My high-school creative writing teacher taught me a lot of great things, but she was dead wrong about one: dialog.
Miss Winn insisted that the best way to learn how to write realistic-sounding dialog is to record actual conversations and then mimic them in your writing.
Slight problem: real conversation is almost always drier than burnt toast, and it doesn’t accomplish what dialog in fiction needs to.
Even when real conversation is interesting, the speakers often meander from topic to topic. (My sister and I can cover 30 subjects in a 10-minute car ride. Not even almost kidding.)
In addition, most talk isn’t propelled by conflict. It rarely has a tidy, logical progression that advances events. Conversation doesn’t have to make sense. Plus, we often repeat ourselves or loop back to earlier topics. On top of all that, real speech is littered with pauses and non-words like um, so, well, huh, and more.
None of that makes for compelling dialog in fiction. Using actual speech as a template would create mind-numbingly bad fiction.
The truth about great dialog is that it creates the illusion of reality. It resembles what we think real conversations are actually like. Good dialog rings true. It can’t be awkward or stilted or overly formal, or readers balk that it’s not “real.”
Give readers solid dialog, and they’ll be happy—even though it’s not close to the real thing.
Here are five things great dialog does do:
#1—It Doesn’t Meander
Unless you have a compelling reason for making a conversation take side roads (revealing character, setting, planting foreshadowing, or something else), keep the dialog on topic. Meander can include covering irrelevant information, long internal monologues, and those icky filler words (um, yeah, well, etc.) that are a little too real to be believable.
#2—It Has Natural Movement
This means that Johnny’s reply refers to what Jenny just said and that the conversation logically moves from point A to B to C. You as the writer may need you characters to eventually discuss F, but don’t jump there just because the story demands it, and don’t twist the conversation into a convenient pretzel to get it there. Pay attention to what each character says and what the response is—and be sure the progression makes sense.
#3—It Has a Purpose
The most common purpose is usually creating conflict. What’s at stake in this? For whom? Because dialog can serve other purposes, try to have each conversation do more than one thing—reveal character, establish setting, foreshadow, or something else. Beware of scenes with no solid purpose, like the one I read in a manuscript where a bunch of characters sat around discussing what they ate for dinner last night.
#4—It’s True to Each Character’s Voice
To use an example most people are familiar with: think of Hagrid, Dumbledore, Snape, and Hermione. Each has his or her distinct way of speaking, and we’d never mistake Hagrid’s speech for Snape’s or anyone else’s. Keep your characters sounding like themselves—which means they don’t sound like you, the author.
I once read a story where a poor, uneducated, immigrant started spouting off with eloquent English like some Harvard professor. Any illusion of a story world collapsed.
To make your characters unique, take account things like age, gender, geographical background, likes and dislikes, personal quirks, educational level, and more. The way my teenage son asks for a cookie is very different than the way his grandmother does, which is different from how my husband does. They all use different vocabulary, sentence structure, and tone.
#5—It Isn’t for Dumping Information on the Reader
Dialog can be a great way to give reader important information, but too many beginning writers use it as a crutch. Avoid long speeches where a character explains backstory, technology, or—my personal peeve—things the characters already know. I call this the “As you know, Bob” problem.
For example: If two women are best friends, they’d know one another’s family, lifestyle, and so on. So if Betty’s husband gets laid off, she wouldn’t tell her best friend about it like this: “My husband, John, was just laid off from ABC Software.”
Her friend would already know his name and where he works. “John was laid off” is enough. The reader can figure out that John is Betty’s spouse, and if we need to know where he worked, we can fit that into the story or conversation later (in a natural way!).
My favorite example of telling the audience crucial information in a non-info-dumpy way is from an episode of M*A*S*H. Hawkeye looks at a microscope slide with the blood of a wounded soldier. He sits back, visibly upset. BJ comes in and looks at the slide too. Both doctors know the patient’s problem, but the audience doesn’t.
Having either doctor say, “As you know, that slide means he has . . .” would feel utterly fake. How did they tell us about the soldier’s condition without an info dump?
They had BJ look at the microscope again. Then Hawkeye shakes his head and says, “It doesn't matter how many times you look at it. It’s still going to be leukemia.”
Pow. The audience feels the weight of the diagnosis—and we learned about through words Hawkeye really would have said.
Dialog is one of the best tools writers have for creating vivid stories. Avoiding these five pitfalls will help you create powerful writing with character, conflict, and emotion that keeps the reader turning pages.
Blog: The Lyon’s Tale
Annette Lyon has been writing ever since second grade, when she piled pillows on a chair to reach her mother's typewriter. A cum laude graduate from Brigham Young University with a degree in English, she has had success as a professional editor and doing newspaper, magazine, and business writing, but her first love is creating fiction. Band of Sisters, her seventh novel, is about five women who come together during their husbands' deployment to Afghanistan.
Her newest release, a cookbook called Chocolate Never Faileth, is a delicious departure from fiction and the culmination of over five months of test kitchen craziness and fun.
In 2007 Annette was awarded Utah’s Best of State medal for fiction. She’s a two-time Whitney Award finalist and has received three publication awards from the League of Utah Writers.