Updated: May 17
I was surprised when I learned that many authors are afraid of writing dialogue.
“Dialogue is easy to write!" I said to myself. "What's the big deal?”
I thought I was special.
After receiving many criticisms of my dialogue over the years, I learned I wasn't so special.
Why is dialogue so hard to write?
Ask yourself the following question: Would you be a little nervous if someone handed your dearest fictional works to an expert to review? This is what happens when ordinary people read your dialogue because human beings have the ability to process dialogue better than ordinary writing.
Speech and our brain
Speaking and hearing human speech is physiologically more natural than reading and writing. Barring medical challenges, virtually all children around the world learn to speak without formal schooling.
This is not the case with reading and writing. While some parts of our brains are dedicated to speaking and understanding human speech, none are dedicated to reading and writing. By the late 1600s, two hundred years after the invention of the printing press, only 30% of the world population could read, while nearly all of the population could speak.
When compared to reading and writing,
your readers are experts on speaking and understanding speech,
or in other words, dialogue.
Canary in the coal mine
Your readers are able to detect flaws in your dialogue to a greater degree than in the remainder of your prose. This makes your dialogue the canary in the coal mine. It provides advance warning of danger. Your dialogue is a litmus test of the quality of the remainder of your writing.
Once you’re comfortable about writing dialogue (and your readers agree with you), you’re on the way to becoming a good writer.
Dialogue is faked, too
But wait, there's more. Not only is our dialogue held to a higher standard by our readers than the remainder of our work, it must be faked, too.
"What?" you ask.
By faked, dialogue in fiction,
is shorter and crisper than in real life.
is ideal speech: characters speak in the best way possible given the limitations of their character.
must forward plot, define character, and set mood, tone, setting, and atmosphere.
Your dialogue must feel real, but not actually be real
Dialogue in fiction is more efficient than real-life dialogue. Just as fictional adversity often resolves faster than in real life, fictional dialogue moves more quickly than in real life. Fictional dialogue is an illusion, just like the rest of your prose.
Good dialogue in fiction isn't how people talk.
It's how people want to talk.
Real dialogue is not interesting to read. People blather and hang onto unnecessary words like “um,” “uh,” and “well.” It bugs me when I hear professionals on the radio or TV use these words. They ought to know better.
Think of good dialogue as you would good action. The same rules of writing apply to both:
The following example demonstrates excellent dialogue between two characters from the movie Blade Runner 2049. Officer K (male) and Luv (female) are both robots, but look, act, speak, and even feel like human beings. They just listened to part of a conversation recorded thirty years prior between Detective Deckard and Rachael. In the recording, Rachael had asked Deckard a series of questions.
The following brief conversation between Officer K and Luv then follows:
Officer K: She likes him.
Officer K: This officer Deckard. She's trying to provoke him.
Luv: It is invigorating being asked personal questions. It makes one feel...desired." Luv pauses, looks at Officer K, and asks, "Do you enjoy your work, officer?"
Officer K: (Breathes deeply) "Please thank Mr. Wallace for your time."
What is really being communicated in this conversation is not found in the words spoken. Readers love this! Often in real dialogue, and especially in fiction, two or more messages are communicated at once. When you master this technique, you will be on your way to becoming a great writer.
Here are ways to make your dialogue better:
Avoid dialogue without context. Having your character say, "I am sad," without your reader first knowing why--by body language, setting, theme, events, and a host of other factors--is the spoken equivalent of "telling" instead of "showing."
In and out. When a scene begins, initiate dialogue as late as possible so the reader gets a sense first of what is going on, and then end the scene shortly thereafter. This makes your dialogue crisper and more efficient.
Don't make the dialogue carry too much of the story.
Dialogue must match the character's desires and not the author's, and those desires must be established before the dialogue takes place.
Characters change how they talk depending on who they talk to. Including such fine-tuning will make your characters richer and more three-dimensional.
Have someone read to you aloud the dialogue in your story. If it's not good, you'll be embarrassed to hear it. Better fix it now than later.
See this excellent video on good vs. bad dialogue.
Here are common ways authors abuse dialogue:
Too few dialogue tags (he said, she said). I see this all the time when I review other writers' works. After five or six exchanges of dialogue, I don't know who's speaking.
Dialogue that does not forward character, theme, mood, setting, or plot.
Too much hip, snappy, funny talk. Readers won't like a story just because the main character says, "Cool, dude!"
Characters who talk too much in fiction are just as annoying as people who talk too much in real life.
Too much exposition in dialogue, when it feels like the characters are talking to the reader.
Good examples of dialogue
There is an infinite variety of dialogue styles and techniques authors can use. Rather than provide examples, I refer you to an excellent post on www.stackexchange.com, that answers the question “How do we objectively assess if a dialogue sounds unnatural or cringy?"
If you want to watch an excellent video that explains everything I have discussed and much more, then watch this.
What to do about this?
Hunker down and work harder! Don't get discouraged. You’ll reach your goals eventually. Someday you'll be like Stephen King and write a top-seller novel (Dolores Claiborne) consisting of 100% dialogue.