How to Write Good Dialogue
Writing realistic conversations that move the plot forward, while displaying the speaker and listeners personalities, and possibly even the setting! What? It sounds difficult. I know.
If you are new to writing dialogue, I suggest observing others’ conversations. Not eavesdropping. Start with watching and listening to your family members during a gathering. Then try going to a café or restaurant and look from a distance, only for a few minutes, to body language, how people show they are listening or not listening. Some people don’t pick up on social cues that the person they are talking to has tuned out. Maybe one of your characters can’t concentrate for long periods of time so you can use that.
Tone, Accents, Sayings
How people say things is as important as what they say. Tone should come through without having to use dialogue tags that tell your reader how they said something.
Example: One of your characters is angry and asks the other person “What are you doing?” You can display this by accenting certain words and having them perform some kind of action.
Jackson ran over Tylor and yanked the letter out of his hand. “What are you doing? That is my mail.”
Obviously Jackson is angry. We know he is trying to get to the letter before Tylor read more, and he grabs it. There is no need to say add “he said angrily.”
There are an abundance of accents and speech patterns all over the world. If you have a character that is from New Jersey, they are not going to sound the same as someone from Alabama. The same applies for off-world characters. A character from the sands of Klifax isn’t necessarily going to sound the same as someone from the metropolis of Jilenca. People learn how to speak from those around them, so accents will be similar the closer your characters live to one another.
The Jackson and Tylor example:
Tylor’s eyes narrowed, and he smoothed his University of Alabama sweatshirt down, before he pushed Jackson. “Why you got a letter from Josie, huh?” He shoved him again. “Why’s my girl writin’ you?”
By mentioning the U of Alabama sweatshirt, your reader will automatically think Tylor grew up from somewhere close to Alabama, so a southern accent will tinge his dialogue in their minds.
Each of your characters should have specific sayings, words, or speech patterns they use that other characters do not.
Example: Tylor uses “huh” at the end of his sentence and “writin’” which we should probably keep at least the “huh” to his character only. And possibly cutting off the endings of words as well. (Use this sparingly, not every time he speaks.)
Maybe Jackson speaks more formally, since he said, “That is my mail” instead of “That’s my mail.” He doesn’t have to do this all the time, but overall, his speech is more formal than Tylor’s.
Example: “Josie wrote to me because she is planning a party for you when you get home. A surprise party. You’re too jealous for your own good.” He waived his arm and walked away.
You will need to keep in mind not only what your characters say and how they say it, but also all of the actions people do while they speak.
Consider this conversation.
“Hey. How’re you?”
“Not bad. You seen Amy?”
“Amy’s being Amy again.”
From character one’s speech pattern we understand she doesn’t stick to proper English and is possibly frustrated with how Amy acts. From what character two says, we don’t get much about them at all.
Let’s try again.
Angela saw Jamie eating at a table by himself and decided to join him. Before Angela could ask if she could sit down, he looked up and smiled. “Hey. How’re you?”
She shrugged. “Fine. You?”
“Not bad.” With a bit of salad on his fork, Jamie motioned for her to have a seat. “You seen Amy?”
“No.” She huffed as she set her tray down. “Whyyy?”
He rolled his eyes. “Amy’s being Amy again.”
Angela plopped down in the chair across from him. “You married her.”
“She’s your sister.”
“Yeah. But you can’t choose your siblings.” She chuckled. “What happened this time?”
“The usual. Wrong side of the bed. Coffee wasn’t right. The shower was too cold.” He stabbed a piece of lettuce, while Angela opened her can of Coke and sipped it.
“Is she meeting you for lunch?”
Jamie lifted his gaze and smirked. “You going to make a run for it if I say she is?”
Angela looked up at Jamie’s smiling face. “No.”
“Hi guys.” Amy bumped her sister with her hip. “Ugh. I’ve had a horrible day.”
“Damnit,” Angela said under her breath and hung her head.
As if she didn’t notice her sister looking everywhere but at her, Amy continued talking for the rest of their lunch break.
Action, no action, tone, accents and sayings. Don’t be like Amy and not pay attention to those around you. You will need them for inspiration.
Keeping Track of Who Says What
So you have decided on where your characters are from, tone, accents, and saying, now what?
While it is imperative your characters grow, it is just as important to be consistent with certain things throughout your novel.
Personally, I like spreadsheets. I like things in nice, neat columns. But you can document your characters’ dialog and typical actions when speaking however you want. Notebooks, binders, folders, but keep them close to where you are writing for easy reference.
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