Writing Good Dialogue In A Novel, by Lia Weston
Dialogue is one of the writer’s most powerful weapons. Powerful doesn’t mean easy, though; as with all weaponry, it can backfire. The skilful can use it to smite their enemies. The less-skilful, however, can end up shooting themselves in the foot.
I had considered breaking down the different types of dialogue until I remembered that good dialogue really only boils down to one thing: conveying information. Whether it’s about the situation, the plot or the character, the trick is to provide the details without smacking the reader in the face with them.
One of the best ways to do this is to avoid employing the classic “As you know, Jim” approach. To wit:
“You look tired, Bob. Is everything OK?”
“No, it’s not. I’m exhausted trying to look after all of the endangered lemurs that were entrusted to my care by my recently deceased aunt who, as you know, Jim, owned a zoo in the middle of the desert because she refused to live anywhere near the coastline for a mysterious and unexplained reason, possibly to do with the fact that she was estranged from most of my family.”
At this point, believe me, Jim wishes he hadn’t asked Bob anything in the first place.
Consider this exchange instead:
“Are the lemurs still keeping you up?”
“If I’d known how much work they were, I’d never have taken them on.”
“It’s not like you really had a choice. Who else was she going to leave her zoo to?”
“She had other nephews. Why me?”
“Because you hate the sea as much as she did? Because you were the only relative who visited when she was dying? I don’t know; you’re both weird.”
There you have it: information without the dreaded information dump. Add in tags and action as desired. Mix and stir.
Dialogue is also a very powerful way of saying something about a character. Consider this scene: it’s midnight at a deserted crossroad. A car has crashed into a tree. There are no signs of life. A second car pulls up, and the driver winds his/her window down. The first thing they say is:
“Stephanie, whatever you do, don’t call the cops.”
“That’s a heritage listed oak, you know.”
“Brilliant! I need another cadaver. This’ll save me a trip.”
You don’t need to explain straight away who the speaker is; one line is enough to give the reader some idea. In addition, the best dialogue both advances the plot and reveals something about the person saying it. If you can inject something of each aspect into every line your characters speak, you’re gold.
One note of caution: watch the slang, which can date a book faster than a blow-by-blow description of an outfit. (I’ve read many a story which has lovingly detailed someone’s safari suit or drop-waisted dress before realising that the character is not actually going to a fancy dress party.) Phrases you may have used in your youth will now either be hilarious or make your characters sound as if they’re being deliberately ironic: “That’s totally bitchin’.” If you haven’t read The Great Gatsby lately, please do. You will agree, old sport, that its dialogue particularly anchors it to the 1920s. Regardless of the potential timelessness of your work-in-progress, try to avoid too much language that’s going to be passé within the next three years. (And if you think three years still gives you some time to be relevant, you may have never dealt with the publishing side of the book industry.)
I’ve discussed in a previous post how it’s important for dialogue to also be natural, to be something that you can imagine people actually saying. ‘Write the way people talk’ is a good starting point, but it’s not a rule I’d recommend sticking to all of the time. Sit in a coffee shop or at a bus stop and listen to an average conversation. Would you want to have to read every syllable of it? No; you want the gist of it. Don’t make your reader work through every “um”, “uh”, “right” and “like”. They will start twitching. No-one wants a twitchy reader.
My final note: accents. Use with caution. Try to give the impression of an accent through the rhythm of the words, the choice of language and the cadence. Please resist the urge to write phonetically, unless you can wield a glottal stop on the page as well as Irvine Welsh. (If you can, call me! There’s nothing like a Scottish burr down the phone line… *sigh*)
Lia Weston’s author website: www.liaweston.com
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