I don’t often write about writing, I typically keep my posts and advice to publishing. Why? Because I don’t feel that I’m a writing teacher. I’m a writer, sure, in the sense that I do this blog, but having never truly written fiction I don’t feel I have the experience to really teach readers specifics about how to write. I’m also not sure that’s something that can really be taught. Certainly I think you can learn to write, but I think much of what you learn has to be self-taught through trial and error.
All of that being said, which has little to do with today’s post, I do have some thoughts on writing dialogue, some of which was inspired by a post I did on Grammar in Books. One of the biggest mistakes I see with new writers, those who have just finished the first book, is stiff dialogue. With a piece of fiction, it’s imperative that the characters come alive for your readers, and one of the best ways to learn about characters is to see them and hear them in action. When writing dialogue, I think it’s important to really note how people talk.
The next time you’re having a conversation or, better yet, observing a conversation that someone else is having, pay attention to how much you can discern about what they are saying even when you can’t hear the words. Body language, mannerisms, and even things like exhausted sighs go a long way into how our words get across to our listeners.
Dialogue made up of nothing but words rarely works. For example, how natural does this really sound to you?
“Hi, Sally. How is your day going?” asked Tanya.
“Great, Tanya, but I’m really angry about what the boss said.”
“What did the boss say, Sally?” Tanya asked.
And so on....
To make dialogue come alive and to show not tell, as well as to give us insights into who your characters really are, we need body language and we need atmosphere. Is Tanya balancing a bundle of books in her arms? Does she need to shift her weight, preparing for a long story from Sally? If Sally is so angry, how come we don’t see this, and is it logical for someone who is so angry (as she claims) to also say she’s great? Does Sally need to drop her voice so others around can’t hear her? Does she glance around to make sure no one else is listening?
Again, I’m not an expert on writing and how to create great dialogue. I’m sure there are a number of better resources than me to get that information from. But, I can tell you after years of experience that dialogue can make or break your story. Remember, it’s not just a way to have a conversation, it’s a way to introduce your characters and let readers get to know them a little.