5 Instant Fixes for Your Fiction Dialogue

And How to Mine Reality for Fantastic One-Liners to Boost Your Novel

As a fiction writer one of your core jobs is to make the reader believe in your characters. There are four core pieces that build a character: dialogue, description, behavior, and story. If any of the pieces aren’t solid the character won’t work and the novel won’t work.

We want the reader to forget about the writing. We’re in the experience business. The last thing you want a reader to do (unless the reader is also a writer, but that’s the unfortunate curse of writers — reading for pleasure is harder) is to worry about the writing. In a successful story, the writing doesn’t exist.

So, how to we create writing that doesn’t exist? How to do make the reader FEEL the story, versus read the story? We suspend disbelief. We bring the reader into the scene. And we help the process along with realistic dialogue.

I had a terrible time with dialogue in the early days of my writing. I repeated myself. I over-explained, and I treated my reader like an idiot. Once I realized my reader was probably smarter than me, I learned to mimic reality, but not mirror it, and cut half the text from my dialogue.

I’m still learning to get better at dialogue, but I used a handful of simple techniques to elevate the process faster. I hope you find these useful too.

Three dialogue capture methods for a deep dialogue education

  1. A digital recorder — With permission, at your next dinner party, set a digital recorder in the center of the table. Let the thing go for an hour. Play it back later. Listen the way people interact with each other, what they say, and what they DON’T say.
  2. Great one-liners — I keep a master dialogue file in my phone. There are probably 300 great one-liners in there, covering hundred of different topics. If one of my friends or co-workers drops a hilarious, or scathing one-liner, I’ll copy it verbatim and use it later. Of course the names are changed and the dialogue is altered to fit the story.
  3. Field work — Watch people similar to the characters in your story. Visit them in their native environment if you can. Go to the store, the garage, the police station, or the hospital. Watch movies and TV in your genre. Word usage change based on education, location, vocation, and relationship between the people speaking. Don’t use bigger words than the people speaking would use.

How to write terrible dialogue:

  • Over-explain, using definitions and descriptions your characters should know clearly. Define jargon and nicknames. Treat your reader like an idiot.
  • Repeat phrases in different ways.
  • Write long-winded soliloquies that go on for pages.
  • Have the characters call each other by name frequently.
  • Use conversations that go nowhere and do nothing to propel the story.

Five Ways to Write Better Dialogue Immediately:

  1. Start in the middle of the sentence. Rules of grammar don’t apply when we’re speaking. Instead of writing “Has she reached the house yet?” write “She here?” or “Meg home yet?” As with writing your scenes in general — use the old adage of enter late, leave early.
  2. Your reader is not an idiot. Avoid adding definitions for common jargon your characters should know. If you’ve got two surgeon’s speaking, say “forceps,” not “Dr. Joe, hand me the forceps please. You know, those silver tweezers over there.” If the reader is unclear of a statement, she’ll look it up. It’s part of the reading journey. Readers enjoy this don’t steal their joy and treat them like idiots.
  3. Use names sparingly. We don’t use each other’s names, but maybe once in an entire conversation. You can use tricks with names to inform the reader who’s speaking, but we don’t speak to each other back and forth naming one another.
  4. Use humor, even if your novel isn’t humorous. People joke around with each other when they speak. Play with words. I like to take common cliches and colloquialisms and alter them a little — a bird in the hand is worth two in your pocket… or don’t count your bullets before they shoot. Play with language. Be unexpected. Make it your own.
  5. Dialogue is NOT reality. Much of everyday conversation has no place in a novel. We repeat ourselves. We clarify statements. We misunderstand. We say ‘like’ and ‘um’ and thousands of useless tics that are of no benefit to your reader. The only dialogue that should be in your novel must propel the story forward. If it’s filler, or you can’t find a purpose, cut it out.

August Birch (AKA the Book Mechanic) is both a fiction and non-fiction author from Michigan, USA. A self-proclaimed guardian of writers and creators, August teaches indie authors how to write books that sell and how to sell more of those books once they’re written. When he’s not writing or thinking about writing August carries a pocket knife and shaves his head with a safety razor.

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