This is a guest post by Rebecca H. Jamison.Rebecca is the author of Persuasion: A Latter-day Tale, a modern twist on Jane Austen’s Persuasion. She grew up Virginia, attended Brigham Young University, and now lives in Utah with her growing family. You can learn more about her at www.rebeccahjamison.com.
Even the best writers sometimes fall short when it comes to writing dialogue. Here’s an example of dialogue gone wrong in Star Wars Episode III:
Anakin: Don’t you see, we don’t have to run away anymore. I am more powerful than the Chancellor. I can overthrow him, and together you and I can rule the galaxy.
Padme: I don’t believe what I’m hearing… Obi-Wan was right. You’ve changed.
Anakin: I don’t want to hear any more about Obi-Wan. The Jedi turned against me. Don’t you turn against me.
Padme: I don’t know you anymore. Anakin, you’re breaking my heart.
The dialogue in this example reminds me a little of a seventies pop song”””I don’t know you anymore “¦ You’re breaking my heart.” People don’t actually talk this way, which brings me to my first point.
Dialogue should be realistic
As you write dialogue, ask yourself whether people would actually say the same things in real life. But don’t go overboard with realism. You don’t need to include the boring stuff like “and um” or “Hello. How are you?”
Each character’s speech should be a little different
Each character should have a distinctive style of dialogue. In my novel, I sometimes let my main character Anne stumble over her sentences to show that she’s nervous. Neil’s dialogue is snappier and more confident. I wanted him to sound cool.
Some characters may use bigger words than others. Some may use a little slang. Some may have quirky tendencies. For example, Rachael Renee Anderson’s character Stella, in Minor Adjustments, has a tendency to drop trivial facts into her dialogue.
Be careful not to overdo dialogue differences. A little bit of slang or quirkiness can go a long way.
Instead of using words like, “he said” or “she explained,” use the characters’ actions to show who’s talking. Here’s an example from my book, Persuasion: A Latter-day Tale when Anne runs into her ex-boyfriend for the first time in eight years:
Because I can’t seem to say anything, Neil has to be the first to speak. “Hi, Anne. It’s nice to see you.” He reaches his hand out to shake mine. But I’m holding the toddler who is now kicking and screaming.
I try to smile. I remember hearing somewhere that a smile is the most important accessory. That’s good because it’s all I’ve got. “Oh, hi, Neil. It’s good to see you too.” The toddler continues to scream.
Neil cocks his head and looks at the little boy in my arms. He isn’t going bald at all. His hair is still dark and thick on top. “Do you need some help?”
I can hardly believe that he is still so handsome, and I’d forgotten how his voice is so gentle and deep. “Oh, no, I’m fine.”
He puts his hands in his pockets and rocks back on his heels. “So, are these yours?”
I smile. “Yeah.” Then I realize he’s asking about the children. I guess he hasn’t been Googling my name lately. “I mean, they’re mine, but they’re not mine. I mean, they’re my sister’s kids. They’re my nephews. I’m watching them for her.”
Use Dialogue to Advance the Plot
Good dialogue should move the action forward and explain the characters. Be careful, though, that you don’t explain everything all at once. Every novel needs a little mystery, and dialogue is a great way to increase the sense of mystery. Let the readers guess what’s going to happen next.
I’d like to hear what you think. Do you have any tips for writing great dialogue?