Well-written dialogue is a wonderful way to move the story forward, give more depth to the character, and keep the plot from stagnating. But there are some pitfulls to writing dialogue. Here's a few things to watch for:
* That you are not just dumping information through dialogue. It’s OK to give some information through dialogue, but when a character is giving an entire monologue on any issue, you’ve gone too far.
* That you aren’t including dialogue just for the sake of having dialogue. Each line of dialogue should have a purpose, whether it’s revealing someone’s character or showing the sleuth and sidekick figuring out an important clue. Are there lines you can cut, and replace with action beats?
* Does your dialogue have conflict or tension? Good dialogue, according to James Scott Bell in “Revision & Self-Editing,” should surprise the reader. “View it like a game, where the players are trying to outfox each other. Are they using dialogue as a ‘weapon’?” he asks. Among that weaponry he lists anger, epithets, pouting, name-calling, and dodging as examples.
The two speakers don’t necessarily need to be antagonists, as in this example, from Reed Farrel Coleman’s “Walking the Perfect Square,” between his protagonist, recently retired cop Moe Prager, and Rico, a police detective:
“I had lunch with Sully,” I said. “He showed me a picture.”
“Yeah, and so what happened?”
“It was of Patrick Maloney.”
Rico’s expression soured. “That what you dragged me off a stakeout to tell me?”
“The picture didn’t look like the one on the poster.”
“Jesus Christ, Moe! Who looks like their picture? You take a look at your departmental ID lately? You probably look like Wolfman Jack.”
* That last line above is called “curving” the dialogue. Do you have ho-hum lines that you can ramp up a bit? How can you make them funnier, or edgier?
* Does your dialogue sound real – but not too real? It should be realistic, but not to the point where you use the normal hesitators that people use, such as “um,” “uh,” “y’know.” This will stop readers in their tracks.
* Have you thrown in some action beats? Here’s an example where an action beat is done well, from “A Cold and Lonely Place,” by Sara J. Henry:
She buried her face in her mug, and it was a moment before she spoke again. “Troy, I want these articles to show Tobin’s life, good, bad, whatever. I want them to show who he was and what he could have been.”
The character is struggling with what to say, and how to say it, and Henry shows us, rather than telling us. But beats should be used sparingly; use too many in dialogue and they only serve to slow it down too much and annoy the reader. Renni Browne and Dave King, in “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers,” suggest you read your dialogue aloud. If you find yourself pausing between two consecutive lines, then you might want to insert a beat at that point.
* Is each character distinct enough? If not, look at giving characters pet words or phrases they repeat from time, or look at cadence (some people use more words).
* Are you overusing ellipsis? Ellipsis should only be used only to indicate speech that trails off. And in real life, dialogue shouldn’t trail off every other sentence. Interrupted sentences are indicated not by ellipsis, but by dashes.
Finally, here’s a good example of dialogue done right, from Michele Drier’s "Edited for Death," in which two main characters puzzle out a clue together. This is the way to give the reader information. The dialogue is witty, there’s a little bit of tension between the two, there’s an action beat, and it certainly moves the story forward, providing a vital clue:
“You’re the one who told me not to put too much into him,” Clarice says. “To quote you, ‘It’s sad when a nobody dies,’ blah, blah, blah…”
“It’s not that he dies, it’s where they found his body,” I say.
“They found it in a bar, where else would a drunk be?”
“But that’s the point.” I’m patient, waiting for her to catch up. “Royce just said he slept in the lobby. Besides, if he was a well-known drunk—”
“They would have locked the bar!” Clarice says, her eyes growing round. “Royce sure wouldn’t have left the door to the bar open for a drunk, not to mention keeping Stewart out at night. So, where was he killed?”
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.