line makes me laugh unless it’s a mortician pronouncing someone as dead. What you should do is stick with ‘said’ unless there’s a very (double underline, bold, heavy font VERY) good reason to use something else, and then rely on your reader to remember who was talking to whom. For the most part, readers are good at keeping track of who’s talking, especially if you’ve done a good job on distinguishing characters through their voice.
Note: A big limitation to this is conversations involving more than two people. Conversations with three people or more are best handled by breaking them down into smaller parts, with two people talking for several lines and then someone joining in to add a comment or two. A well-written conversation with several people is sort of like the triple axel of dialogue; difficult to execute, but fantastic if you can do it.
Action tags are about more than just telling the reader that the two conversation participants are walking, or that they stopped by the drinking fountain. They’re also a subtler way to indicate who spoke, as there’s an unwritten rule that the speak of a line will also be the subject of any narration on that same line. Consider this:
“He jumped off the bridge, I guess.” Jeremy sighed heavily.
As opposed to this:
“He jumped off a bridge, I guess.”
Jeremy sighed heavily.
In the first example, it’s clear that Jeremy was the one speaking. In the second example, he was reacting to something another person said. Line breaks are very important when it comes to action tags; utilizing them properly can help you avoid that ‘he said… she said’ problem I mentioned before.
The final dialogue element I wanted to talk about is internal thinking. My advice when it comes to this is relatively simple: the narrator’s thought process should enhance and serve the dialogue rather than interrupting it. The last thing you want to do is pause the conversation for several lines while giving a detailed description of the narrator arriving at their eventual response (unless you’re making a point based on that). Where you can, eliminate any thoughts that don’t directly serve the dialogue or highlight some internal struggle within the narrator that the reader wouldn’t know about otherwise.
As I said at the start, dialogue is a simple skill to pick up but a hard one to master. So many different elements go into well-crafted dialogue, and you should be aware of them in order to use them to their best effect. In many ways, the best dialogue is that which interrupts conversation the least, providing action, thoughts, or tags only where completely necessary.
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