I love to read and in my days before diapers, preschool drop-offs and play dates; I spent my free hours luxuriating in the pleasure of vicariously living different lives in far-away worlds. However, my "free" hours are now long gone as the majority of my time is spent firmly grounded in reality where planned activities and snack preparation take most of my mental energy. So I was thrilled to discover book radio during one of my early morning drives to the gym--the one moment of solitude during my day.
I had never before listened to audio books nor even considered doing so but when, by serendipity, I happened to turn the dial to the station--I was hooked. I prefer to read the text myself but this was an opportunity to enjoy books that I would otherwise not have the time to read or would not have chosen. Unfortunately, my commute time varies somewhat and the drive isn't very long so I mostly listen to books already begun and only in drips and drabs. But these occasions to hear stories proved to provide me with more than entertainment. As a writer, I have discovered particular storytelling elements and techniques that I would have not discerned when reading.
The fact that I have been able to better perceive the art of the craft when listening makes sense when one considers that storytelling, in its origin, was orally recited. So it is reasonable that one's ears are better suited to distinguishing the beauty as well as the dissonance in storytelling when one's listens. And the discovery I have recently made is that there is an art to dialogue, which shouldn't be overlooked and cannot be ignored when one hears the text narrated.
Dialogue is defined as a conversation between two or more people as a part of a book, play or movie. The operative word is "conversation." A conversation, which is real, is organic not planned, flowing not stilted, authentic not forced. As writers our main objective is to create characters who are believable, relatable--real. One of the main components to this creation being successful is dialogue. A writer can compose a character who is imbued with passionate emotion, vibrant thoughts and an exciting course of adventure but if these emotions and thoughts are related, even partially, through strained and artificial dialogue it detracts from the character's authenticity.
So the question is what constitutes "good" and "bad" dialogue? I suppose that the word choice of good and bad is a bit polarizing and not entirely constructive. Perhaps it would be better to consider, for the purpose of writing believable characters, the principles that achieve that end. I think the following list, although not comprehensive, is a good start.
Don't Overdo the Dialogue Tags
This one is highlighted in the title of my entry--he said, then he said, etc. It is particularly grating to the ear to hear these monotonous tags surrounding otherwise interesting dialogue. That isn't to say that they can't be used but just--as with everything in life-- in moderation.
Give Action to Your Words
A viable solution to the overuse of "he said, she said" is to intersperse the dialogue with action. No your character shouldn't ask a question and then waltz around the room. Instead, it is subtle action that contributes to creating a character who is more textured and interesting. An example for edification: "I saw the body," he said. vs. "I saw the body," he gasped with horror.
Don't Spill Too Many Beans
Dialogue can be an effective means for giving the reader information, however too much can cause characters to seem contrived and the conversations tedious. Besides, people rarely in real life give one another recaps complete with time-stamped details.
Take the Snore out by taking the Bore Out
Of course, you want your characters' conversations to be authentic but you don't want to sacrifice interesting and entertaining for realistic. Rare is the reader who wants to read uncomfortable small talk or the dull minutia of a character's day. Good fiction should feel like real life without all the boring bits.
Let your Characters out of the Box
Be careful not to stereotype your characters when writing their dialogue. Don't rely on slang or profanity; it may distract or alienate your reader from the character, which is precisely the opposite of your objective. Characters who are layered and multi-dimensional are more interesting and relatable.
Allow your Characters their own Voice
Try not to force a particular voice onto your characters, instead write conversations that not only reflect but also intensify the persona you have created. If a character's words feel natural and real then the character will feel real.
Causes Sherry Parnell Supports
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Habitat for Humanity, Heifer International