Great dialogue is essential if you want to write a novel people will enjoy reading. It is a way of very quickly telling your readers not only what is happening in the story, but also how people are feeling. It needs to be realistic, in that it should be a true representation of how people actually speak, so you need to bear in mind the era and the background of your characters as you may have characters in the book who speak in a very different way.
Dialogue takes up a large portion of most novels and it means you can avoid long, elaborate descriptions and narratives. All the non-relevant bits are taken out when writing dialogue so that it is sharp and clean. Very rarely is a character lost for words or saying ‘um’ or ‘er’. Pointless, amiable chats should be omitted, unless they add something to the story. The reader doesn’t want to be privy to a conversation that merely passes the time of day. And unless it’s part of the character in the storyline, usually they can come up with a great put-down or answer to something which, in reality, you would invariably only think about half an hour later and you would be kicking yourself.
Another trap writers fall into is making their dialogue lame and uninteresting, invariably unnatural and stilted. Always consider how you would respond to a certain situation, what you would say, what frustration and emotion you might feel. Actually show the pain, rage or pleasure in what your character is saying.
The four functions of dialogue are to:
- Progress the story. Dialogue must contain important facts, revelations or the promise of action, opportunities or obstacles to come by relaying a piece of information that is going to be relevant later on. It could also be telling you about the relationship between the people engaging in conversation.
- Create excitement, tension, add humour or elicit another emotion from your reader. This can be done easily with dialogue because the things we say and how we say them reveals how we are feeling. For example, if people are shouting or yelling, it will give the scene a feeling of tension. Likewise, feelings of tension can also be created by the use of words spoken very quietly, even whispered.
- Tell us more about the character’s background or personality. Every time your character speaks, just as in real life, it is telling you something about their personality. There are clues in our accents, choice of vocabulary and intonation. From the sound of your voice on the phone, people will build a picture of what you look like in their own minds. And although they may not get an accurate picture of how you look, it has been proven that a person’s mood is very detectable over the phone.
- Add pace to the story. It can also be used as a tool to relay lots of information quickly or to move on to the next piece of action much quicker than you can with narrative. Rather than including a long description of an amazing beach on a winter’s day, you could have somebody saying something that sums it up in just a few words. For example: ‘The snow has soaked right through my boots, my fingers are like ice and if I see another bloody seagull I’ll scream!’ That tells you about the day and the mood of the speaker.
Have fun writing your dialogue, and leave it for at least a week before reading it again to see if it does what you wanted in terms of creating atmosphere, explaining a situation, etc.
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