Well-written, compelling, engaging dialogue moves the plot forward and brings your characters to life.
We all know that the reading becomes faster and the pace quicker when there’s a lot of dialogue in a novel. However, like anything else, balance is the key. A novel with lines of dialogue after dialogue, page after page, without any narration, action or description in between, will get your book rejected. The same will happen if you have page after page with no dialogue at all. So, chances are agents and editors may dismiss your manuscript just by looking at the first few pages, even without having read them.
Here are 8 tips to help you stay away from amateurish dialogue:
1. Be economic with your speech tags (also known as identifiers or attributes). If you have two characters talking, you don’t need to say “he said” and “she said” each time there’s a new line of dialogue. Likewise, be sure you have some tags for rhythm, pacing and clarity—you don’t want your dialogue to be hard to follow either.
2. Don’t be too creative with your speech tags. Speech tags should be ‘silent’, meaning they shouldn’t distract the reader. Stick to the common ‘said,’ and ‘asked’ for the most part. This doesn’t mean you can’t replace ‘said’ with verbs like yelled, cried, muttered, mumbled, groaned, whispered, etc., but do so sparingly and only when necessary.
3. Avoid spitfire dialogue. This happens when you have two characters or more talking one after the other without any pauses or action in between, so that the conversation looks like a tennis match or reads like a screenplay.
4. Don’t interrupt dialogue unnecessarily. This happens when you have an interesting exchange of dialogue and suddenly interrupt it with an unnecessary paragraph of exposition or description. This makes readers impatient and prompts them to skip ahead to get to the good stuff.
5. Let the characters talk—don’t paraphrase them. Noah Lukeman, author of The First Five Pages, calls this ‘journalistic dialogue.’ Don’t quote your characters. Let their dialogue flow in complete sentences instead.
6. Stay away from exclamation marks! (No pun intended). An editor once told me, “Only one ‘!’ per each hundred pages.” No kidding. Dialogue filled with exclamation marks is an instant sign of an amateur. Readers don’t like to be shouted at, and that’s what it feels like when there are many exclamation marks in a story.
7. Avoid commonplace dialogue. (“Hi. How are you?” she said. “Fine. How are you?” he responded.) Remember that each line of dialogue must have a purpose in your story. This type of dialogue can only work if your aim is to portray your characters as boring and unimaginative. Yes, we talk like this in real life, but that doesn’t mean you should include it in your novel. Cut the ‘realistic,’ everyday dialogue and leave the rest.
8. Avoid fake dialogue. One of the surest ways for a dialogue to sound fake is when it’s used to convey information that should be presented in a more subtle or indirect manner. Obviously you can use dialogue to give reader new information, but it takes skill to do it right. It takes subtlety. As Lukeman states, “[Fake dialogue] is dialogue that characters would never use in real life, interchanges that are not artistically real, that don’t spring from characters’ needs, desires and relationships. Instead, this is dialogue imposed on them by the writer.” That’s the key word: imposed. You want your dialogue to sound genuine, natural and spontaneous. He goes on to say that “The most common malady is use of dialogue to convey backstory. The solution is to follow this rule: Dialogue should not be used to state things both characters already know, that is, one character should not remind the other character of something. This is an obvious ploy, intended only for the reader.”
Keep these tips in mind and you’ll be able to write better dialogue and spot mistakes when you revise your own stories or someone else’s.