Every editor I have ever had has said the same thing.
“Where did you learn to write dialogue like that?”
I like writing dialogue. It accomplishes two things: It allows you to convey a character’s feelings without TELLING the reader how a character feels. That is a great reason, to be sure. But the BEST reason to write good dialogue is that it moves your story along at a much quicker pace than descriptive prose. You can spend three hundred words telling the reader about the intrinsic beauty of two blue jays mating on the back lawn and the majesty of nature and the way the act of procreation moves your character’s soul, or you can simply have your character say, “Did you see those two blue jays doin’ it? It was awesome!”
Dialogue can describe so much if you allow it to happen naturally.
Look at some of the classics for inspiration. Don Quixote is forty billion pages long and it is almost all dialogue. Say what you want about Cervantes, but the man could write some talking.
Now, how do you write GOOD dialogue? That answer is simple. You LISTEN to the way people talk and write that down. Just write it down. Easy.
Forget about form and flow and all the instruction you got at writer’s camp. The fact is that most of the dialogue in fiction today is garbage for a reason. Too many writers write dialogue for other writers. People in real life simply do NOT talk like that.
If you ask a twenty-three year old girl how old she is, she doesn’t say:
“I am twenty three years old, sir”
Next time you are at the bookstore or the grocery store just listen to conversations and you will learn more than I can ever tell you in a five hundred word blog.
Which of these two examples sound like real people talking? (The first example is from a real honest to goodness published author who will remain nameless)
“What do you want for dinner tonight?’ said Karen.
“I like that roast you made last week, honey. Why don’t we have that for dinner tonight? It sure was delicious,” replied Rick.
“Hey. What do you want to eat tonight?”
“Good God. I don’t know. What about roast?”
“We had that last week.”
“Did you like it that much?”
“Yeah. It was good.”
If you answered anything except number 2, then please start over at the top of this blog and try again. Number two flows better, sounds more realistic and look how much more room it took up. Awesome!
And remember that it also matters to whom your characters are speaking. Perspective is very important. For instance, twenty-something girls talk much differently to a policeman than a forty year old ex-army sergeant would. Sheltered housewives talk to their friends one way and their husbands another. Men talk differently to other men than they would to their boss or girlfriend. It is highly unlikely that your characters will interact with only one person; so don’t forget perspective.
And finally, unless your story is set in 1492 – USE CONTRACTIONS.
Do not say “Do not.”
You will not say “Will not.”
Say “Don’t” and “Won’t”
It simply does not sound natural for two people talking to each other to say “I do not want to go to the store with my father.” What they say is “I don’t want to ride with dad.”
Get out there and write that dialogue for your characters. Make then real. Talk like they talk. And listen, listen, listen.
Kit Moss has a degree in English from the University of Oklahoma and had his first short story published at the age of 13. He has spent many years as a radio host, writer of short fiction in the horror genre and short form author. He is currently making the transition to mainstream novelist and believes whole-heartedly in the opportunities that Indie publishing can create for authors all over the world. His first novel, tentatively titled: Sinnerman, is scheduled for electronic release this Christmas.
You can catch Kit via email: email@example.com, at his blog , or on Twitter as @WritingHeroic.
This post is so, so helpful! The first book I wrote didn’t have many contractions. I had to fix that and have learned to do much better. Then I edited a science fiction book for a friend. He had the exact same problem. It seems to be common among new writers. What you said about writing like people talk…that’s something all writers need to learn. I’m still struggling a little with it. It helps to read your dialogue out loud.
I love writing dialogue! I often think that it is dialogue that really makes you connect with a character and identify with them — nothing can throw you out of a story more than badly written dialogue.
Thanks for a great post Kit! By the way, what if your story *is* set in 1492, as mine is?? Here’s a bit of an argument between two of my main characters:
Not a single cart, carriage, horse or strider passed on the road.
“We’ve spent our entire day on this hill,” Rosa remarked, stifling a yawn. She pulled up a handful of daisies and began linking them.
Arcturus stirred and sat up, kneading his back with his fists. “Yes, I was wrong – as usual. We should have kept walking.”
“That’s not what I meant! Only –”
“Perhaps not, but the implication was clear: I’m holding us back.” He stood and turned away from her. Rosa looked up at the back of his head.
“No! All I said was that we’ve sat here all day and –”
“And we could have been that much closer to the port.”
“Will you stop completing my sentences?” She stood up, daisy chain dangling from her hand. “I don’t care about the port! I was merely thinking how strange it was that no carts had gone by.”
“My fault, is it, that I don’t know when market day is around here?”
“Why should it be your fault? Would they have the same market day as back home? What was the day when you were here last?”
“Stop asking me questions!” He whirled about to face her. “I don’t know why! Why we’re on this journey, why we’re together. I looked after you at the Abbey and suddenly I have to be responsible for the rest of your life?” He turned away again, looking off into the woods.
“You certainly need not feel responsible for me! I did not ask for your – for anything from you!” She was tempted to push him into the fire at his feet. She opened her fists and let the crushed daisy petals fall to the ground.
“Then don’t blame me if –”
“I haven’t blamed you for anything! You’re still putting words in my mouth!”
“Aha! Once more, I’m at fault? Well, if that’s the way you feel –”
“–you can take your leave of me –”
“There’s a cart coming.”