I don’t care what anyone says, dialogue is hard. Every writer struggles to make character conversations seem realistic. But the good news is that it does get easier if you know which traps to look out for and how to fix them.
1. Your Characters Sound Alike
No one talks like anyone else they know. Sure, friends and family may pick up some of the same vocabulary, like slang and regional word usage, but no two people talk exactly the same. People use different sentence structures, nuances, and tropes in every day speech. The same person may even talk completely differently depending on the context of the conversation. Work on discovering the different ways people talk and representing them on the page. Each character you represent with dialogue should sound different from every other character.
2. Your Characters Think Alike
People don’t think the same as others. They don’t all follow the same logical paths. Streams of thought that seem logical to one person are nonsensical to another. When your characters talk, they should have different thought patterns, opinions, and ideas. Good characters can be picked out from the rest in a book even without dialogue tags, just because the reader knows how each character thinks. Don’t make your characters’ thoughts too similar.
3. You Don’t Write How People Talk
Grammar is fantastic. I love grammar, but all rules are meant to be broken, especially in dialogue. No matter how many times parents and teachers correct people as kids to speak and write correctly, speech is messy. Check out this great post on the Write Practice about how messy real speech is, if you’re curious.
Now, I’m not saying to go crazy and make an unreadable mess, but it’s ok to break grammar rules for the sake of character. Use good grammar when you can, but don’t do it if your character would not use correct grammar in his or her everyday speech. Don’t make your characters stiff with formal speech. Try to make them seem like real people by making their speech a bit messy.
4. You Use It As An Excuse to Tell
Show don’t tell. You’ve heard that over and over. Too many writers are convinced that tons of back story is necessary for readers to understand the plot of a story, and rather than cut it, they think they can cleverly hide it in dialogue. The truth is that real people don’t talk about back stories all that often, especially if they already know each other. When you talk to your oldest friend, do you always bring up how you met her? No. You’re characters won’t either, because you treat them like real people. While having your characters talk about actions in the past may seem like an easy way to get around info dump and tell everything about the plot.
What’s worse is that some writers use dialogue to avoid showing characters acting in scenes. Don’t fall into this trap. Just don’t do it. Dialogue is meant to explore characters and move the plot, not supplement it. This brings me to my next point:
5. Your Dialogue Doesn’t Advance the Plot
Yep, sometime writers think dialogue is just there as filler and nothing happens. It just takes up room on the page. When you talk to people in real life do you just talk for no reason? Well, sometimes people do, but that’s usually an indicator that someone is uncomfortable and something else is happening.
Dialogue is a great tool because its applications are so diverse. You can use it to give more detail about a character. It can show the truth someone’s mental state. It can advance the plot when characters come together for some reason.
Don’t cheat and use it as filler. Make sure your dialogue is essential to the advancement and clarity of the story.
6. You Use Annoying Tags
“Hello, John,” said Jane.
“How are you, Jane?” John asked.
“I’m fine, John,” said Jane.
“That’s delightful, Jane!” exclaimed John.
Please don’t go overboard with dialogue tags. As an avid reader, I’m begging you. Nothing pulls a reader out of a story more than unnecessary and distracting dialogue tags. Do we need to see who the speaker was at the end of every line? Nope. We can guess who’s talking based on the flow of the conversation, and if the writer has paid attention to points one and two, the way the character talks and thinks. Do real people use each other’s names throughout a conversation? Nope. Usually they are only used to get someone’s attention. So seriously, stop it. Get rid of all that unnecessary stuff and let people talk.
Okay, so now you know how people fail at writing dialogue. How can you fix it? Try these methods to get ideas:
1. Listen to Conversations
It’s simple. Listen to how people talk.
2. Watch Movies
Guess what? Movies are almost entirely dialogue. Study movies you love and see how the characters interact.
3. Read Dialogue Masters
Read writers who are great at dialogue, like Hemingway. Hemingway is the master of omission. He almost never gives more back story than is necessary. Read the short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” or the novel The Sun Also Rises and take some notes on how you can figure out what the characters want and how they feel without Hemingway saying it all for them.
4. Read It Out Loud
If you want to know how a conversation sounds, say it out loud like a conversation. This is an easy way to tell if the writing seems unnatural.
5. Try to Make Every Character Sound Different
Spend extra time making sure each character thinks and talks differently to help your readers get distinct impressions of each character’s personality. Enough said.
6. Don’t Be Afraid to Break the Rules
Grammar is a helpful and wonderful thing, but don’t let it hold you back in dialogue. When you’re listening to conversations, make notes of how people ignore grammar in conversation, and don’t be afraid to do the same in dialogue.
No part of writing will ever be easier if you don’t practice. Write lots of dialogue, and then write some more. You’ll start to learn what parts you struggle with and what to pay attention to in your edits. You’ll learn how to fix your mistakes, and before long, you’ll stop making so many. Write stories entirely out of conversations. Write stories with conversations as limited as possible. Write dialects. Write about different ages and cultures speech. Practice different patterns of speech and thought. Try it all, but whatever you do, don’t be afraid of it. Learn to love dialogue, or hate it and work past it, but you have to write it to improve.
Do you have any great dialogue exercises to share? Have you read any particularly good or bad dialogue recently? Have you written any? Let’s talk about it in the comments.