“Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs.” – Jerome Stern
No matter how wonderful your description is, no matter how many unique metaphors or images you include, nothing can ever “make up” for poorly-written dialogue. Dialogue is the life of your story. It is the way you develop character, build tension and keep your reader hooked. If your dialogue is lacklustre readers aren’t going to turn the next page.
Now, for those who see dialogue as their mortal enemy — don’t worry! Don’t put down your pen and throw your current draft into the bin. You can easily improve your dialogue if you know what mistakes to avoid.
So, with that said, I’m going to share with you the five most common (and easily fixable) reasons dialogue feels lacklustre. If you avoid doing these things when writing, dialogue will definitely become your friend (or at least a close acquaintance!).
#1: Including Everyday Filler Chat
Sure. An everyday conversation will likely start with hey, how have you been? But let’s be real. It’s called filler chat for a reason — it’s boring. Including filler chat adds nothing to your story. In fact, if you rely too much on starting your characters’ conversations with filler chat, it can lead you to forget the main purpose dialogue has: to show characters’ relationship with each other and hook your reader.
Filler talk will never give your readers insight into how your character’s interact with each other, and it won’t give any “bait” for your readers to bite on.
Instead of filler talk, use “mid-conversation” talk. There is much more potential in mid-conversation talk when it comes to developing characterisation. In mid-conversation, readers will get to see how your character’s truly interact with each other, and what matters the most to them.
Not only that, but mid-conversation talk is also the ultimate technique for hooking readers. Think about it like this: When you’re thrown into a conversation already underway, you don’t know the full details. You have to pick up the pieces as the conversation progresses. This also applies to conversations in fiction. Rather than readers knowing “what’s what” from the start, they’ll only learn more about the relationship and conversation as they read, meaning they’ll want to keep reading to fill in the gaps.
Put simply, cut the “how are you” phrases and immerse your reader in the dialogue which truly matters.
#2: The “Exposition” Talk
When we speak, we don’t speak as if a stranger is listening in and we need to fill them in on every single detail, so don’t expect your characters to talk like this either!
Dialogue is not written for a third-party observer. In real life, someone would NEVER say, “hey, remember yesterday when we went to the pub and got drunk, how are you feeling this morning?”. Instead they would simply say “how’s your head?”.
If you do include exposition talk your readers won’t have any sense of mystery to hook them, and they’ll quickly lose interest.
Some writers are avid defenders of exposition talk. They argue that it’s needed so the reader can understand what’s going on. But this stems from the fear that readers will be unable to fit the pieces of the puzzle together themselves.
Trust your reader’s ability to fill in the gaps. They can, and they will.
#3: An Always Articulate Speaker
Listen to someone speak, and listen carefully. You’ll soon notice their speech is not the slightest bit articulate. It’s a mess; riddled with pauses, corrections, false starts, repetitions, slang words and contractions.
The easiest way to make your character’s voice seem authentic and life-like is by incorporating these messy aspects into your dialogue. Add in the pauses, the repetitions, the hesitancies, everything. Like people, a character should never be articulate (unless you want them to sound like a robot!).
#4: A Character That Never Tells Lies
I’m sure you don’t always express how you truly feel all the time. Sometimes, you probably don’t even know what you’re feeling! Emotions are complicated and messy.
Your characters’ emotions need to be the same. They need to have moments of dishonesty and moments where they don’t know how to express their feelings.
#5: All characters Express the Same
Everyone speaks differently. While you may say the words “great” and “what”, someone else may say “fantastic” and “pardon”. You may love slang words, your friend may hate them. The same goes for how people structure their sentences. Some people speak very concisely and opt for short sentences, while others ramble on. And on. And on…
If you want your characters’ voices to sound authentic, you need to keep their word choices and expressions distinct.
If you’re struggling with how to do this, the best way is to listen to people speak in real life and use that as a reference. Pop in to your local café and listen to the conversations around you. Jot down the words/phrases each person uses and make note of the differences.