Let me set the scene for you here: it’s blissfully quiet, you’re curled up in your favorite reading chair/couch/whatever with a new book that’s full of promise and you’re just so excited to begin this new journey because, let’s be honest…the cover looks amazing! You’ve thought ahead and brought provisions: a glass of cold, sweet iced tea and some beef jerky (weird combination I know, but these are my ideal provisions I’m dreaming about here! Bring some of your own because I’m not sharing!) And you’re slowly falling in love with the story, the characters, the setting, and the new world; it’s so beautiful and realistic that you forget where you are and what you’re doing…then BAM! Suddenly you’re thrust unhappily back in your own world and you find yourself hunched over in your chair, gnawing on a piece of beef jerky and thinking: “They said what? Who talks like that?!”
Nothing kills the mood and jolts you right out of the pages of a book like poorly written dialogue. It takes pages to draw in a reader and make them care and engage with your characters, but it only takes a sentence to ruin all that hard work. It’s sad…but very true. Poor dialogue destroys whatever beauty or genius was written before it as well as the trust the reader has invested in the author and leaves behind such a bad taste in the reader’s mouth that even beef jerky and a well-timed “What the…?!” cannot fix the damage done. And unfortunately, whatever words/descriptions /plot twists that follow the dialogue are then tainted by the reader’s annoyance and disbelief. This may not make the reader immediately throw the book aside, never look twice at it again forevermore and banish it to some forgotten corner where it cannot annoy anyone ever again, but it does aggravate them and honestly, it negates the overall beauty and impact of the writer’s hard work. So…
Think before you type.
Really…think about what you are having your character say. Ask yourself: “Does that sound natural, have I heard someone say something similar?” or perhaps more importantly: “Would I be embarrassed to say something like that?” Your answer to these questions should tell you whether or not you are on the right track. If you wouldn’t say something because it sounds forced or unrealistic then why would you have your character say it? If you’re having doubts about your dialogue or aren’t sure if it’s working then read the conversations out loud so you can hear them, it helps! Listen to the flow of worlds, the stops and pauses, the word choice; your character is trying to tell you what needs to be said, but are you listening to them? Dialogue is not hard to write, it is one of the easiest if you just take the time to think about it, but still I encounter characters who say the oddest things in the weirdest ways and I can’t help but clench my teeth and roll my eyes in exasperation…with the AUTHOR. The character may be the one speaking, but if the words come across as forced or silly, I blame the writer for not taking the time to listen to their character and try to understand what should be said. Occasionally awkward dialogue is going to happen, that’s fine, there are times when something just needs to be said for the reader to follow along, but don’t make it a common thing.
If you’re writing historical fiction or speculative fiction in a semi historic setting, writing dialogue is going to be twice as hard, but it is doable! The required speech patterns differ from our own, as will the word choice but the principles are still the same. Make sure the speech is flowing, natural, and coherent. Would someone actually say that? If not, then improve it! Watch movies set in the time period you are working in or read books in the same genre as yours; teach yourself how to use the language until it comes natural to you! Put the effort in because it will pay off! Good dialogue may be overlooked by someone who is not looking for it, but bad dialogue stands out to everyone!
Dialogue also leads to problem of the use of the word “said”, which annoys both writer and reader to no end. When you have more than one person speaking, it is important to make sure that the reader knows who the speaker is at any given point and that leads to a lot of “he said” “she said” aggravation. As much as it drives readers nuts to read the word “said” over and over again, it bothers the writer even more (if they are paying attention). This leads to a lot of alternate words used like holler, hoot, snarled, barked, growled, laughed etc. and that’s wonderful…as long as they are used in moderation! There does not need to be one of these alternate words used in place of “said” every single time, I mean really, do you holler or growl all that much? Hopefully not. Sometimes the right word choice is the simplest one: said. In the end it all comes down to what the character is saying and what needs to come across to the reader. Play with the words, use them, enjoy them but always be aware of what is actually going on in the story and between the characters. Use your own judgment and find a happy balance that works for you and doesn’t leave you wanting to claw your own eyes out in frustration! Writing is supposed to be fun…ha-ha.
Write smart and write often, don’t be afraid that you’re going to mess up, just enjoy the process! Mistakes are going to happen, they’re part of the fun of writing and sometimes mistakes lead to awesome new ways of saying something that you never would have thought of before! If you love to write, then write! Perfect your craft and never stop trying to improve it but never forget that the process should be fulfilling, enjoyable, cathartic, and whatever YOU want it to be (despite all the he said/she growled/they hooted drama)!