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Are You Talking to Me?: Giving your dialogue that extra oomph

Good dialogue is vital to an engaging story. Done well, it allows you to build character, propel your plot forward, and provide vital information in an involving way. Done poorly, it can stop your novel in its tracks. Here are some tips for ensuring that the dialogue in your novel is pulling its weight:

1) Make dialogue sound natural, but not too natural. While it’s true that your dialogue needs to sound like something someone would actually say, it shouldn’t replicate real conversation. When we speak in real life, we “um” and “ah,” we talk about unimportant things, we get distracted and lose the thread of the conversation. If you do this in your novel, it gets very boring. Make your dialogue natural sounding but more succinct than normal dialogue.

2) Dialogue must be for the benefit of your characters, not your readers. While it is fine to use dialogue to give your readers information, it must be done in a way that seems natural within the context of the story. When characters speak to each other, they must be telling each other something they need to know, not something they already know. For example, a man wouldn’t say to his wife, “As you know, our honeymoon last year was ruined by that hurricane that came through” because she’d already have that information. For more detailed information on this topic, see this previous blog post.

3) Avoid using adverbs to show how your characters are feeling. Instead, give your character words and actions that express her state of mind. For example, instead of, “‘I can’t do this,’ Nichole said angrily,” consider, “‘I can’t do this!’ Nichole threw her math book across the room.” It’s still very clear that Nichole is angry, but we get that information in a more interesting and visual way.

4) Make sure the dialogue of different characters sounds different. We all have different speech patterns, favorite pet words, and different levels of grammatical correctness. If all of your characters sound exactly the same, your manuscript will feel bland and it may get difficult for readers to know who is talking without the frequent use of dialogue tags. Know where your character is from, how much education they have, and how formal they are, and use this knowledge to craft their dialogue. Would they say, “I haven’t seen her lately” or would they say, “I ain’t seen her ’round”? Would they ask for a soda or a pop? Your characters are unique individuals. Make them sound that way.

5) Use silence in your dialogue. In writing, as in real life, sometimes what isn’t said is more powerful than what is said. Don’t feel the need to spell everything out. If your protagonist says, “I love you” to his love interest, an awkward silence might cut deeper than a reply of, “Well, I don’t think I love you.” Sometimes, letting your characters keep quiet speaks volumes.

6) Don’t always have your characters say exactly what they’re thinking. In real life, we rarely tell it exactly like it is. We tell little white lies, we beat around the bush, we muddy the waters. Sometimes we’re not even aware we’re doing it. We think we’re angry, for example, but we’re really scared. Life is all about subtext and if your fiction is going to be interesting and realistic, it must be too. Let your characters be sarcastic. Let them be passive-aggressive. Let them say they’re fine when they’re clearly not. They will come across as nuanced and more realistic, which will add depth to your story.

7) All dialogue must have a purpose. This might seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how much dialogue I read that just meanders along, talking about the weather or the food the characters are eating or the movie they’re planning to go see. In real life, conversations like this are fine. We often talk just to pass the time. But in your novel, every word counts. Your dialogue must either advance the plot or develop character in some way. If it doesn’t, cut it.

8) Read your dialogue out loud. Not sure if you’ve been successful with your dialogue? Try reading it out loud. Things that sound unnatural will jump out at you when you say them out loud. You’ll also get a good feel for whether you’ve differentiated the dialogue of different characters. And you’ll get a better idea of the flow of your dialogue. Do all of your characters speak in such long sentences that you have to stop and take a breath to get through them? Or do you have long strings of short, choppy dialogue? You’ll be surprised at the things you pick up when you start reading your dialogue aloud.

Good dialogue is vital for a successful novel so take the time to get it right. Do you have any tips for perfecting dialogue? Share them in the comments below!

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