1. Jak of Hearts
    Offline

    Jak of Hearts Member

    Joined:
    Dec 22, 2013
    Messages:
    77
    Likes Received:
    32
    Location:
    Topeka, Kansas

    Improving Dialogue

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Jak of Hearts, Apr 22, 2014.

    So I have given my writing out to a few beta readers and gotten some critiques. Overall they've been fairly positive but one thing I keep seeing is my dialogue feels forced and hackey. I'm looking for suggestions, excercises, tips, tricks, etc that may help improve dialogue writing. I'd appreciate any help.
     
  2. ChickenFreak
    Offline

    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 9, 2010
    Messages:
    8,969
    Likes Received:
    5,491
    My advice on this seems to come out in the form of "don'ts":

    - Don't try to make your dialogue poetic, or literary, or filled with new vocabulary words. The characters need to express themselves, rather than expressing the cleverness of their creator.

    - Don't use words and phrases that people don't speak. I complained elsewhere about a character saying, "when we returned" because in my experience people say "when we got back". "returned" isn't a remotely fancy word in writing, but for some reason it's rarely spoken in that context.

    To test this, you could try speaking your dialogue aloud and see if it feels natural. And as one level further away from the written dialogue, you could try figuring out what your character wants to express, and then expressing that aloud in your own words, and then recalling what you said and writing it down.

    - Don't write your dialogue in too-complex sentences and clauses. It's possible to write sentences that are much longer and more complex than people will realistically speak.

    - Don't substitute dialogue for narrative, or use dialogue as a way to avoid "telling". The proper substitute for

    Jane had always had a strained relationship with her mother.

    is not

    Jane said, "I've always had a strained relationship with my mother."

    However, it might be:

    Joe said, "Aren't you going to answer the phone?"
    "No. It might be my mother."


    - Closely related, don't make your dialogue too on-point. I don't mean that you should insert a lot of indirect waffling, but that you shouldn't make the dialogue too neatly tell the reader what you want to tell them. Because the characters couldn't care less about the reader--they're communicating with the other characters.

    - Also closely related, avoid using dialogue to tell backstory:

    Joe asked, "So what's up this weekend?"
    Jane said, "My good childhood friend George is getting married in Atlanta, the town where I grew up. I will be driving my 1984 Volvo wagon to attend his wedding."


    OK, that's all I've got right now.
     
  3. Cogito
    Offline

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 19, 2007
    Messages:
    35,935
    Likes Received:
    2,043
    Location:
    Massachusetts, USA
    The best dialogue operates on more than one level at once. The literal text of the conversation tends to be the least important, and the other layers should serve to elucidate your characters, the relationships between them, or their hidden motivations.
     
  4. aikoaiko
    Offline

    aikoaiko Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Oct 23, 2013
    Messages:
    285
    Likes Received:
    153
    The other posters have made some excellent points. It's a very simple thing, but I found the most helpful approach for me was just to read it out loud. If the conversation sounded stilted or unnatural I knew it needed work. But it also helped at times to have someone else read it aloud while I listened. If the reader stumbled, hesitated, or stopped in certain places, I knew the flow had been interrupted and I needed to revisit those sections again.

    Good Luck:)
     
    jannert, peachalulu and jazzabel like this.
  5. justlang
    Offline

    justlang Banned

    Joined:
    Apr 29, 2014
    Messages:
    12
    Likes Received:
    3
    I have felt that writing dialogue almost exactly like human conversations would go feel formless and cumbersome to read. In classical literature dialogue has always been more literary than conversational. They are rid of habitual utterings, they flow like poetry or prose instead. It is not too hard for dialogues to suffer from stubborn realism or extreme informality either.
    For instance, your question and my reply are hardly the sorts of things and the sort of style that would happen in real life, but I think it's more closer to the literary dialogue than spoken conversations.
    Hope this helps.
     
    jannert likes this.
  6. peachalulu
    Offline

    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    May 20, 2012
    Messages:
    3,829
    Likes Received:
    2,382
    Location:
    occasionally Oz , mainly Canada
    I usually find dialogue is more about revealing the character ( by what they say and what they don't say ) than about pushing the plot which can be saved for description.

    Think more about what you want to reveal about the characters than in trying to get the characters to convey information to the reader. Once you have that shift - the information can come more naturally through their voice.

    This is from Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. The information is slipped in with a natural feel but the focus is the characters - each voice is distinct and we get a feel of who they are - not just what's going on.
     
  7. Poet of Gore
    Offline

    Poet of Gore Member

    Joined:
    Aug 24, 2013
    Messages:
    94
    Likes Received:
    24
    also, your characters should all have agendas and from these agendas come the lines they speak
     
    jannert likes this.
  8. jannert
    Offline

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    7,803
    Likes Received:
    7,320
    Location:
    Scotland
    I like what everybody is saying here.

    It's a tightrope, trying to make dialogue appear naturalistic, without reproducing it exactly.

    As @ChickenFreak so aptly illustrates, you don't want your characters saying things they never would say in conversation. And this means what they say will differ from character to character. At the same time, you don't want every uhhh ...errrr ...I dunno ...and then he said ...and then I said ...how's the weather inserted into every conversation either. Unless you're trying to convey a person's inability to be articulate, you'll want to keep this sort of thing to a minimum, as @justlang pointed out.

    I'd say also beware of too many repetitions—yes you did, no I didn't—you did, no I did NOT—did, didn't—even if this is indeed the way conversations sometimes do go in real life.

    @Cogito and @Poet of Gore made the point that dialogue should do double-duty. It should develop characters and their relationships as well as give information to the reader, and the more layers of meaning you can work into a simple exchange, the better. And @peachalulu said:
    And @aikoaiko 's tip about reading dialogue out loud is crucial. It really brings out the strengths and weaknesses in your writing in general, but especially in your dialogue exchanges.

    Lots of good advice from the forum members on this thread, in my opinion. :)
     
    Last edited: May 4, 2014
    Catrin Lewis and peachalulu like this.
  9. Chiv
    Offline

    Chiv Active Member

    Joined:
    Dec 2, 2013
    Messages:
    153
    Likes Received:
    73
    Location:
    Everywhere
    Pay attention to real life conversation. Just be aware of how people actually talk. I've found that to be one of the most helpful things when it comes to natural dialogue. It also helps to know your characters. It's okay to use fancy words, as long as your character would use them. If they would use heaps of slang, then by all means use heaps of slang.
     
    peachalulu likes this.
  10. Uberwatch
    Offline

    Uberwatch Active Member

    Joined:
    Jul 26, 2013
    Messages:
    257
    Likes Received:
    38
    Location:
    Los Angeles, California
    Here's a tip that I have learned for quite a while. The characters cannot sound like you. You have to immerse yourself into the character's mind and speak the way he/she should speak. You'd have to do a lot of personality-building but if each character in your story spoke a bit differently, it would feel more natural. Listen to how people speak. Try to notice how some people are consistent with their speech.
     
    peachalulu likes this.
  11. JTB21
    Offline

    JTB21 Member

    Joined:
    Feb 26, 2014
    Messages:
    14
    Likes Received:
    3
    Keep it short and to the point. Hitchcock said that drama is life with all the boring bits edited out so I suggest looking at your dialogue and editing out the 'boring bits', anything that does not need to be there. Just my $0.02
     
    peachalulu likes this.

Share This Page