Vanessa Di Gregorio
Ah, dialogue. One of the most important aspects of any manuscript. It develops character, progresses the plot, shows conflict, sets the mood, and is a source of information. Dialogue is great. And necessary.
But it’s also tough.
Often, dialogue can be the most underwritten or overwritten part of your story. It can be underwritten when the words you choose aren’t strong enough; when your dialogue is weak. It needs the constant use of adverbs, such as quietly, excitedly, and angrily in order to convey what the dialogue itself should be conveying.
“I can’t believe that!” she said angrily.
There. An adverb. Angrily. Now, some might argue that the line by itself needs that angrily in order to understand how that line is being said. For all we know, she could be saying that excitedly. It might seem necessary standing on its own like that, but there will be context behind that line. Remember, you aren’t going to have floating lines of dialogue like that; it will be sandwiched between action and more dialogue. The dialogue that comes beforehand should set that line up, and should be strong enough to allow your readers to understand whether or not she says that line angrily, or excitedly.
“Okay Amber… Don’t freak out, okay?” Liz came up beside me, and I looked at her, totally confused.
“What? Oh Liz, you can’t say that, cause I’ll obviously start to kinda freak a bit!”
Liz stood there, silent.
“Oh God Liz, you are totally worrying me! What’s wrong?”
“Don’t get mad at me, ‘kay?” She paused. “I heard that Tracy is going out with Mark.”
“What? I can’t believe that!”
Okay. So perhaps not the best scene of dialogue, but you get my point. Amber obviously isn’t excited to hear that. It should be obvious that your character is saying things a certain way. If your dialogue isn’t strong enough, it won’t portray that. Try going back to the actual dialogue and see if you can make what’s inside the quotation marks stronger. You shouldn’t be trying to fix your dialogue by tacking on adverbs. Avoid adverbs as much as you can; if you can make your dialogue do all the talking, then throw away the adverb. It will just be redundant.
Now, dialogue that is overwritten will tend to include descriptions that aren’t really necessary. You need to trust your readers a bit more.
“Are you blaming me?” Jack got defensive.
You probably don’t need the Jack got defensive line. Just the line of dialogue itself is a clear indication that Jack is saying it defensively. If the meaning of your dialogue gets lost when you remove these types of descriptions, look at your dialogue, and not what is outside of it. You should be beefing up what your characters are actually saying; not describing things that should be obvious. The less stuff cluttering your dialogue like that, the better it will be. Your dialogue will be much easier to read, and the pacing will be much quicker as well.
You need to sound realistic enough to have dialogue that isn’t jarring or overly awkward (unless, of course, you’re writing a scene of awkward dialogue!), but at the same time, you need to remember that you’re not trying to document everything by being TOO realistic. Alfred Hitchcock once said that a good story was “life, with the dull parts taken out.” Dialogue should follow the same rule. Don’t make it boring! You want your readers to want to keep reading. In real life, people will talk about mundane things; perhaps about the weather, or they’ll ask how the family is doing. In short, in real life we procrastinate when we talk; we avoid the good, juicy information until we’ve finished with the boring pleasantries. When writing, however, this isn’t the best thing to do. It can make for long, boring dialogue. It can also really slow down the pace of the scene. And pacing is always important in your manuscript. So remember: you aren’t trying to copy reality. You’re trying to write good dialogue that is plausible, engaging, and interesting.
The Problem of He Said, She Said
This is pretty self explanatory. It can be distracting when every line ends with the tags “he said” or “she said”. Overusing it takes away from what your characters are saying. Because, of course, you want your readers to notice the brilliant dialogue you’ve written! Don’t feel the need to constantly show that a character is feeling an emotion (ie. sad), and then use “he said sulkily” and “he said miserably” and etc etc. You aren’t trying to show off your skills at using different synonyms in your tags. Overusing tags like this can lead to overwriting your dialogue; it can also make it melodramatic. So, avoid using tags such as “he/she said” often. But, don’t leave it out completely during long bits of dialogue! It can get really confusing if you leave it out for too long.
Don’t forget about description though! You should break up your dialogue with action; your characters are more than just lines of speech. The way they react during dialogue should be shown. If someone flinches away from the other person after something is said, you should show it.
Ask yourself this question: are your characters listening to each other? Or are they both just speaking? You need to make sure that your characters are actually responding to one another – not just spewing out information in order to further the story. One person speaks, the other reacts. And so on and so forth. This might seem obvious, but when you actually start writing, sometimes this isn’t something that you think about. So… keep it in mind when writing your dialogue.
Read Out Loud
Reading your dialogue out loud is a great way to figure out if your dialogue is working or not. And just read the dialogue. Ignore everything else; ignore all the descriptions and tags. Does it make sense when you just read out the dialogue? Does it flow well? Or is it jarring and awkward?
Another great way to improve your dialogue? Read plays and scripts. Seriously. It is pure dialogue after all, and you can get a sense of what people are feeling even with little to no direction on how the character reacts. You’ll know when someone is angry, or confused, or sad. What are they saying that makes their feelings so apparent? Figure that out, and you’ll be on your way to writing good dialogue.
So yes, dialogue is difficult. But hopefully, when you get back to you WIP, you’ll be able to tackle your dialogue with less worry!
Vanessa is an intern at The Rights Factory, a literary agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program, and is trying to figure out where in the world of publishing she wants to end up in. Currently, she is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.