This week’s discussion was all about dialogue. If you missed the meeting and didn’t get the handout, you can find Thomasa’s tips for writing good dialogue over here, and here’s the rest of what the group came up with:
How your characters speak is just as important as what is said. Be descriptive, but resist the urge to get too fancy with your dialogue tags—”said” is perfectly fine, and leaning too heavily on more interesting synonyms and adverbs can clutter up your writing; basically, make them count. Realistic speech isn’t grammatically correct, so dialogue doesn’t have to be and can suffer for trying.
What characters do while speaking, listening, or waiting their turn to speak is another crucial part of dialogue—it illustrates character just as much as their words do, keeps a scene moving instead of bringing it to a screeching halt every time your characters need to chat, and can break up the page visually during a long conversation. Similarly, dialogue breaks up the page during long narration and can convey information in a more interesting way, so long as it sounds natural and isn’t simply exposition with quotation marks around it.
Dialogue is characterization: vocabulary, tone, dialect, articulation, length of speech and how often a character chooses to speak. Distinctive dialogue sets characters apart and shows that the writer knows them well. How characters speak to one another can also reveal character dynamics. When you’re in a bind, let your characters talk for a while. Let them banter, argue, and ramble. Give them small talk and inside jokes. You may not end up using all of the material the exercise turns up, but it can help you get to know your characters, their personalities, needs, and motives, and the results will be dialogue that feels natural and and characters who feel lived-in.
The same goes for plot: characters choose to offer information, to tell secrets, to leave out details or context, to lie outright. This can create tension, conflict, mystery, disrupting or furthering your plot.
Have somebody read your dialogue aloud. Hearing it outside your own head, without the notes you’re imagining when you write it, can highlight where your dialogue stumbles and whether it’s hitting home the way you imagine it.
A character’s thoughts don’t exactly follow the same rules as dialogue—there’s less, if any, interplay with other characters—but can suffer from some of the same pitfalls, so that’s something to be aware of if you’re a fan of the inner monologue.
While we want to mimic life in writing and avoid over-the-top speech, realistic dialogue isn’t necessarily good dialogue—real speech is messy, clumsy, sometimes unbearable to listen to, much less read for hundreds of pages, because real people don’t have time to draft and revise in the middle of a conversation (though some will try). Keep an eye out for the line between “realistic enough” and “unreadable”.
Here are a few other perspectives, with the weight of a little more experience behind them. Not all advice is for everyone: you’ll see some overlap and some divergence. See what works for you.