Many writers say they find writing dialogue difficult, which I always find surprising, as, without wishing to sound self-aggrandizing, dialogue is the one aspect of writing I find easy. To me, it isn't that impressive to find dialogue easy. After all, we are primarily verbal creatures, we are surrounded by conversation every day, and most of us spend more time watching films and TV than we do reading books. I am always far more impressed by writers who are able to craft complicated plots, for example, since this is an aspect of writing I find difficult. To my mind, plotting is a superior skill because it isn't something that occurs in reality: events don't pan out in a neat, compelling sequence, loose ends are not neatly tied up and much of life is mundane, unsymbolic and random.
Here are my tips on writing dialogue, with excerpts from my novel, The Threat Level Remains Severe:
Read it aloud. If it doesn't sound natural, it isn't. Make sure it sounds different from prose. Remember, few people talk in complete sentences. For example (NB: they are discussing British politician Boris Johnson):
Brett speared a cube of halloumi. 'In what way is he funny? Example?'
the other week—' Rachael began giggling '—he was supposed to be going to this charity dinner in the City and he came in—' her giggles swelled '—and he was wearing his cycle helmet and these shorts and—' she pressed a dainty hand to her glossy mouth '—you had to be there really—sorry—it was just so funny—.' She could barely eke the words out between bouts of hysterics.
Don't dump too much information in dialogue. In real life, we don't always helpfully explain what's going on.
Get rid of filler dialogue that doesn't add anything to the plot or help with understanding the character.
Don't write out 'ums' and 'ers'. They are realistic, but they look cartoonish in a piece of literature. Instead, use ellipses to give the impression of pauses or uncertainty. Ellipses can also be used at the start and end of dialogue, when someone has been talking for a while and is likely to go on a while, to give the impression of the other characters tuning out:
Very pleasant place to have a postprandial nap,' Hugo was saying. 'I often come up here on a Friday after work—read the paper, snooze in front of the fire, have a bit of tea, maybe a small sherry. Mrs Llewellyn gets rather annoyed sometimes—she likes me home on time—but, you know, a chap has to have his own space, somewhere to recuperate from the stresses and strains of life, cogitate over matters of import
Use dashes to show interruptions:
'How about the Churchill Room?' He had checked out the menu and it wasn't too expensive. Hopefully, she'd only want a main course, perhaps even just a salad.
'I have already been there a few times with Boris—'
'We can go somewhere el—'
'No, that's fine. I don't mind going again.'
If writing dialogue for a character with a specific accent, don't write it out phonetically, as this can look patronising and old-fashioned. Use odd syntax and a few choice bits of slang to convey their accent:
'She's not gonna puke, is she?' said the driver. 'Cos I'm not taking her if she is.'
'Are you gonna puke?' Brett demanded. Rachael shook her head.
'She's not gonna puke.'
'She better not
Don't be afraid to let conversations hang unresolved in mid-air and move onto another scene.
Only use exclamation marks sparingly for moments of real shock. Don't ever use them for jokes as it kills them.
Dialogue tags ('he said', 'she said') should be kept to the minimum as they slow dialogue down. Avoid elegant variation in dialogue tags ('he cajoled', 'he opined', 'she responded') as it sounds amateurish. Cut out as many dialogue tags as possible and use descriptions of actions to clarify who is speaking:
'So, the new specialist: you would say he's rather
'I would say he's rather
' Hugo looked at the ceiling. '
rather pleased with himself.'
'Who's pleased with himself?' Rosemary pushed through the door backwards with her large bottom, a cup of tea sloshing in each hand.
Avoid adverbs in dialogue tags, although occasionally they are OK. ('Do you like the flowers?' Reuben smiled hopefully. ) But try to make sure the dialogue itself carries the tone.
Dialogue is really important. It helps us to get to know characters, it conveys place, it can move plot along quickly and is an excellent way of showing rather than telling. It also breaks up indigestible chunks of solid prose. Remember that email and text conversations work as dialogue and are how we communicate much of the time these days; plus the gap between a character's email persona and their real persona can be used to good effect. However, nothing beats characters talking face-to-face with all the conflict and power play this provides. Make sure you insert some dialogue early on when writing a story. If you find dialogue difficult, spend time eavesdropping in public places. Transcribe your eavesdroppings but, remember, when it comes to writing dialogue in prose you need to convey the impression of reality rather than verbatim speech. And, of course, as with perfecting any aspect of writing the best way to learn is to read, read, read