September Writing Advice: Dialogue

I’ve been gone for a while, but I’m back and restarting my writing advice posts. I plan to do one at least once per month and try to keep them short and sweet. I hope these will be helpful to you and other aspiring writers out there. This month I’m offering few bits of advice to help you with writing effective dialogue.

  1. When it comes to dialogue mechanics, stick with the verb “said” and resist the urge to explain what the character is feeling or saying. Renni Browne and Dave King explain this mechanic well in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: “Imagine you’re at a play. It’s the middle of the first act; you’re getting really involved in the drama they’re acting out. Suddenly, the playwright runs out on the stage and yells, ‘Do you see what’s happening here? Do you see how her coldness is behind his infidelity? Have you noticed the way his womanizing has undermined her confidence? Do you get it?’ You get it, of course, and you feel patronized. You’re an intelligent theatergoer, and what’s happening on the stage is clear enough. You don’t need the writer to explain it to you” (83-84). This means that if the dialogue is doing it’s job, then there’s no need to say that a character said something “sadly” or “angrily.” It’s important to avoid explaining because you need to trust that your reader is clever enough to make the connections on their own and explaining it to them will often turn them away from the rest of your writing.
  2. Avoid info dumps whenever possible. Although world-building is important in fantasy and science fiction, if your characters come off as walking info dumps then it’s a lot harder to accept them as believable characters to feel emotionally attached to and sympathize with. Steven James, author of Story Trumps Structure, once wrote an informative guest post for Writer’s Digest about how to improve dialogue: “Although in real life people speak primarily to impart information, in fiction a conversation is not simply a way for something to be expressed—it’s a way for something to be overcome…Words can be barbs. They can be sabers. They can be jewels. Don’t let them be marshmallows that are just passed back and forth.” This is important because you don’t want your characters to simply tell important information about the plot. Characters should have personality, show humor, jealousy, fear, and other powerful emotions in order to be believable, likable, or hated.
  3. Unless you have a great ear for dialect, try to avoid it whenever possible. For example, Steven King grew up in Maine and intimately knows that regional dialect. He can write it effectively without distracting the reader. I tried to imitate King’s style of dialect in college when I wrote a story featuring a narrator who spoke with a Southern drawl. My creative writing professor gave it back to me with a note that explained how the dialogue felt inauthentic and the character came off as an offensive stereotype. I felt bad and later scrapped the story altogether, but walked away with a better understanding of what to avoid in writing dialect.

That’s all for now. Hope this helps and I wish you the best of luck with your writing!

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