We’ve all read dialogue that pulls us out of a story. Makes us throw the book across the room because it’s so unrealistic, prattles on for ages with a tedious info dump, or bores us to death with pointless banter. Considering the fact that humans spend hundreds of hours in conversation with each other, it shouldn’t be hard to write good dialogue, should it?
The thing is, there’s a difference between good written dialogue and the way we speak in real life. The point of including dialogue in fiction is not to merely break up pages of breathtaking descriptive prose. Nor is it to give the reader a change in rhythm, although it does, at times, serve these purposes. Dialogue has to be there for a reason; it needs to work for the story.
A search for tips on writing dialogue unearthed countless articles about punctuation, didactic instructions for the use of quotation marks, but very little that went deeper. Little exploring the purpose of dialogue. With this in mind, I signed up for a rare dialogue workshop with literary legend, Melina Marchetta, the author of the Australian YA classic, ‘Looking for Alibrandi’, and many other award-winning novels. Melina talks briefly about her rules for writing dialogue, as well as her latest novel, ‘The House on Dalhousie’, in this Better Reading interview.
Expanding on the points in the interview, I’ve tried to summarise Melina Marchetta’s top tips for writing good dialogue. Of course, we covered a lot more ground in the workshop, including many useful writing exercises. As a workshop junkie, I’d highly recommend attending one of Melina’s sessions if the opportunity does arise, but in the meantime, here’s my take.
Less is more when it comes to writing prose—we’ve all heard of Stephen King’s aversion to adverbs—but it’s even more relevant when writing dialogue. Dialogue needs to be tight. You need to make every word count. Dialogue also needs to be purposeful. Here are some of the functions of good dialogue, according to Melina Marchetta:
- It should tell the reader something about the character’s present situation.
- It should tell the reader something about the character themselves.
- It should tell the reader something about the relationship between the characters.
In addition, she notes that dialogue will ideally address some of these secondary aims:
- Create suspense or conflict
- Move the story forward
- Reveal a character’s thoughts
- Summarise what has happened—though less is definitely more with this one
- Create a sense of place
We didn’t go into the specifics of writing authentic dialogue in the workshop, but to my mind the skills required are similar to those used when learning a foreign language. The ability to listen to others—eavesdropping is such a negative term for a tremendously useful activity—and to pick up the cadence of speech, the dropped words and phrases, and the pauses, is vital. For this reason, it’s important to read your dialogue out loud, to finesse it, to cut the fat until it reads like a real conversation.
When editing, I’ve learned that you should take a close look at your dialogue to identify its purpose. If it is merely filler, it needs to go. Then read it aloud. Does it sound realistic? Is it working hard enough to earn the right to stay?
What are your top tips for writing great dialogue?