What pops to mind when you think of a favorite fictional character? For many of us, something that character said often emerges first. Maybe it is Han Solo warning C-3PO to “never tell me odds” when flying into an asteroid field. It could be Sheriff Brody saying to Quint, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” upon first seeing the shark they’re hunting.
Dialogue opens a window into a character’s mind and soul. It becomes an important framework for discovering what shapes their personalities and what drives their actions.
Characters feel like real people when their thoughts, words, and actions mirror what you would expect from a real world person faced with similar circumstances. Well-written dialogue can be a powerful tool in shaping how your audience sees a particular character and helping them connect with that same character.
Characteristics of Bad Dialogue
Since publishing Pandora Reborn in the summer of 2018, I’ve taken opportunities to read multiple novels from many other indie authors. Along the way, I’ve encountered some common problems when it comes to crafting effective dialogue.
Some indie authors miss the point entirely with dialogue. Their characters become faces lost in the crowd because they approach it the wrong way.
One common mistake is turning dialogue into a vehicle to spout exposition to the reader. This leads to clunky blocks of text that feel like the recitation of a passage from a Wikipedia article rather than an authentic conversation between two or more people.
Inexperienced authors tend to incorporate obtrusive dialogue tags. They toss aside basic tags like said, asked, answered, or replied that melt into the background and use tags like exclaimed, retorted, or whined that draw undue attention.
Then there is that group of authors who cause confusion by throwing out line after line of dialogue without blending action and viewpoint into the scene. Failing to strike a balance prevents the author from framing the dialogue properly and giving it the right context.
Characteristics of Good Dialogue
As an author, I approach every scene I write in a story in visual terms. I close my eyes and let the scene play out before me like I am standing just out of frame watching everything unfold. This approach actually serves me quite well in crafting dialogue.
Dialogue should reveal character, move the plot forward, give context to any unfolding action, and bring characters to life. If it doesn’t feel real to your reader, they are drawn out of the story.
Authors should craft dialogue like real conversations between real people. This means detailing body language and speech mannerisms to show a character’s personality. It also means taking time to make sure what each character says sound and feel realistic. Why would a character spout technobabble, for example, at a colleague who is likely to have a similar level of understanding on the same subject? You need to examine dialogue through the eyes of the characters involved in that conversation.
The fictional world you create as an author is the real world to the characters who live in it. When you remember that guiding principle, it can help you shape dialogue that always moves the story forward rather than hitting the pause button.