Although I write a lot of different types of writing, if I were honest, sometimes I would willingly forego all prose and simply spend all my time writing dialogue. Writing a good conversation that holds the reader’s interest and advances the story at the same time without becoming exposition is a genuine talent and writers often confess to struggling with it. So here are a few tips.
Dialogue should not sound like real life conversation. But dialogue should sound like real life conversation that has been ruthlessly edited.
Each character should have very different dialogue. Just like in real life, no two people talk in exactly the same way.
Dialogue should flow. Think of dialogue as a mini story in itself. A conversation should have a beginning, a middle and an end.
Dialogue should advance the story. If it doesn’t, then why did you write it? If it can be easily removed from the story without negatively impacting it, then it’s hardly essential.
Dialogue should have range. Characters aren’t in one mood all the time. Sometimes they shout, sometimes they whisper. And the dialogue should suit their mood. Nobody ever whispers, “Fuck off!”
Dialogue should not be exposition. “Show, don’t tell” applies equally to dialogue as it does to prose. “It must have been Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick” isn’t nearly as effective as being in the library with Professor Plum and having him try to kill your main character with the candlestick as well.
Listen! The people around you, both known and unknown, are a great source of inspiration for dialogue. Take the following as an example, which is a selection of comments I added to a list called “Things Jess Says”. A desk neighbour at a previous job was the source of every single one of these pieces of dialogue. And when you get to the end of reading them, I’ll bet you’ll think she sounds like a character from a Judd Apatow movie.
“Ah, Apple. That’s why it’s called The App Store.”
“I’m going to retire to China because I’m good at eating with my hands.”
“Things that look like poop make you poop.”
“You can never predict when a nervous poop is going to happen.”
“I just said I want to go poo in the bush in Zulu.”
“I’m not usually this annoying. I’m just impatient and… no, that’s it.”
“I’m just attention seeking. Give me attention!”
“We weren’t purposely lying to you; we’re just stupid.”
“I had a piece of pepper stuck in my gum and when I got it out my gum was discoloured. I’ve had this other discolouration on my gum for like four years and I thought, ‘What if it’s a piece of pepper?’ So I got a needle… Yeah, it’s just a discolouration. Now my mouth hurts.”
“Do you want to see my discolouration?”
“You were bending over and I looked down your top and I was thinking, ‘4% body fat?’”
“That is the one thing I don’t want: to be mistaken for an American.”
“They’ve got a little dog. He’s about to die. I hate him.”
“My bag is full of Tic Tacs. I thought I was all out and then I put my hand in to get my keys and I had a lovely surprise. Tic Tacs!”
“Tic Tac? They’re orange.”
“You have prickly stuff in your bum?”
After making strange sounds by breathing heavily with a finger partially stuck up her nose: “You can’t write that in your book, can you?!”
“It’s a good thing I have comprehensive travel insurance. I rolled down the fire trail last night.”
To the tune of “‘Tis the Season to be Jolly” upon discovering there was food in the Finance Department in December: “La, la, Finance, full of holly, na na na na na na nom nom nom.”
“Water tastes awesome!”