“People don't talk like this, theytalklikethis. Syllables, words, sentences run together like a watercolor left in the rain. “ Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way
“If writers wrote as carelessly as some people talk, then adhasdh asdglaseuyt[bn[ pasdlgkhasdfasdf.” Lemony Snicket, Horseradish
When I was at the Tucson Festival of Books, I was asked how I learned to write dialogue. Although I had no intention of ever writing a movie script, I studied several books on screenwriting. Screenplays focus on dialogue with only sketchy descriptions of place. The spoken word is crucial for all movies that don’t spray spent casings all over the landscape or use explosive fireballs to punctuate scenes. So, if you want to improve your dialogue skills, study screenplays.
Dialogue exists in novels to move the plot forward or to reveal character, or both. There is no place for small talk in a novel. Every word that’s inside quotes—or outside, for that matter—must have a purpose. Dialogue is engineered by the author. It is not natural, but must sound natural. Authenticity comes from providing clues so the reader can fill in the blanks. For example, a hint of an accent is all that is needed for readers to hear a character speak a dialect.
Richard Ford wrote in The Lay of the Land, “You rarely miss anything by cutting most people off after two sentences.” This is perfect advice for your characters. Dialogue should be taut and tense. Off the top of my head, here are a few other thoughts on dialogue:
- Dialogue is not the place for exposition.
- Soliloquies are out of style.
- Characters should not tell each other what they both already know.
- Heavy accents and odd speech patterns take the reader out of the story—a mortal sin.
- Different characters should speak differently.
- Personality is revealed in how your characters speak and what they say.
These are not rules, but guidelines. Each one will be broken brilliantly by writers who know exactly what they are doing. I can’t wait to read their work.