In my previous blog, How to Format Written Dialogue, I covered the traditional approach to formatting dialogue and the general rules to keep your dialogue flowing smoothly and clearly. The most natural and engaging dialogue will only be effective if formatted correctly, allowing the reader to follow it and keep track of who’s speaking.
Now, let’s focus on how to keep your written dialogue engaging and original.
1. Don’t repeat yourself in your written dialogue.
Yes, dialogue is a great place to impart vital information to move the story along, but don’t repeat information the reader already has. Trust that your reader is paying attention, and if you’ve shared the information clearly, there’s no reason to repeat it—it will slow your narrative down, not move it along. As well, readers notice if you treat them like they’re stupid.
“But darling, remember that your sister told you her lover was murdered!”
The sister’s lover was murdered in the novel’s opening scene, and even though the reader is in chapter ten, it’s unlikely they will have forgotten this pivotal moment. Repetition like this will annoy and distract your reader.
Another repetition trap is when writers have their characters discuss the event that’s just taken place. We might do this in real life when we come home from a party and rehash the evening, but it’s boring to read it on the page twice.
It’s easy to let repetition slip into your writing, so watch for it when you edit your first draft.
2. Avoid conventional conversations in your written dialogue.
It’s only natural for most of us to lapse into a conventional conversation when we are first introduced to someone new. We often lapse into safe question-and-answer patterns.
“Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Stacy.”
“I’m John. How are you?”
“I’m well, thank you.”
“Would you like something to drink?”
There’s certainly nothing wrong with this, it’s socially accepted behavior, but we don’t need to read it on the page. Likewise, we don’t need goodbyes in dialogue.
“Thanks for dinner.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
If your dialogue requires a question-answer pattern, make it interesting and purposeful. You might have a character who answers questions with questions or gives annoying cryptic answers, something that illustrates or underscore a character trait.
3. Make sure to use contractions in your written dialogue.
Contractions are the norm in our spoken language, and I was reminded of this recently when I started recording my blogs. At first, I tried to read my blog verbatim, but I kept flubbing the lines, falling into a more natural speech pattern as almost every pronoun/verb combination became a contraction.
It’s natural to eschew contractions in our writing but embrace them in our speech, so make sure and use them in your dialogue to keep it flowing and sounding natural.
“Where are you going?”
“Where’re you going?”
Of course, you might forego the contraction to make a point, but that should be a conscious choice.
“Where are you going?”
“Where are you going?”
If you listen to people talking, it’s unlikely you’ll hear them speaking without using contractions unless they are delivering a very formal speech. You can add an interesting facet to a character by having them speak formally, but it has to work with the other elements of the character and the story itself.
4. Use a variety of voices in your written dialogue.
Everyone has a unique way of speaking and speaking differently to different people. Your wife speaks differently to you than she does to your children, her best friend, her mother, or the dog. Not only does the timbre of her voice change, but the vocabulary she uses also changes.
Make sure to give your characters distinctive (but natural) voices by varying their speech patterns, using a dialect (if it fits the story), and having them use bad grammar or swear a lot.
Another effective way to distinguish your characters from each other is by varying their vocabulary. Just don’t overdo it. Your astrophysicist doesn’t necessarily have to constantly drop complex scientific words into his everyday conversations to be believable.
When I work with my coaching clients on character development, I almost always have them prepare a character dossier by having their characters answer an extensive list of questions, and this helps with developing an authentic voice for each character.
5. Read your written dialogue out loud.
The best way to judge your dialogue is to hear it, so read it aloud. In fact, I recommend reading all your work out loud (not just the dialogue) regularly. Hearing your writing is a great editing tool, enabling you to catch mistakes you might have missed when reading something you’ve written and read many times. Hearing it out loud gives the brain another perspective.
If you have a writing partner or can find a friend or family member to play/ read one of the characters in a conversation, it really helps highlight awkward sections or places where the dialogue feels forced or contrived.
Try it—you’ll be amazed how a simple read-through can help your dialogue flow more naturally.
6. Study the art of written dialogue.
You need to recognize good dialogue when you encounter it, not only on the page but in life.
Spend some time watching, really watching, people talk. It can be entertaining, and it’s always instructive. Listen to each person’s vocabulary and patterns of repetition or emphasis. Make a note of how they take turns, and watch their gestures.
Listening to people is also a great way to gather, what I call, stolen language, unusual and interesting phrases that you can use in your own work or as a prompt for free writing. Never leave home without a small notebook and pen tucked in your purse or pocket; you never know when you might hear a phrase worth remembering.
Another way to study the art of dialogue is in books on the craft of writing, and hundreds of them are on the market. You’ll find a list of my favorite books on writing here.
So, venture forth, watch, listen, study, write, write some more, and then read your work aloud.
Let me know how it goes.