Any novelist can tell you how difficult it can be to create a passage of dialogue that sings. A brilliantly written conversation between two or more of your novel’s characters can drive your novel forward, develop a character, entertain, or invite readers to understand your story world in a deeper way. On the other hand, a flat interaction can stall the pace of your story.
Here are 5 ways to amp up passages of dialogue:
1. Shorten it.
Unless your character is a motor mouth, keep to one or two sentences with each exchange. The key is to really boil down to the conversation’s most important points. Ask yourself: What is the purpose of this exchange? What is the most crucial piece of information that readers should walk away with?
A simpler conversation is not only more believable, but also helps to keep the pace moving in your novel. By keeping your dialogue tightly focused on its most important points, you’ll find it’s sharper. Readers don’t even need to know every single detail — unless each one directly ties into the rest of the story.
Try this: Take a passage of your dialogue and keep each exchange between 1-10 words. See if that sharpens and livens up your characters’ conversation.
2. Ditch the grammar.
Most people do not speak in grammatically correct sentences. Well, maybe college professors and copy editors do, but the rest of us speak in fragments, run-ons and slang. In fact, most people are pretty sloppy with how they talk.
Unless your character is an Emma-esque lady who purposefully speaks properly to prove a point or to elevate her image, strive for more realistic speech.
Try this: Take a tape recorder and record random bits of conversation you have with people throughout your day. Listen back and transcribe. See if you can get the diction and syntax. What words do people naturally mispronounce or leave out? See what you can apply to your own characters. This technique has worked wonders with many fiction authors I’ve worked with.
3. Create clashing agendas.
Dialogue is much more interesting when characters are at cross-purposes. Then, instead of having your characters simply “discuss” something, they can debate, argue, or try to convince the other to act in a certain way. It can also add tension to a scene if readers know that one character is trying to manipulate the conversation in his favor. Isn’t that much more compelling than a litany of “Hello, how are yous”?
Try this: For each exchange of dialogue, ask yourself: What does each character want in this scene? What words is he/she using to subtly — or not so subtly — get what he/she wants?
4. Stop! Don’t answer that question.
Dialogue that misdirects, that obfuscates, that distracts can reveal a lot about a character’s motives, secrets or hidden agendas. Also, if you have a question answered right away, it can destroy any momentum.
Resist conversations like:
“Woah! What’s that weird thing over there?” Tommy said. He paused, suddenly still. “I think it’s coming closer!” he yelped.
“It’s a gecko,” Ralph replied.
Any suspense readers felt during Tommy’s yelps immediately vanishes with Ralph’s easy answer. Let’s say Tommy’s wild imagination is a huge part of his character — it would be in a writer’s best interests to explore it, even through dialogue.
Try this: Find any passage of dialogue in which any reader asks a question, and find out how many ways you can have the other character avoid answering them.
5. Reveal character.
The words a character chooses to use should reveal her whole backstory, where she’s from, how well educated she is, her social standing, her attitude and what she thinks about. A working class character might describe a McMansion as “impressive,” while someone from old money might describe it as “garish” or “nouveau.”
Try this: Choose a setting in your novel. Have each of your characters give a tour of the setting using words that reveal that character’s particular attitude and background.
Once you truly grasp what it takes to make your novel’s dialogue sing, you may find it’s one of the most enjoyable passages to write. What are your favorite passages of dialogue in literature? Reach out to me in the comments below. Happy writing!