Dialogue is probably the single most effective way of bringing your characters and your narrative to life. It involves your reader in a way that descriptive passages, however well written, simply cannot. There’s something about being in on the action, rather than being told about it, that makes everything more believable and engaging.
The most important point to remember when writing dialogue is that it should be good enough to stand on its own merits – that means without the aid of adverbs, beats, and attributions. You’ll always need a little bit of support here and there, but keep it to a minimum and remember that the important stuff should be in the dialogue.
If you’re explaining, you’re losing. You shouldn’t have to explain your dialogue by adding the likes of John shouted angrily, Sarah said in disbelief, Paula commented sulkily, etc. If the meaning is effectively conveyed in what your characters say, these attributions not only become superfluous but also serve to undermine the dialogue and disengage the reader. Remove the explanation and see if the meaning is still clear. If it isn’t, it’s time to rewrite. By letting the dialogue speak for itself, by describing it less, you make it more realistic and you show your readers that you trust them with your story.
Attributions should be heard and not seen. There is no need to get creative with your attributions: stick to John said (not said John, which sounds a bit Enid Blyton these days). Unless you absolutely need a John screamed or a Sarah uttered or a Paula retorted (which you pretty much never do) just say it and let the reader do the rest; fancy synonyms for ‘said’ are usually unnecessary and distracting. And remember, especially, that people do not smile, snort or smirk dialogue. In fact, it is often best to do away with attributions altogether, once you have established who is speaking.
Make it sound natural, but not too natural. We often digress when we speak, but if you do this in written dialogue you’ll quickly lose your readers. Essentially, you have to take out the boring bits. Your characters need to stay on topic but sound as though they are conversing naturally. Don’t put in the irrelevant and don’t put in ums, ems, and ers. But do use contractions like don’t, won’t, and could’ve. It’s fine to have interruptions (use ‘–’ with a space before but none after) and to have a character trail off (use ‘ . . . ’) but don’t overuse either as they can be as irritating on the page as they are in real life. Think carefully about your characters’ style of speaking. It’s usually best to avoid trying to convey accent by altering spelling. It quickly becomes tiresome to read an author’s attempt to rewrite the dictionary to fit a cockney or an Irish accent, so use colloquialisms and speech patterns instead. And feel free to break the rules of grammar if your character shows a blatant disregard for what’s correct. If he wants to say, ‘I seen that movie last week. It were rubbish,’ let him.
Miss a few beats. Beats are little bits of physical action inserted into dialogue: John put the book down and looked out the window, Sarah turned and walked to the door. Used sparingly, they serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture in the absence of description. They are often best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, as they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters. Beats are a very effective tool and are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it. If your characters are fluttering their eyelashes, gazing into the distance or opening their laptops between every second line of conversation, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact is diluted or lost entirely.
Don’t say too much. Dialogue is a great tool for characterisation, and, of course, it can develop the plot, but be careful not to force a character into saying something incongruous just because you need to move the narrative forward. The taciturn farmer who suddenly feels like waxing lyrical to a stranger about his love of the land is implausible, as is the serial killer who reveals his modus operandi to a family member over breakfast. Readers spot artificial conversation and feel cheated by it. What you want your character to say is one thing; what they would actually say might be another. Always make sure it is your character speaking and not you as a storyteller forcing them to reveal a bit of plot they have no business revealing through dialogue. Be faithful to them and they will serve you well!
Read, read, read. Read your dialogue aloud, preferably to someone who will tell you if it sounds odd or unnatural. It’s amazing how you suddenly find that there are words or phrases that you stumble over or that seem out of character when you have to actually speak them. And read books, lots and lots of books – but that’s my solution to everything!