Back in graduate school, the worst insult a writer could inflict on another was that their dialogue was forced or stilted.
Bad writing was one thing. Bad dialogue, quite another. It insinuated that the writer had failed not only in his writing but also as a listener. It implied that you were hopelessly unaware or socially inept.
It was a double-whammy.
I wasn’t immune, of course, and I sat in the stilted dialogue “hot” seat more than once, cringing and shuffling my feet and wishing I had studied accounting or biology or one of those studious sounding subjects like psychics or chemistry.
Years later, I often think of those words as I’m writing dialogue, and they still make me cringe.
Because, face it, writing dialogue is hard. People in books don’t speak as people do in real life, since we don’t spend our days advancing the plot forward. We have no idea that we are part of a plot. Real life isn’t like that.
Writing is. And dialogue is the heavyweight of the story, sweating under the burden of multiple tasks: emphasizing character interaction, highlighting situations and moving the plot forward. It also controls the pace and tension. Every dialogued word holds double, and often triple, meaning. If it didn’t, it probably should be written as straight text.
But how does one write realistic dialogue?
First, listen to people talk. Very few of us speak in full and proper sentences.
Imagine writing this: “Andy, please set the table for dinner, and don’t forget the china plates my grandmother left me in her will.”
Well, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that sentence, but there’s nothing great about it, either.
Try this instead: “Andy, can you set the table, and don’t forget Gramma’s plates.” That’s more of how we speak in our real lives.
But wait! Didn’t I mention earlier than dialogue can’t reflect real life since it’s obligated to hold so many nuances?
I did, which is why I advise creating tension by inserting small slices of narrative within a body of dialogue (and the operative word here is small).
“Andy,” she growled, “please set the table, and don’t forget Gramma’s plates.”
Or, “Andy, please set the table,” Jane said, cradling her head in her hands. “And don’t forget Gramma’s plates.”
That still might not be great writing but it does do what dialogue is meant to do: Create enough tension to keep the reader guessing and ultimately, continue reading.
Other dialogue don’ts:
· Using bad dialect or too much dialect/slang.
· Using too many pause words such as “ums” or “you knows.”
· Not breaking up dialogue with narrative (you know the heavy feeling you get when you open a book to find pages of unbroken dialogue? Don’t do to readers what you don’t want done to you).
· Limit the use of “he said” and “she said.” Substitute with more active words: She yelled, he stuttered, she whined, he coaxed.
· Give each character a distinctive voice.
· Keep dialogue fresh, fast and snappy.
· Write from the characters’ hearts, not just their heads.
· Keep the conflict alive by implying, not stating, the obvious and not-so-obvious
Of course, just as we sometimes say things we later regret, it’s inevitable that we will find ourselves, on rare or even numerous occasions, writing bad dialogue. When this happens, don’t beat yourself or your characters up. Apologize, make the proper amends, and move on.
Cinthia Ritchie is a former journalist who lives and runs mountains and marathons in Alaska. Her work can be found at New York Times Magazine, Sport Literate, Water-Stone Review, Under the Sun, Memoir, damselfly press, Slow Trains, 42opus, Evening Street Review and over 45 literary magazines. Her first novel, Dolls Behaving Badly, released Feb. 5 from Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group.