Unless the author thinks about it carefully, they can be stilted, stiff, and an unnatural wall of blah-blah-blah. Good writing involves learning the craft, and nowhere is that more apparent than in a conversation.
So how does the intrepid author write this phenomenon in such a way that it sounds natural? I always think of a conversation as having an arc: It begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, an integral part of the scene, propelling the story forward to the next scene.
We might jabber about nothing, but in writing, a good conversation is about something and builds toward something. J.R.R. Tolkien said that good dialogue must have a premise and moves toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the dialogue is a waste of the reader’s time.
First, when we write about conversations between our characters, we want to ensure they don’t all sound like the same person. Imagine you are at a party. If you look around you, observing the conversations going on in small clusters, you will notice that every person has different mannerisms. The same is true of your characters when you see them in your head. With that image in mind, you want to include those differences in their gestures, and their manner of speech.
When people talk, they rarely follow grammatical rules. Any English class you’ve taken will have stressed the importance of using proper grammar and punctuation in your writing, and believe me, those rules are important. However, when we attempt to write dialogue, those same rules should be thrown out of the window. People speak in broken sentences, with pauses, and even use incorrect words.
Now we get to the part where my editor and I have our own little conversation—the one where I stick random bits of punctuation in at odd places and she puts them where they belong or removes them entirely:
She: “I agree with the grammar part. I take exception to the punctuation. Punctuation rules MUST be followed especially in dialogue so that the reader reads the dialogue in the same manner the writer intended it to be read.”
Me: “Yes, ma’am.” (Muttering as I find ways to insert action where I want the pauses to go.)
We all take breaths at different places. Some people speak quickly and off the cuff, with short bursts. Others consider their words before they say them and speak more slowly. Every person in a given room speaks with their own unique style and pattern.
What are the roots of these patterns? Speech habits are born in the environment the speaker grows up in, but they become identifiable mannerisms acquired throughout our lives.
Consider how the conversation fits into the arc of the scene.
We’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating: first we must identify what must be conveyed in our conversation.
- Who needs to know what?
- Why must they know it?
- And how many paragraphs do you intend to devote to it?
My rule of thumb is, keep the conversations short and intersperse them with scenes of actions that advance the plot. Walls of meaningless conversation don’t keep the action moving and will lose readers, so the conversations you include in your narrative must be important—and intriguing.
Author James Scott Bell says dialogue has five functions:
- To reveal story information
- To reveal character
- To set the tone
- To set the scene
- To reveal theme
Some people will have the characters discuss the back-story, and this can be good if done the right way, in small snippets at critical points, and only when that information is needed. But this can be bad, especially when used as away to dump history in long, bloated paragraphs of dialogue.
Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. Those are sometimes seen as a wall of words by the reader. When asked how to write a good book, Elmore Leonard said, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
That goes double for dialogue. When I think of the novels I’ve enjoyed the most, the important information in their conversations is dealt with up front, and the minor details emerge later as they become important.
We don’t want our characters to be just a bunch of talking heads, sitting around, yammering on. It’s unnatural and doesn’t happen in real life except on the nightly news.
I’ve mentioned this before, but your characters should pause in their conversations, and sometimes miss a few beats. Beats are what screenwriters call the little bits of physical action that are inserted into dialogue and which in a novel can serve to indicate who said what without a dialogue tag interfering with it. Actions serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture, especially when an author is trying to balance the use of dialogue tags.
Remember, actions are best placed where there’s a natural break in the dialogue. They show the mood and personality of your characters and allow the reader to experience the same pause in the dialogue as the characters do, and increase the sense of immediacy, making the scene real in the reader’s mind. It’s through the small habits we give our characters that we convey a little bit of their back-story, without having to resort to an info dump.