"The best dialogue counters our expectations and surprises us." --Nathan Bransford
Consider the following:
1. The Purpose of Dialogue. Dialogue's purpose is twofold. It: a) reveals character and motivation, and b) moves the plot forward. No aimless chatter here, unless it serves to further the story. Dialogue also helps to establish tone or mood, creates/adds to conflict, and helps control pace. "Dialogue," it's been said, "is all about action and reaction."
2. The Effectiveness of Dialogue. Effective dialogue seeks to achieve a number of goals. It should drive the story forward, add to the reader's understanding of characters, and/or demonstrate the relationship between different characters. According to The Writer's Book of Wisdom, 101 Rules for Mastering Your Craft (Steven Taylor Goldsberry), dialogue should heighten drama, speed the process of discovery, and create tension. Filter out aimless squawking. Zero in on characters and plot, story and conflict--and dialogue will improve.
3. On Writing Good Dialogue. Struggling to make dialogue believable? Feel like you're out on a limb and nothing works? Try this: Listen to how people speak. Keep a journal of overheard dialogue. Read with an ear to how other authors handle dialogue. Also remind yourself to show, not tell...keep dialogue concise... make it flow...use slang sparingly...be true to the era but not stilted. Oh, and a biggie--avoid information dump!
4. On the Formating of Dialogue. Break up dialogue--through action, description, and other story elements. Use tags ("he said") correctly. Punctuate correctly. Keep those little birdies in line.
5. Test Your Dialogue. Read your work out loud. Have someone else read your work out loud. This way you'll tune in to any breakdowns in rhythm, authenticity, and characterization. What you want is for your work to sing. And surprise.
My imaginary writer-bird is sitting on my shoulder this week, reminding me of these things. In gathering the tips, I turned to the following sources and are grateful for the help:
Learn the Elements of a Novel
About.com Fiction Writing
Nathan Bransford, Author
BubbleCow Copy Editing
Change the World with Words
What are some of your tips for writing good dialogue?
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*photo courtesy of sxc.hu