Stories come alive through the voices of their characters. To capture the natural rhythms and flow of human conversation is not an easy task, but in this blog post, I am going to give some tips on how you can create dynamic dialogue to enhance your storytelling.
There are three key aims your dialogue must achieve:
Keep it real (sort of)
Although you want your dialogue to sound natural and to flow, you don’t want to replicate the structure of real speech, which is often full of unfinished sentences, repetition, pauses and stumbles over words – of course, you might want to add these in occasionally when it fits the moment, but do so very sparingly to avoid your dialogue becoming too ragged for the reader to follow.
Keep it brief and avoid small talk
Pages and pages of dialogue can be trying for the reader, so try to keep it focused – avoid any conversation that fails to achieve any of the three key aims mentioned above.
Never info dump
You should only dispense exposition through dialogue very sparingly – in particular, don’t state things both characters would clearly already know. Dumping exposition risks making your dialogue stodgy and stilted.
Give each character a recognisable voice
All humans express their thoughts in a unique way. A character’s background should influence the way they speak – their tone, use of language, any slang and dialect phrases. Once you’ve established a character’s voice, make sure you are consistent throughout the story.
Show not tell
Don’t signpost your characters’ emotions. As people, we’re not always precisely aware of how we feel, let alone be willing or able to express that emotion. Rather than having a character explicitly say ‘I’m angry’ or ‘I’m worried’, try to describe body language as indicators, clues even, for your readers to use.
Of course, when reading dialogue, your reader needs to know which character is speaking. The standard way of doing this is to apply dialogue tags such as ‘She said’ or ‘Jo cried’. Sometimes, additional verbs and adverbs are used such ‘she said sadly’ or ‘Jo cried angrily’ – I find these intrusive, especially if over-used; again, these run the risk of telling not showing the reader how a character is feeling or reacting. I tend the use the bare minimum of dialogue tags, basically just enough ‘he / she said’ so the reader can follow and know who is speaking - I feel this helps the dialogue flow and keeps the reader’s focus on what is being said.
My final tip is to read your dialogue scenes out loud – this helps to identify any words or phrases that fail to ring true for the characters.
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