“Well, dialogue is easy!” you might think. “All I gotta do is write stuff exactly how the person says it. I mean, it’s so simple. Right?”
When you write dialogue, you have to be selective about what you’re writing, and you have to present it in a way that it is most engaging and easy to read. That can be tricky, but if you keep a few things in mind, you will be able to write clear dialogue with your purpose in mind.
- Dialogue should add to the story.
Sometimes, it’s hard to determine what should be dialogue and what should not. To help you determine what should be dialogue, consider whether the dialogue actually adds anything to the story. Are you getting anything from the quote that you wouldn’t get from reading it in a regular paragraph?
A great place to start adding dialogue is to look through your story for places that people are actually having a conversation. (Duh, Cori.) It may seem obvious, but trust me, when you’re wrapped up in your own story, it’s not. This is a great way to engage the reader, break up paragraphs of the narrator telling the story, and make the reader feel more connected to the characters.
For example, instead of saying, “I told my grandmother that I wanted a chocolate cake for my birthday, so she agreed to bake one.” You could add some dimension to the story by saying, “Then I said, ‘Nana? Can you bake me a special chocolate cake for my birthday?’ and she answered the way she always did, ‘Anything you want, pumpkin!’” In just that exchange, I’ve demonstrated some connection between characters and given you an idea of how the grandmother feels about her granddaughter.
- It does not literally need to be every word a person said.
If you are quoting someone, you might write down words like “um,” “well,” “you know,” “yes,” etc. None of that is necessary. Use the space for important words, the words that I like to say have “weight.” Rather than quoting “um” or “uh” before a person speaks, tell me about the fear in his eyes, the furrowed brow, or the way he stared at the corner of the room as if looking for the answer there. Replace the unimportant words with more about the character’s physical reaction.
- Introduce the speaker in the first line.
Although many people love a good mystery, that does not include when they are trying to figure out who is talking. Especially when you are trading dialogue among two or more characters, you are just asking to confuse your reader if you wait too long to tell them who is talking. Clear up the confusion by inserting “he said” or “he began” at an appropriate point in a long sentence and then finishing up. If the sentence just doesn’t sound right broken up, begin with “He said.”
- Start a new paragraph each time you change speaking characters.
Although you may forget to do this when you’re writing your first draft, make sure when you follow with an edit that each new speaker gets a new paragraph for dialogue. It’s easy to get confused about who is saying what if you don’t hit the “enter” button and let your readers know!
- Don’t use odd spellings or non-standard contraction of words.
What? We’ve all seen people use modern catch phrases, clipped or contracted (or flat out incorrect) spellings, and words to indicate that someone has an accent or is speaking casually on Facebook statuses. That doesn’t make it appropriate for a book, though.
What’s ok: words that are used in other regions that speak English, but not necessarily your own, as long as it won’t be something people will trip over when reading. For example: if you are quoting someone from Scotland who said “wee” or “arse,” most people will know what you’re talking about.
What’s not ok: “gotta,” “lotta,” “kinda,” “prolly,” etc. When we talk, we naturally ram words together or skip syllables. When you use this sort of writing in your book, though, you cause the reader to trip over the words because it’s not something they are used to reading. It’s tough reading accents when they are written with letters missing and apostrophes jammed in, not to mention when they are spelled differently to indicate a pronunciation difference.
Consider this: people read fast, and you don’t want to slow their pace. To keep things smooth, just indicate that the person speaking has an accent or is speaking informally. Drawing attention to their speech is likely unnecessary for the big picture of your book anyway. Bonus points if they say “arse.”
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