Ali Luke’s guest column on “10 Easy Ways to Improve Your Dialogue” on Write To Done made me reflect on the things I’ve learned about dialogue over the years. There are easy ways for improving your dialogue, but don’t take the easy way out. Don’t write the first thing that comes to mind. That’s being lazy.
Go beyond what’s easy.
1. The best dialogue reflects what’s not being said, such as when characters hide things, are “less than truthful,” or dodge answering questions directly.
2. In every conversation, ask yourself: Who has the power? Who wants to know something? Who is withholding information—and why?
3. Make use of avoidance, such as having a character change the subject or back out when the conversation gets difficult or becomes emotionally charged.
4. Give one of the speakers a hidden agenda.
5. Use dialogue to reveal class or education.
6. What a character says should show their attitude, prejudices and fears.
7. Avoid giving children cutesy language, or use it sparingly.
8. Keep phonetic spelling with foreign accents or other dialects to a minimum. Too much is hard to read and risks getting cartoonish (see K.M. Weiland). Most of us know what a French or Scottish accent sounds like. One or two words should cue the reader. For example, for a Southerner, all you might need is a handful of ya’lls or omitted gs (“Are ya’ll leavin’ now?”).
9. Go easy on exclamation points. The actions of a character and what they say should eliminate the need to double up on exclamations. Even if characters shout at each other for a page or two, exclamations after every utterance is unnecessary, and becomes almost intrusive. Let the reader, who should have some understanding of the characters’ personalities, provide the emphasis.
10. And for the sake of the reader, don’t use all caps in dialogue. Ever. See above.
11. Don’t use dialogue as an information dump. Some writers do this to give the reader information, such as when a detective tells his new partner, “As you know, Bob…” and then fills him in on a case’s background. This is done to ad nauseum on TV where someone will ask a technician in an autopsy, “Why does his heart look like that?” thereby allowing the technician to tell him (and us) what happens when a bullet ricochets around inside the heart cavity.
12. Avoid on-the-nose-dialogue. This is when a man comes home to find his wife in bed with his business partner, and says “Oh my God! You’re sleeping with Dominic!”
Remember the Reason for Dialogue
Keep in mind that the one reason for dialogue is to reveal our characters’ personalities. Dialogue shows how your character reacts to other characters. Dialogue is about the communication between characters. One character says something, the other reacts and responds with understanding, an attempt at continued communication, to shut the conversation down, to deceive, or to avoid. Then the first character reacts to that. The directions that a conversation can go in are endless.
Linda K. Sienkiewicz is the author of the award-winning novel In the Context of Love, a story about one woman’s need to tell the truth without shame.
2016 Sarton Women’s Fiction Finalist
2016 Eric Hoffer Book Award Finalist
2016 Readers’ Favorite Finalist
2016 USA Book News Best Book Finalist
2015 Great Midwest Book Fest Honorable Mention.
“…at once a love story, a cautionary tale, and an inspirational journey.” ~ Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of National Book Award Finalist, American Salvage, and critically acclaimed Once Upon a River,and Mothers, Tell Your Daughters