One of the hardest things for me to write is dialogue. Too often my dialogue comes out clunky, unrealistic, boring or lacking a purpose to the overall story. As a result, it’s the dialogue that requires the most work when I edit.
So I started thinking, how can I change this? How can I improve my fictional conversations so I don’t break out in a sweat every time my characters need to talk to one another.
And here is what I did.
1) Learn to Listen
When I started to listen, really listen, to other people’s conversations, I was surprised by how differently people spoke, compared to how I thought they spoke. Eavesdropping is part of being a writer, as it opens your ears to words, voices, and human interaction. Studying how conversation flows, helps me get across what I want my characters to say in a more realistic way.
2) Turn a Scene into a Script
If I’m struggling to make the dialogue in a scene work, I sometimes turn the scene into a play script. I basically turn the whole chapter into a conversation. I then highlight the main lines that get across what I want, before I re-insert all the description, action etc.
3) Read Great Dialogue
I often know that a book is wonderful, when I realise that I was so carried away by the story that I forgot to study how it was written. I think this is particularly true with dialogue, as it is such an important part of learning who the characters are. When I finish a book and can’t remember why the dialogue worked, I know that the dialogue must have been so well written that it fused perfectly into the story. Then I know I need to go back and study it.
4) Read Bad Dialogue
When I read a piece of dialogue that jars and sounds unrealistic, I pause and consider what it is that makes it fail. A big step in learning what does work, is learning what doesn’t work.
5) Rewind to a Piece of Dialogue That Did Work
If I can’t make the dialogue in a scene work, I often rewind and find a chapter that I know it did work in. As I read it, I let myself get into the voice of the character again, which helps me to write the new conversation with that character’s way of thinking and talking fresh in my head.
6) Study Dialogue in Other Art Forms.
Sometimes I need a break from dialogue in books, and seek out other forms of inspiration. I’ve often been struck by scenes of T.V. programmes where the dialogue is so good that I go back to listen to it again. There are times I suddenly became aware that someone somewhere wrote the script, and I think wow, how did they write such a perfect conversation? I listen to radio interviews, radio plays, go to the theatre; all excellent ways of studying dialogue; what sounds real and what sounds fake.
7) Ask Yourself: Does Your Dialogue Fit the Time the Story is Set?
It’s important to be aware of the correct conversation for the time or genre of your book. Phrases do go out of date. I watch a lot of period dramas and have a fondness for old-fashioned and classic books. And although I write in the modern day, I often find myself editing out Enid Blighton type phrases. It sometimes takes an outside eye to spot this in your writing.
8) Get to Know Your Characters
It is much harder to write dialogue when you don’t yet know your characters. It took me awhile to realise this, and now I tend to go easy on myself on a first draft, and even a second draft. Once I know my character inside out, I find the dialogue comes naturally as I can hear their voice clearly. If I’m struggling with the dialogue of a secondary character, it often helps to write a character sheet on them, or even a quick short scene or story about them in first person, so I can get into their head.
9) Age-Appropriate Conversation
It is naturally easier for me to write a conversation between two women in their thirties than two nine year old boys (as I don’t know any 9 year old boys), or a group of teenager girls (as I haven’t been a teenage girl for quite a long time). Adult phrases can sneakily creep into dialogue between children, but it doesn’t belong. It is therefore essential to question whether the conversation is realistic for the age group having it.
All in all, the more I write, the better I get at dialogue. Practise is key. I once spent one month writing a play just to force myself to write conversation. I had no aspirations for the play, it was simply an exercise to train myself. It was difficult at the time, but when I then switched back to the novel, I found it so much easier to write the dialogue. The time between novel drafts, when it’s hiding in a drawer, is the perfect time to train up your skills, and hone in on your weakest areas. Your next draft will thank you for it.