Day 39 – Writing good dialogue is an art form

Day thirty-nine of my 365 Day Writing Project.

Time: 1 hour 15 minutes

Words: 1,100

The more and more I write fiction, the more I am aware of the challenges of writing dialogue. I actually enjoy writing conversations, but I have to work hard on them. As I write dialogue I often think to myself, “I’m going to need to come back and tweak this later.” Not only to relay the right amount of information for the story line and clean up the dialogue tags, but also to accurately portray the voices of the characters. I feel like some of my characters sound too much the same. Developing each character’s distinct voice and realistically incorporating their voices into the dialogue is essential to the quality of the reader’s experience.

Ali Luke gives some very helpful tips on writing dialogue in her article featured on Write to Done called 10 Easy Ways to Improve Your Dialogue. Of particular interest to me, she offers this: 

Do all your characters sound exactly the same? If so, you need to do some tweaking.

Think about:

  • Age: a 13-year-old will speak differently from a 70-year-old
  • Gender: women and men may use different vocabulary
  • Social background: does your character use down-to-earth words or “posh” ones?
  • Education level: does your character have a wide or limited vocabulary?
  • Geographical area: where do they live?
  • Particular catch phrases: don’t go overboard here, but consider whether your character has any common phrases (things like “for sure!” or “good good” or “awesome”)
  • Verbosity: some people tend to babble, others will be taciturn

One good trick is to take just the lines of dialogue in your short story or novel – cut out the action and dialogue tags – and see whether you can work out who said what.

These are all good points to consider. However, writing technically good dialogue in a first draft is an art form that seems incredibly difficult to master. I always find flaws in my dialogue that need revision, so incorporating all of these factors (plus the many other important rules for good dialogue) while I’m writing midstream seems unrealistic. There is so much to think about to write dialogue well, such as proper use of tags, punctuation, action v. description, accent or dialect, character voice, etc. And each time dialogue appears in a story, many of those things change. The writer must adjust countless factors, sometimes to a precise degree, in order to adequately convey the scene. To be able to do all of that as the words hit the paper for the first time seems damn near impossible. 

What is typical for me is to get the substance of the dialogue down first and then revisit and revise it later. This is not particularly efficient, but until I can improve my process of writing dialogue to be more instinctual and less contrived, I’ll be revisiting and revising my little heart out. 

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2 thoughts on “Day 39 – Writing good dialogue is an art form

  1. I have trouble with dialogue, and that last idea is fantastic. Usually I try to ‘sit’ in my characters’ heads, and see the world how they see it. I guess it’s something like acting, but instead of performing, I just write what I imagine.

    Sometimes, though, it ends up sounding too much like me. This will help that though, thank you for sharing this Erin!

    Like

    • “Usually I try to ‘sit’ in my characters’ heads, and see the world how they see it. I guess it’s something like acting, but instead of performing, I just write what I imagine.”

      I do the same thing! And you’re right – sometimes the characters sound too much like me, or too much like each other. My latest method is to get the text down and worry about polishing it later. That way I don’t get too hung up on details when I’m in the flow of the moment.

      Like

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