Saturday, June 13, 2015

8 Tips to Polishing Dialogue

As I said two weeks ago, I am a storyteller. I focus a lot on plot and setting. However, the one thing I tend to notice when I read is the dialogue. It’s almost an instinct, to know when a certain snippet of dialogue works, and when and why it might not.
I’ve been told I write smooth, easily to read dialogue. Even been asked how I do it. So, today I’d like to present eight ways for you to make your dialogue shine.

1. Use simple tags. Have you ever used the word “ejaculated” in your fiction writing? Well, unless you’re going for a Jules Verne feel, go find that word and replace it with “shouted” or even “said”.
Words like ejaculated and exhorted distract the reader from what the character is saying:

“Wow!” He ejaculated.
“Never do something for others,” she exhorted, “nothing good ever comes from it.”
Neither of these is necessarily bad (except for the moral of the second one), but they’d be well off without the exorbitant tags. Don’t be afraid to use “said”. In fact, don’t be afraid to use no tags at all, so long as it’s clear who’s talking.

2. Keep the time period in mind. How many people in 300 A.D. said “cool story, bruh”? Let me tell you: none. And how many people in 2015 A.D. say “that doth be a fine painting, my dear brother”? Again, the answer is none (you rebels don’t count).
The case is in point, but I’ll spell it out for you: when you write dialogue, use the right words for the time period, while maintaining the same style throughout the novel.
Let me make a note real fast: it’s perfectly fine to write a medieval fantasy with a laidback style, such as is common in modern novels. However, the more laidback it is, the less likely we’ll recognize it as “medieval fantasy”. Just be consistent.

3. Use quirks. Everyone has these little “ticks”, things they do without even realizing it. He cracks his knuckles, she fiddles with her hair, he bites his lower lip, and she drums her fingers. Those little things that make people real. What quirks do your characters have? 
There’s a theatre game I’ve played before, where you and another person pick a quirk/tick, and play out a situation before an audience. The audience then has to guess what your quirks are. It’s hilariously fun, and is a good way to find what quirks your characters have. Give them one (if they don’t have one), and play out a scene with other characters. If the quirk fits, let them keep it.
Now apply these quirks to dialogue, in the form of tags:

“I don’t know,” she said, biting her lower lip, “I don’t like this.”
“Aw, com’on, you’ll love it.” Jared grinned.
“All right, but if this is some messed up-“
“Just do it,” Jared said, running his fingers through his hair.

The quirks are easy to spot, simple to use, and realistic.

4. Accents. This follows similar lines with keeping to time period, but is more personal and setting-based. Accents can be a great way to spice up your dialogue without painful-sounding ejaculations. 

“What’re you doin’ here?” He snapped.
Gemma crinkled her nose. “Do you really think I’m here for anything more than I have already stated?”
“Yeah, yeah I does. Whadda you want?”
“Nothing from you, preposterous buffoon.”
He blinked. “Prepos… wart did you say?”

As a fair warning, I will say accents can take time to master and tweak to where they sound good. In addition, over dramatic accents and overly thick accents can make reading hard. Keep it in mind, and keep the meaning behind the accented words clear.

5. Use passive voice. A while ago I talked about passive voice, and when to use it. Dialogue is one of those instances. Sure, passive verbs can and will harm your novel, but how often do you use those same verbs in regular, everyday speech? Unless you’re religiously against them, probably often. I know I use them regularly.
Your prose may appear more “active” when you avoid passive voice altogether, but dialogue will begin to feel forced if “was” flows better than the alternative.

6. Use adverbs. Man. I’m telling you to break all the rules of fiction writing aren’t I?
Why yes, yes I am. Use the adverbs. Use them punctiliously. Adverbs are like passive voice. They can harm your novel, but dialogue sometimes flows better with them. If you’re not sure when it does… well, that’s what tip eight is for. But don’t skip ahead, tip seven is pretty good, too.

7. Imagine yourself saying the words. Read your dialogue to yourself. Could you see yourself using those exact words to convey the exact same message? Why or why not? Is the dialogue conveying the message too fluffy, or is it not detailed enough? What words would you change, and why? Chances are, the changes you’d make when you wanted to get the message across are change you should make.

8. Read it aloud. This is for when you can’t tell just by reading in your head. Something feels off, but you don’t know how.
First, grab someone you trust. Someone who knows you, knows that you write, and someone who knows something about writing. Actually, the third requirement is optional. 
Second, take turns reading lines of dialogue. Or each take a character, whatever. Read the dialogue aloud, as if the two of you are having a conversation. You don’t have to read the tags aloud, or you could even act them out. Whatever you need until you (or your friend) can pinpoint what feels off about your dialogue.

That last tip might be a little intimidating. Or maybe you don’t have someone you’d want to read it aloud with. Read them out loud by yourself, if that’s the case.
Whatever it takes, know that you’ve got good dialogue in you, somewhere deep down inside.

Now it’s your turn! What do you do to make your dialogue shine? Leave a comment and share!

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