The most important thing about dialogue is to make sure each character speaks in his own voice. The last thing you want is to have all your characters sounding the same, or worse yet, sounding like you, the author. Dialogue is a huge part of characterization. Each character should have her own voice and the dialogue should be consistent with that character. Dialogue tells the reader about your character and the emotional state your character is in at that point in time. Your reader should be able to recognize each of your characters, and, if you’re really good, their mood, when they speak. An incensed valley girl will not use the same words, or tone, or inflection as a seasoned society matron. An accountant will not use the same vocabulary or cadences as a cowboy.
Here’s an example of four ways of saying the same thing. Try to imagine what kind of character said each and how they feel about what has happened.
“My old man kicked the bucket.”
“My father passed away last night.”
“By the way, the old fart died.”
“Daddy went to heaven, sweetheart.”
The best guidelines to use when writing dialogue are:
1. Write the way people really speak, and
2. Never write the way people really speak.
What do I mean by that? In real conversation, people repeat themselves. In books, this is boring. In real life, we also talk to ourselves and our pets. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across this in manuscripts (and yes, published books). But both are very hard to pull off successfully, and as an editor, when I read a manuscript that opens with a character talking to herself, I’m almost immediately put off. Because there are better, and less obviously manipulative, ways to get the information across.
Regarding repetitions, if you must refer to something that happened or was said earlier, summarize it in narrative whenever possible.
For example, in chapter two you’ve written a scene where the hero and heroine face off against each other in a board meeting. In chapter three, your heroine meets her brother for lunch and they talk about the meeting. You don’t need to put into dialogue between the siblings what happened at the meeting. The reader already knows. So you move the story along with a simple:
Briefly, Sarah explained what happened at the meeting.
“That stinks,” Joe said. “What are you going to do about it?”
In this way, by summarizing—or in this case simply referring to--the previous conversation in narrative, you keep your story moving forward. Because every line of dialogue must have a purpose. It must either 1) advance the story, 2) inform the reader, or 3) reveal character. If a line of dialogue doesn’t do one of these things—cut it. Examples of useless dialogue include small talk, and the mundane, such as when introductions are made, when making or eating meals, (such as chit-chatting with the waitress) or when answering the telephone.
In addition to that, good dialogue must also be three things—logical (does it make sense?), natural (would real people say these words in this way?) and convincing (will the reader believe this, coming from this character?)
Men and women speak differently. We also think differently. Be sure to reflect this in your dialogue, and also your internal dialogue, or introspection. For example, no self-respecting alpha male would use the word, “horrid.”
Nor do men describe things the way women do. A woman might refer to a color as fuchsia or tangerine. A man is more likely to refer to it as a “weird shade of pink” or “some kind of orange.” A woman might be more apt to call that thing under the hood of a car a motor. A man might be more likely to call it an overhead cam, fuel-injected engine.
And remember, for the most part, men use far fewer words than women do to convey the same meaning.
So put yourself in your characters’ shoes, and when writing from a point of view not of your own gender, be sure to use terms a man or woman would use, not terms you, the writer, would use. Don’t have your men speak lyrically or poetically unless they are poets, or at least poets at heart. Don’t have your women speak like trash-talking grease monkeys, unless, of course, they are.
Read plays or watch television to see how they handle dialogue. Re-read your favorite books to see how the authors handle dialogue. Eavesdrop at parties, in restaurants, on buses. Get a feel for speech patterns and rhythms, and store what you learn in your memory bank until the time comes when you need a character with a voice “just” like the one you overheard at the dry cleaners.
Last, but not least, always read your dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds right. If it doesn’t, then revise it until it does sound right.