Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Secrets to Great Dialogue

Ever notice how the art of multi-tasking is absolutely essential when writing fiction?

It's a given that you've got to have a page-turning plot, compelling, well-developed characters and a warm voice that invites readers in, but another element of the story that's absolutely crucial is dialogue.

As I piddle away on my work in progress, I've been re-watching one of my favorite TV shows, "Felicity." Long before "Alias" and "LOST," "Felicity" was J.J. Abrams' first show, and like another one of my guilty pleasures, "Gilmore Girls," the dialogue is seriously one of the best things about it.

Even though it's a guy writing the dialogue for a show starring a girl, he absolutely nails it. All the hopes and fears and uncertainties that come with being a college-aged female are perfectly captured. In fact, there are moments where I'm convinced he stole my diary from my own college years because what he says is that spot-on.

And considering the motley crew of characters he's created, he still managed to give each and every person his/her own voice, too. Julie is vulnerable and artsy. Elena is sure of herself, almost to a fault, and not afraid to be blunt. Noel is the soulful, compassionate soul who wears his heart on his sleeve. Ben is charming but self-serving, yet in the most unexpected moments, there are flashes of humanity that surprise you. Felicity is thoughtful, emotional and contemplative.

The writers give these characters room to breathe and grow, yet they're always consistent in having their voice and reactions to situations fit within the context of their character. And never, ever do they waste a line of dialogue. Without being so clever that it's hard to imagine these people ever existing, the writers make sure every line has a purpose, namely moving the story forward and allowing the viewer to get to know the character in the process.

So now that we're on the subject, what exactly are the secrets to great dialogue?

Sometimes discovering what works is a direct result of finding out what doesn't. For instance, the worst dialogue is where the writer tries dumping a bunch of informative data into a conversation. It never, EVER sounds natural, and worse yet, it's a lazy way of letting you readers know something important.

Writers tend to do this most with flashback-type information like "Remember when my cousin got in that car accident? I couldn't get behind the wheel for weeks, and to this day, it's made me afraid of driving and riding in cars."

You never want your dialogue to sound like that because, let's face it, our conversations would never sound that way. And like Betsy said in her excellent post yesterday, keepin' it real is an absolute must.

Other things to avoid when crafting killer dialogue is addressing characters by their proper name (NO ONE does this in real life), getting too fancy with your dialogue tags ("said" is still your best option most of the time—adding some action to the mix helps break up the monotony) and putting words in the mouth of people that simply don't fit.

For instance, if you're established that a character is generally the quiet, thoughtful type, giving them a long-winded soliloquy (which should be avoided anyway) just isn't consistent. If someone's from the Midwest, having them say "y'all" all the time just won't work.

Finally, the best secret to great dialogue is simply listening. Go to your local coffee shop, the mall, even church and eavesdrop on people's conversations (discreetly, of course). The way they talk to each other is the best way of learning what works as dialogue in a story. While a quirky character with a very unique manner of speaking is certainly welcome and adds plenty of color, it's important to have characters firmly grounded in reality. And when you do that, writing dialogue will be a whole lot easier—and your W.I.P will be far superior as a result.

Now it's your do you write dialogue? What works and what doesn't?


  1. Another great post! I write historical fiction, so my greatest task is to always make it real - and still historical. Methinks thou dost understand the difficulties presented therein. :)

  2. No the Midwest would say "you betcha'" lol

    *squeel* I LOVED felicity, wish it was still on, I never understood her draw to Ben though, he was a doofus when she followed him! Also major GG fan as well as Everwood. Did you like that one? And now Bunheads is coming back Jan 7th, so exciting and fun yet writers depression over I'm not that quick witted.

  3. Great advice!!

    Can't WAIT for Bunheads ;) I feel that depression over Bunheads and GG, Tonya. lol Who wouldn't? It's fantastic.

    Alicia, wow that's a struggle for sure!