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Writing Effective Dialogue

Writing compelling dialogue is truly an exercise in contradiction. Dialogue is meticulously written, but most appear natural, smooth and spontaneous. In some situations, the proper use of dialogue must contain the same errors people make in daily conversations. Every line of dialogue should have a specific purpose within your narrative, but that purpose is often implied and subtle. Writing effective dialogue that appeals to your readers is a balancing act of creating natural and necessary conversations. If you’re tripping over your words, consider these helpful ideas:

Listen Up

If you’re struggling to create authentic dialogue, get out and find a good spot in town to listen to people as they interact and talk around you. Pay attention to how people converse, the words they use and how they play off each other throughout a conversation. Incorporate these details into your writing, and model the pace and progression of your dialogue after real conversations. Don’t forget to notice the things people don’t say but reveal with body language and gestures. These physical descriptions are a perfect technique to break up lines of dialogue and create white space on the page.

Develop Originality

Each character should have a distinct personality and voice, just like each of your friends or family members. Dialogue is the perfect opportunity to cultivate a character’s individual style and mannerisms. Often times you can accomplish more with a few lines of dialogue than you could with paragraphs of description. By developing their own vocabulary, accent and catch phrases, your characters will come alive and make a lasting impression on your readers.

Just Say It Already

Some writers spend time creating new and inappropriate tags for every phrase of dialogue. Instead of having your character proclaim, quip, or announce, let the tone and content of the dialogue speak for itself. Garish tags distract the reader’s attention from the importance of the character’s words. If using “said” becomes too repetitive, leave the tag out all together. If your dialogue is engaging and each character is distinctive, readers won’t miss it anyway.

Read it Aloud

One tried and true method of evaluating your dialogue, or any text you’re editing, is to read it out loud. When you silently read your work, your brain naturally tends to fill in holes and fix errors in speech and grammar. When you read it aloud, the places where you trip over your tongue are obvious. You can read the dialogue to yourself, but you can really get it down if you can convince others to read it aloud as well. Not only will they stumble where you’ve slipped up, but they can stop when they’re confused or need more details.

Cut the Fat

Have you ever listened to a co-worker go on and on until you finally had a chance to change the subject? Your readers won’t wait for you to finish. Well-written dialogue should reflect real conversations, but people ramble, forget their point and use an array of sounds and comments that would be distracting on the page. Not only should every line of dialogue have a purpose, but sounds like “uh” and “um” don’t belong in your book. Don’t waste time boring your readers with the pleasantries of mundane conversation; get right to the point. Dialogue can establish a tone or mood, develop a character, move the plot forward or foreshadow and create a conflict, but it must be working towards an end to justify its use.