characters,  writing a novel,  writing fiction

Writing Dialogue That Matters to Your Story

When writing fiction, it’s important to understand the techniques of writing effective and realistic dialogue. Dialogue in fiction is quite different from speech in real life.

Mimicking true conversation won’t be effective in a story. Listen to a few conversations and you’ll understand why. People tend to say “um,” “uh,” “yeah,” or “like” frequently in their conversations with others. Some people even pepper their conversations with, “you know what I mean.” It’s a subconscious speech pattern that the user rarely recognizes, but in written form would kill a story. Though people stammer, stutter, or pause throughout natural conversation, you don’t want to include that in your dialogue because it detracts from the story.

Dialogue should propel the story forward.

Readers don’t need to know all the gritty details of a character’s day unless that specific information moves the story forward. We don’t need to know thoughts expressed through dialogue that don’t shed new light on the character or on the story. Before including a bit of dialogue, ask yourself if taking it out would change the story. If the answer is yes, then leave it in.

A conversation between two characters should portray certain qualities of those characters or give the reader crucial information.

Using a few pet words or idioms to help characterize a character is fine, but beware of using too many. The main purposes of dialogue are to advance the story and help readers understand the characters.

Dialogue needs to be attributed to characters.

It’s most effective when the character has such a unique voice that the reader instantly knows which character is speaking. When using dialogue tags, the word said should be used most often. Occasionally, asked or answered can be used, but stay away from words like interjected, declared, insisted, intimated or other less-used words that may draw a reader out of the story. Said seems to disappear and it doesn’t distract from the story.

As a writer, you don’t want anything to pull your reader away from the world you’ve created. Don’t give readers any reason to notice the attributions instead of what the character is saying.

Some writers like to vary speech attributions because they feel it adds interest, but doing this just makes a reader remember that the author is telling this story instead of the reader being so immersed in the story that she forgets about the author. Authors need to be invisible.

Don’t make the attribution physically impossible.

When giving a character speaking attributions don’t make them physically impossible to accomplish. It’s hard to laugh or smile some dialogue. “It’s Tuesday,” she laughed. If your character is laughing. She’s probably not saying anything. A better choice would be, “It’s Tuesday.” She laughed. Two separate actions.

You can avoid the overuse of said by giving a character an action instead as in the above example. But don’t go overboard with this either. Don’t give your characters so many actions that they seem like Mexican jumping beans. Intersperse actions within your dialogue.

Say it out loud.

The best way to get a feel for your dialogue is to read it aloud. You can read your manuscript out loud or you can employ the use of software on your computer to do that for you. If you write in WORD, there’s a feature under the Review tab that says Read Aloud.

Reading it out loud will help you determine if someone would actually say what you’ve written.

I tend to hear my stories. Conversations pop into my head and my first draft is generally a collection of conversations linked by a few transitions. I like to let the characters talk as much as they want because it helps me get to know them. It’s really awesome when each character has his or her own way of speaking, so I don’t even need tags because the speech is so individual to that character.

I like to read the dialogue out loud and I like to do the actions as well. I’m sure if anyone watches me write they think I’m a little wacky saying things and then moving my hands around or grimacing or jumping. But, speaking your dialogue or listening to someone or software read it back to you can help you pinpoint where the dialogue is stiff or unrealistic.

Realistic isn’t real-life.

Make sure that your dialogue is realistic without being real-life speech, that it moves the story forward, and that the tags don’t distract from the story. Following these guidelines will help you write your fiction in a more effective manner and may just mean the difference between an acceptance and a rejection.

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