Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Fiction Series: Hone the Dialogue

Dialogue can make or break your story.

How many times have you read a book where the characters didn't "sound" right? Could you identify why?

Here are some common pitfalls we see regularly:

Lack of contractions. Very rarely do we encounter folks who don't use contractions. They're a common way of speaking. It's okay to include one character who doesn't use contractions in their speech - that could be one way to identify that particular character who is probably an extremely formal and highly educated person - someone very confident. Or even someone totally opposite - someone lacking education, with low self-esteem, but great pride, who doesn't want anyone to know lack of education. Either way, their speech can identify them. But if every character speaks without contractions, the dialogue is stilted, formal, and is usually the sign of an amateur.

Full sentences. When was the last time you had a real conversation with a close friend or in a family group, and all of you spoke in complete, uninterrupted sentences? Sure doesn't happen at our house. We finish each other's sentences, or like my beloved hubby tends to do, he'll start a sentence but then it slowly ...

He doesn't finish the thought, so I either finish it for him, ask what he meant, or change the subject.

Or, we'll be discussing a topic, and someone remembers something they were supposed to tell us, so they abruptly change the subject.

Real dialogue is like that, so for your characters to be real, their dialogue needs to be real, too.

Lengthy passages of dialogue. Unless a character is giving a rare monologue, dialogue should be broken up with narrative. Show us what the characters are doing while they're talking. Show us movements, reactions, bring in sensory details (sounds, smells, textures, lighting, tastes, colors, etc.)

Name calling. When you're having a conversation with someone, how often do you use his or her name? Perhaps in greeting or to stress a point, but rarely do you repeat the name again and again. Avoid this in your dialogue as well.

Rhythm. Read your dialogue aloud. Does everyone talk in the same rhythm? Same sentence length? Same number of sentences per bit of dialogue? If so, rewrite for variety.

"Reality." When we write dialogue, we want to make it real, but not really. You can add in dialect, odd phrases, and 'umms and ahhs' on occasion, but do it sparingly. Yes, we may stutter and stammer every time we speak in real life, but readers will tire of that easily. Clean up the dialogue enough to make each word count. If you're using dialogue to typeset a character, use it briefly for only a few pages - enough for the reader to "hear" that character's speech, then they'll hear the dialect, even if you don't write it. (Similar experience with subtitles at the beginning of the movie. Characters in the movie may be speaking Italian, French, or Arabic, but we're reading it in English subtitles. After a few minutes, the characters - still in the same place and time - suddenly start speaking English. We "know" the characters are "really" still speaking in those foreign languages, but now we don't have to read subtitles.)

Dialogue is meant to convey character and to propel your story forward. Hone these areas to improve both your dialogue and your overall manuscript.

Previous articles in our Fiction Series:

Determine Your Setting

Other articles of interest:

Marketing Series: Build Your Team
Marketing Series: Define Your Audience
Marketing Series: Think Outside the Box
Marketing Series: Build Your Platform
Marketing Series: You've Got Questions

Recent articles:

Two Keys to Finding Your Author Voice
I Want to Write a Book - Where Do I Start?
From the Edit Desk: Before Sending that Manuscript to Editor or Publisher
From the Edit Desk: Sense of Place
From the Edit Desk: What's the Takeaway?
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