Writing dialogue is one of the hardest parts of writing a book. Which, if you think about it, is kind of funny. We spend more time talking with people in our real lives than we do being chased by an army of orcs or having our every movement or thought narrated. Yet, it seems to be that in being so commonplace, dialogue isn’t given the same time and care as other areas of prose when it goes down on paper.
And, let me tell you, it shows.
There are a million things that can go wrong with your dialogue, and therefore I am sure we are going to cover this topic a million times on the Three Houses Press blog (ask us your biggest dialogue question below to get your topic covered sooner than next decade!) but we are going to start by discussing—or dialoguing—about three of the most common dialogue pet peeves that could be why your readers are wishing your characters were mute. And, because I am so generous, I might just give you a tip to fix it.
1. They Talk to Talk
The foundation of dialogue is that it functions to do something in your novel. Very rarely do characters in excellent novels talk to talk. Sure, you may read a passage that looks like small talk or meaningless conversation, but great writers never let a passage of dialogue pass without it contributing to the story in some way.
Take Miss Bates in Jane Austen’s Emma as an example. The first time I (was forced to) read Emma, I remember skipping over pages and pages of Miss Bates just talking about nothing.
Who thinks this shit is good? I asked myself in a very high school I-think-I’m-the-shit way. This dialogue isn’t doing anything but taking up space.
The second time I (chose to) read Emma, I realized that high school Sarah had missed the point. Miss Bates wasn’t talking to talk. She was talking to provide comic relief. She was talking to make readers pity her. She was talking to provoke Emma to mock her, an act which immediately pushes the story to face one of the morals.
In other novels you read, you’ll find that rarely does a character say anything that isn’t serving to further the plot, create tension, reveal something, or change a relationship. If you find lines of your dialogue that aren’t checking at least one of these boxes, cut it and start the conversation from scratch, using every line to do one of those four things.
2. It Counters the Characterization
The thing that turns me off of a book fastest is when a five-year-old opens their mouth and starts talking like they’re 30. I get it, sometimes the character is a genius child, and in that case bombs away! But the rest of the time…
Writing a story is about creating an illusion and transporting your reader somewhere else. If you do something to break that illusion, you lose your reader. They are back in their mundane life, wondering why a five-year-old vaguely reminds them of their great aunt.
Writers spend so much time on characters, making sure they are just right, but too often forgetting that we as readers have to believe these people exist, meaning they have to have a dialogue that both fits with their actions and sounds believable. Some people just do not talk the way that you think people talk.
One of the easiest ways to identify dialogue that sounds fake is to actually act it out. Try putting yourself in your character’s shoes and saying what you have written for them. If you really invest yourself into this exercise, you’ll find yourself wanting to say something completely different than what you have written. Scribble that magic down and try again. Eventually, you’ll have a conversation that actually sounds like a real conversation.
If you aren’t even sure what a real conversation should sound like, an exercise to try is to hit the mall on a weekend. Do your best to not look suspicious while you follow around someone that reminds you of your character. Listen to their voice patterns, or where they choose to say nothing at all. Pick up a new candle, go home, and inject some of these elements of reality into your character’s dialogue, and things will start shaping up.
3. They Forget Their Accent
You can always tell (always) when a book wasn’t edited with a style guide. For those of you currently laughing going, “What fools!” while internally panicking because you have no idea what I mean, here is the short version:
Your style guide is your editing bible. You use it to create consistency, stick with the rules of the world that your society has established, and keep yourself from shattering the illusion.
One of the ways that a style guide will help you when you write dialogue is that it will help your characters keep their accent.
In many cases, I mean the accent that you are writing into your character. For instance, if you have a character with a heavy southern accent, you should create a page in your style guide for that character, add a section called dialogue to that page, and write down the words you are using to express that accent. If they say “y’all” instead of “you all” once, it goes in the style guide and by god you do not revert to you all and destroy the illusion of the accent for the reader.
In other cases, I mean the accent you don’t even realize your character has. In the novel Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin creates an accent that is specific to his world by replacing phrases like “God” or “God Dammit” with his world-specific curse “Seven Hells.” By replacing a phrase that is commonly associated with Christianity with one specific to the religion of his fantasy world, Martin is giving his characters an accent that they share with everyone else in the novel. It creates an added layer of world building and allows the dialogue to enhance the world rather than just communicate a message.
These sorts of accents truly improve the story, provided they are used sparingly enough to not interfere. But for them to be used effectively, you have to stick with them and refuse to let it be contradicted! So, get that style guide going and edit away.
Dialogue is oddly challenging for most of us, but you are going to get through it! If you remember to keep things relevant, real, and consistent, you are already going to be leagues ahead of the competition.