Five Questions About Your Dialogue:
1 Does it have a Purpose?
If you get your characters talking, their talk should (a) provide important information for the reader, or (b) reveal more about the characters, or (c) move the action of your story forward. Dialogue shouldn’t be just interesting, or just a relief from the action or description, or just to fill the page.
2 Is there some Conflict?
In real life we like nice chats about nothing much, but in your writing there should be characters with different aims, both determined to achieve them. The result is conflict: the conflict drives your story, and that’s what keeps your reader turning the pages.
3 Does it Flow?
Dialogue tags (she said … he replied) are useful, but soon get repetitive and boring. Leave them out, as long as it’s clear who’s talking. And don’t use too many adverbs, as in Jim said angrily. If Jim says ‘I’ve had enough!’, get him to punch the wall. That will show your readers what he’s feeling, without you telling them.
4 Is it Concise?
In real life, conversations go here, there and everywhere … in your writing, dialogue needs to move the story along. Someone said ‘Dialogue is like a rose bush – it improves after pruning.’ Keep rewriting your dialogue until it’s as brief and to-the-point as you can make it. Read Elmore Leonard, the master of spare dialogue. And the stories of Somerset Maugham. Editors had a hard time with his writing: it’s so lean, there’s no excess to trim.
5 What’s the Speaker’s Agenda?
In real life we may just chat, but often we talk for a purpose: we want to get something out of a conversation. Likewise with one of your characters: he/she might approach the key point indirectly: start by talking about the weather, and eventually say they’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Summary: Be a reader of your own writing. Keep re-reading your dialogue, with these five questions in mind: and be prepared to rewrite it, so it’s the kind of writing you’d like to read yourself.
Betterwrite Managing Editor