Welcome to 2017, everyone! I’d like to start off the new year with a discussion about dialog. Heh—talking about talking.
I’ve become more confident in my abilities over the years, because it took years of work. I’ve grown from the classes, books, and editors that have given me insight on deciding what makes realistic dialog.
If you’re ready to write that new novel, or this is the year that you finally finish a project, here are some strategies for nailing realistic dialog in you WIP.
Talk it Out
Most writers have a difficult time making the conversation flow sound realistic and natural. If you’re a fan of the Star Wars movies, you know that unnatural dialog can be cringe-worthy, and we’d prefer our writing not make readers cringe.
If you’re looking to improve your dialog, consider saying the conversation out loud. You can record yourself if want to keep some one-line zingers. You can either verbally plot out the conversation and write it down, or you can write down what you have in your head and then read it aloud. Having a trusted friend, spouse, or beta reader help you if you have multiple speakers. You can use their insight to figure out if everyone is saying the right thing at the right time.
Know Your Characters
You can get a better idea of what your character should or shouldn’t say just by narrowing down a character’s age, gender, social class, and education. Thus, to have realistic dialog, it should also naturally fit the character.
Here are some examples of how dialog can change based on character variables:
- Children can mispronounce words, say something overly-obvious or observant, and use simple grammar.
- Introverted characters will keep quiet and only share information they feel necessary to divulge. They, especially male characters, will generally not think out loud or overly express their feelings. You’ll likely need to replace dialog with gestures or facial expressions.
- Characters with specific interests or talents won’t “give themselves away,” by talking about their interests, especially to people they already know. They won’t over-explain their schedules or beliefs to be overly obvious for the reader’s sake.
Many writers forget that you can also bend the rules with dialog: a character can use slang, mispronounce words, or otherwise have bad grammar. It’s just realistic to expect that unless the character is a grammar expert or sees themselves as highly educated, they’re going to be casual with what they say.
Ideally, every character should have their own “voice.” I bet if you read your favorite book and all the names were taken out of the dialog tags, you would likely know who’s saying what. That’s because dialog is a major part of who your characters are. It’s a difficult thing to master—I don’t think I’m completely there yet—but being actively aware of their unique voice will help guide you when editing dialog.
Write it Out, Then Wait to Edit
This goes for any part of writing, but this works especially for dialog. You might write something you really like and feel satisfied right after your writing session. Give that dialog a day or two before looking over it again.
I’ve noticed that when in the writing zone, I’ll take the dialog in a certain direction, but once I look at it a week later, I actually predicted the dialog would go in a
different better direction and then I’m surprised that week-ago me chose to write the dialog that way. The more time you give yourself, the more you’ll have the mind of your reader; things won’t seem so predictable and therefore “right” in your mind.
You might try this out and realize you don’t like the direction of the dialog, but don’t know what would be a better alternative. This is something your editor or beta reader could help you flesh out.
When in Doubt, Avoid the Clichés
I probably don’t have to lecture you on what is considered clichés. We all have our pet peeves such as lovey-dovey sappy talk, monologing, or elaborate plan-revealing. I think a lot of the clichés we see potentially result in a writer thinking, “Something should go here, so until I figure it out, I’ll put a line or two here.” Like, a writer might not feel confident that their villain’s plan is interesting enough, so they’ll overcompensate with the elaborate plan-revealing.
Clichés are hard to avoid—especially if what I consider cliché is something you enjoy adding to your manuscript. Revising dialog to be fresh and interesting takes a lot of reading on your part (figure out what works and what doesn’t), refocusing on your audience, and taking criticism from trusted readers and editors.
This was something I had to do when revising Destiny Seeker, since I wrote half of it during high school. My reading interests and writing strengths evolved since then, and so Destiny Seeker needed to evolve with them. It involved a lot of rewriting, but now I feel confident in my dialog to the point where I feel comfortable even sharing these tips.
Trust Your Writer Voice
When starting your writing journey, there’s a lot of stuff out there about “finding your writer voice.” Seeing blog posts about finding a writer voice sort of indirectly told me I didn’t have one—or mine wasn’t engaging enough.
Honestly, you can’t learn this stuff in one blog post or college class. You have to cultivate your voice over time.
Basically, if you’re worried that your writer voice isn’t amazing, be patient. We know what good writing and good dialog sounds like because people put themselves out there. It’s something you identify after it’s written rather than formulate.
Instead of totally copying and pasting what they do, just trust what you have and be open to constructive criticism. People can tell when you’re forcing a certain voice—if you’re trying to be extra formal or snarky, for example. Dialog isn’t everyone’s strong suit, so you can focus more on other aspects you excel at or you can continue to practice.
Eventually, you’ll surprise yourself when a character finally takes shape and says stuff that you didn’t plan on, which is the best part of writing dialog.
These are just a few tips—I’m sure other writers have their own tactics for addressing dialog. You’ll notice that I talk a lot about getting a second opinion for your manuscript. If you’re looking for a beta reader or freelance editor, check out our Contact Us page to see how we can help you! I recently updated my resume so it’s looking really fancy right now.
What do you think of these strategies, and do you have ideas of your own? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below or on social media!