You can't beat dialogue for breathing life into characters. Letting them express their own views with their unique speech habits makes them believable. It pulls readers in and involves them in the story. Most writers know this, but many shy away from dialogue. They may believe the myth that you have to be born with a gift or "ear" for it. Others are uncertain about the technicalities, or simply timid about trying something new.
The myth is not true. Dialogue is a skill, and although it does come more naturally to some than others, it can be learned and mastered. The first step is to study the basics. The second is to practice. Keep those fingers moving. The following five tips on writing dynamic dialogue will help you hone this skill.
1. Write like people talk. Spend a lot of time eavesdropping, listening not to content, but to the way ideas are expressed. Immerse yourself in rhythm, local idioms, patterns of interruption and other quirky things. If you are writing memoir, take time to replay mental tapes of the person you plan to write about. Once you get a fix on the sound of their voice, their words will flow from your fingers. Write it just like they'd say it.
2. Tidy up the mess. Every day speech is full of litter words: uhm, er, well, so... and similar noise. People begin sentences and stop halfway through. They interrupt and finish sentences for each other. Leave in just enough of this messiness to keep the dialogue pliable, but prune most of it to give focus and shape to the passage.
3. Make dialogue do double duty. Beginners are inclined to find a spot where they can drop in a few lines of dialogue to meet some imagined quota. While it's true that one main benefit of dialogue is to break up long passages of narrative, that's not a sufficient reason to include it, and it's likely to sound stiff and contrived. Make sure dialogue meets at least one of these criteria:
- It moves the plot along by conveying information, building suspense, or setting a mood.
- t develops characters by showing them in action and allowing them to speak for themselves rather than telling about them.
- It reveals motivation. Readers would far rather hear characters explain themselves, explicitly or by their behavior, than read your explanation of motives.
- It streamlines information. A few words of dialogue can sometimes replaces a full page of narrative.
4. Use precision in tag wording. Dialogue tags describe who is speaking and/or the speaker's behavior. Use the tag words "said" and "asked" sparingly. With a little thought and a good thesaurus, you can find well over one hundred words that can express a combination of state of mind and behavior with precision, adding value to the dialogue.
5. Keep things in balance. Dialogue adds life and vigor to stories, but too much dialogue makes them read like screen plays. There is no magic ratio and some stories call for more than others. Use your judgement and ask discerning friends or writing partners for an opinion if you aren't sure.
Follow these rules, and with a little practice, your characters will leap right off the page.
Sharon Lippincott, the author of THE HEART AND CRAFT OF LIFESTORY WRITING is the go-to gal for anyone who aspires to leave a written legacy of their life for future generations, or to write about their life for fun and personal growth. She conducts classes and workshops on lifestory writing and coaches individuals by phone and e-mail. Contact her via her blog or website for further information about coaching services or an entertaining and enlightening program for your group or conference.
Visit her website at http://www.sharonlippincott.com to download free eBooks and essays. Check out her blog at http://heartandcraft.blogspot.com for hundreds of tips about how to write your lifestory.