Modern novels are filled with dialogue. More than 50% of your book should be filled with characters talking to each other. Beginner novelists are often afraid of dialogue and they should be.
Writing dialogue is complicated. An author has to give the impression that characters are speaking as if they existed in a real world.
However, ‘real world’ dialogue is the kiss of death in a novel. Real life has no plot. Most everyday conversations have no point. They exist for the sake of appearances. They are made up of exchanging greetings and pleasantries. Small talk is just that and has no place in your novel.
Writing Tip: An interesting way to test this for yourself is to tape a series of conversations and write them down exactly as the words are spoken. You will find people ramble on. They repeat what they have said, they struggle to find words, their grammar is terrible, and they talk ‘at’ each other.
How do authors only include dialogue that is necessary?
One way is to read a variety of novels published in the last 10 years. Examine the dialogue. Good authors only include what is necessary for the story. Sometimes this means dialogue has been pared down to the minimum but this is necessary. Never include unnecessary conversations. Readers expect every conversation to be significant. Unnecessary conversations are the red herrings of the dialogue universe.
The three reasons
Authors should remember that there are three reasons for including dialogue in a novel.
- Dialogue should move a plot forward. ‘Let’s go.’ is better than ‘Peter said that they should go.’
- Dialogue should reveal character. Every word your character uses shows the sort of person he or she is.
- Dialogue should provide information. Treat this one with care. There is a fine line between revealing important facts and boring the reader with details. Do not allow your characters to ‘tell’ in dialogue. Rather use a short summary.
The supporting act
Remember that people don’t just utter words when they interact. They act, they move, and they use body language - intentionally or unintentionally. Friends may walk or drink coffee as they speak. A young mother may jump up to prevent her child from crawling away. A woman may cross her arms as she listens to her husband. (You may find these body language cheat sheets I created useful.)
Writing Tip: Introduce a habit with dialogue. Your villain might flip a coin when he speaks. Your love interest might smoke when he or she speaks.
Novelists should ignore the many posts suggesting 50 words to use instead of ‘said’. Said is perfect. It shows the reader who is speaking. It keeps the reader focused on the dialogue. When characters mutter, proffer, utter, cry, growl, and grin words, the author just looks silly.
Writing tip: Read your dialogue out loud. Your tongue will trip over all the nonsense words. Remove them.
Accents and dialect
Follow speech patterns rather than misspelling words. It takes a dedicated reader to muddle through idiosyncratic vernacular. Add the odd foreign word to show the speaker is not English.
Like everything else in writing, perfecting dialogue takes practise. Write every day, and include dialogue in that writing if you can.
If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg.
© Amanda Patterson
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