The perils of writing good dialogue

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Dialogue can be one of the most challenging parts of the writing process. It takes skill to write dialogue that is convincing and which takes your reader on a seamless journey through your story.

When you’re writing direct dialogue (the exact words spoken) here are some important factors to consider:

Dialogue should always have a purpose
The dialogue you write should always have a purpose. That might be to advance action, create conflict, provide an insight into a character or set a particular scene. It shouldn’t be used simply to convey information.

Having said that, when it comes to screenwriting, dialogue is often used to convey information (just think of all those cop shows when the detectives explain to their superintendent how and why the perpetrator did it). In this case, dialogue is used as exposition because screenwriters don’t usually have the benefit of a narrator to fill in the gaps.

However, with fiction, there are other tools you can use to convey information. So make sure you use dialogue carefully.

Realistic versus readable dialogue
When you write dialogue you need to stay true to the voice of your character. So if your character wouldn’t talk in a way that’s grammatically correct, then the dialogue doesn’t have to be grammatically correct either.

However, there is a danger of going too far. While you may think that you’re writing dialogue that’s incredibly realistic, you also need to ensure that it’s readable.

For example, if your character speaks with a dialect or in a vernacular that’s hard for many people to understand, you need to look at the dialogue objectively. Sometimes, dialogue that’s too heavy on dialect or colloquialisms can be distracting or even confusing for the reader. Always make sure you tread a fine line between realism and readability.

Word choice
Your word choices will play a huge part in helping readers understand your characters. For example, “football” may be such simple word. But, depending on where you live and even what school you go to, “football” could mean rugby union, soccer, rugby league, or grid iron. All very different sports.

The words your characters choose can speak volumes about everything from their social class and education to their ethnicity and geographic location.

You also need to make sure that your characters speak differently to each other. Even if they are from the same social circle and have similar interests, they will still have distinct voices. Ensure that each character speaks with a different rhythm. This serves to flesh out more rounded characters and makes it easier for your reader to differentiate between them.

Do you actually need dialogue?
Ask yourself if you actually need dialogue in your scene. It can be tempting to overwrite dialogue, and write too much because authors like to hear their characters speak. But remember that readers like solid content. However, sometimes, silence – or a passing nod or minimal interaction – can add more to a scene than paragraphs of dialogue. It can provide much needed tension to keep your reader gripped.

Dialogue can be tricky. Many writers let themselves pour dialogue onto their first draft – but find that much of it can be cut. Don’t edit as you write. Let the words fall out. But always go back and be ruthless about which dialogue you decide to keep in your story.


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