By Daniel Boyko and Zoha Arif
It is a universal consensus that writing dialogue is a trial—a detestation on its own—and one of those elements of writing that, during the editing process, can prompt the strange, harrowing experience of confusion, embarrassment, and a session of internal questioning: What was I thinking? Did I seriously write that?
Unnatural, inorganic dialogue can make any character sound like an evil robotic Martian stranded on the great abomination of earth (with no hope of reconnecting with its extraterrestrial kind), trying to camouflage into human society and failing completely and utterly to do so. Of course, when dialogue feels this way, the cringe and laughable aftereffect experienced by the reader is inevitable and can detract from the overall impact of a work. Yet, in spite of all of this, dialogue is a necessary evil; it is an incredibly powerful tool that, when natural and realistic, can conceive a narrative between characters and propel plot forward.
One of the key concepts around dialogue is writing how people actually speak. It sounds simple enough, especially when considering that dialogue is meant to be people speaking, but it’s still something that even seasoned writers find a challenge. Reading dialogue out loud after you’ve written it down gives your ears a chance to judge if the dialogue sounds natural when spoken. If it doesn’t sound right, then chances are it’s not how people genuinely speak.
Listening to real people have conversations is also a good exercise to pinpoint specific characteristics of speech and hear the rhythm of everyday dialogue. Keep in mind that real people often speak in fragmented sentences that don’t always follow standard English grammar conventions. Also, keeping sentences short and simple and editing out all unnecessary dialogue (e.g. doesn’t show character) is essential for organic dialogue. Slang, vulgarities, contractions, and colloquialisms are also common findings. Listeners may cut off the speaker mid-sentence to insert their own opinion or comment, resulting in conversations littered with stops and starts, “uhms” and “ahs,” fumblings—overall, messy. Humans speak in a way that is chaotic, and creating dialogue that is completely realistic can make a series of actions hard for readers to follow. As a writer, your goal should therefore be to create dialogue that is realistic enough that it makes the characters feel believable but doesn’t distract the reader—as opposed to dialogue that is 100% realistic.
Dialogue can effectively be used to spur plot and elaborate on characters, hopefully adding needed character development and a sense of personality, but only in short amounts (with the exception being a play or a screenwrite). The primary function of dialogue is to bring a character’s speech to life, thus submerging the reader into the writer’s world. However, in a short story or poetry, less can be more. As important as dialogue can be, the story pace is just as crucial. With no breaks between snippets of dialogue, a reader can become bored because of the resulting slowed pace and lack of realism. Speech between characters should enhance a piece, not anchor it, so you should be extra cautious in managing how dialogue affects the pace of a story.
Furthermore, people don’t naturally speak in paragraphs or essays. Unless someone is deliberately making a speech, there is no real need to have thick blocks of text upon text for one character. Information dumping is often the culprit, and using a character as if he/she were the narrator is conducive to block-like dialogue. If you really want to showcase how a character feels and highlight his/her personal side, then consider using internal thoughts—which are often marked with italics. Having a single character ramble on for a page about what is happening in the story won’t result in strong writing.
Info-dumping also causes the author to be the one speaking, not the character, which takes away from the main purpose of dialogue. So how do you avoid that? Don’t be superficial or overly-complex with your dialogue—this is not the time to overuse your adjectives. Also, instead of weaving components of a story together through dialogue, do it through narration—whether it be first, third, or even the rare second person. Consider how this will allow dialogue to do its job, and as a result, characters will be made far more believable. In addition, the universal rule of showing instead of telling can be applied to writing natural dialogue. Instead of having a character state that their significant other is breaking their heart, showing it through dialogue that embodies the appropriate tone and word choice will better convey emotions to the reader.
Natural dialogue also manifests itself when an author gives each character a unique voice; the background of the character should contribute to the distinct style and syntax with which each character speaks. A British character, for example, may use a different choice of vocabulary than their American english-speaking counterpart with phrases like “I’m feeling peckish” rather than “I’m hungry,” “chips” instead of “fries,” and “secondary school” instead of “high school.” To mimic the natural language conventions of characters with distinct backgrounds, it can be beneficial to research the language beforehand. Watching films and reading books centered around the ethnic or national group you are trying to mimic is an effective way to hear, out loud, the way the language is supposed to sound and be structured. And even if all characters in a particular piece have similar backgrounds and lifestyles, every human being is different and, consequently, has a unique style of speaking. Distinct voices mimic real-life conversations and produce realistic dialogue.
The dynamic that dialogue brings to a story once crafted naturally and used effectively is irreplaceable; its ability to alter or maintain the pace of a story and develop characters is an attribute that can accentuate any piece. Though dialogue, as with all writing elements, requires experimentation and practice, dialogue offers worthwhile constructive benefits. By inducing a sense of realism in dialogue and balancing the amount and style of it throughout a piece, you can ensure that you write less evil Martians and more genuine human personalities.
Daniel Boyko is an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.
Zoha Arif is a Second Reader at Polyphony Lit and the Managing Editor at Voices.