Writing Good Dialogue For A Novel, by Kelly Inglis
For many people, writing dialogue can be daunting, and it often seems unnatural, but it is an integral part of almost any work of fiction. In a short story, you can get away with little to no dialogue. Although, if you do skip it, your narrative needs to be excellent in order to make your short story compelling. However, in a novel, dialogue is difficult to avoid.
When I started my first novel manuscript, every piece of dialogue I wrote sounded clunky and odd. Conversations sounded irritating when I included all of the ums and ahs and likes and y’knows that most people use in their actual speech patterns, or stilted and formal when I excluded them. After a few frustrating chapters, I finally found my character’s voice. But I didn’t find her voice and speech affectations within the novel; I found it by having a casual conversation with her, handwritten on the back of an old envelope. I casually asked her questions about her job and her relationships with other characters, like we were gossiping over a cup of coffee. It went a little something like this:
“Hi Alex. How are you today?”
Alex sighs. “Ugh! What an awful day! I think I need a glass of wine after I’m done with this coffee.”
“What’s up? Another crummy story to write? Or was the uber-cow at work being… well… an uber-cow?”
“Both! I don’t know what’s worse, having to write articles that are so lame that not even a high school newspaper would consider writing them, or having her get all the good ones. She got to cover the Governor’s Ball, and even got to interview the Governor himself! And do you know what I got to cover?”
Alex pouts, folding her arms. “The local butcher winning a gold medal for making the biggest pork sausage in the state!”
A giggle escapes before I can swallow it. “I’m sorry Alex. That totally sucks, and it’s so unfair.” Another giggle threatens to bubble over as I look at her scowl.
Alex looks at me for a moment before dissolving into laughter herself. “Oh I know,” she says between giggles. “But the worst part was him asking me if I wanted to hold his award-winning sausage…”
On it went. Having a conversation like this with your characters helps to reveal much more about their character, their voice and how they react to different situations. Knowing this information makes writing down their conversations much easier. I already knew that Alex was a writer of some description but, from this simple exchange, I discovered that she is a newspaper journalist but hates her job because she is assigned only human interest articles instead of reporting the headline news. The conversation also reveals a personal conflict at her work which is a sore point with her and that she uses sarcasm to deal with disappointment. Regardless of her frustration, our conversation hints at a wicked sense of humour, showing that she’s able to see the funny side of her predicament. From this point onward, because I knew much more about Alex’s speech patterns and mannerisms, the dialogue flowed far more easily.
So next time you’re stuck on dialogue, or discovering exactly how a character speaks, offer them a cuppa and sit down to chat with them outside of the story. You might be surprised at what comes up in conversation.
Writing Novels in Australia