One thing some of my writing friends, and my readers, tell me is that they enjoy my dialogue. That’s nice to hear. I work hard at creating dialogue that reveals my characters and moves the story along. I know I’m not always successful, but I do try.
One of the things I work hard to improve is the use of dialogue tags. Not sure what they are? Tags are things like ‘he said,’ “she inferred,” and so on. The standard rule, when writing dialogue, is to make the tags you use as simple as possible. So it’s frowned on to dip into such tags as, “he mumbled, morosely,” “she snapped,” “Antoine growled fiercely.”
Writers should make the dialogue do the work of the tags. Tags are easy to slap onto a bit of dialogue. Making the dialogue do that hard work is more satisfying - to writer and reader alike. Your characters’ dialogue should be distinctive enough so that the use of tags is minimized. If you think that’s not important, remember how annoying it is to read a piece of dialogue and not quite know which character is speaking. If you need tags to ‘tell’ who is speaking, maybe you need to work on that dialogue a bit more.
Another thing dialogue needs to do is provide insight into your characters. This is where ‘show versus tell’ comes into play in a very interesting way. Rather than use the infamous ‘information dump’, dialogue can provide the reader with a lot of clues to a character’s thoughts and feelings. Also his/her background, education, personality.
Why ‘tell’ the reader that the character is from French Canada when you can add a little dialect to his speech? Tidewater Virginian? Add a taste of the dialect to the dialogue. Yes, you can overdo the dialect and lose your readers. I slip into dialect writing so deeply that my editors will tell me to pull it back! But if you read my novel, “Benning’s War”, you know that I did put a lot of time into the characters’ patterns of speech and how their voices sounded.
I edited as much out as I felt comfortable with, but refused to go beyond a certain point. My characters had to maintain their dialects up to that point. Dialects are fine, but you have to be careful with them. Don’t overwhelm your readers. Use dialect to reveal not hide.
So how do I write that dialogue? I say it. Out loud. If the dialogue I’m speaking - out loud - sounds crude to my ears, or unbelievable, then I change it. It has to be real if the reader is going to follow and believe it. It’s where I nail down where to use contractions and where to use the full words, too.
No, this isn’t the easiest way to write dialogue, I’m sure, but it can be fun. I recited my in-progress dialogue at work, making co-workers and customers nervous, I’m sure. Once they realized what I was doing, and why, they might shake their heads, but they stopped thinking I was demented (little do they know, eh?).
Anyway, for me, dialogue can move a story along quickly, provide information necessary to the plot, and make your characters memorable to your readers. So try working on your story’s dialogue by speaking it, out loud. Listen to how it sounds, pay attention to making it not be an information dump, and let your characters speak through you.