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13 January 2021

Ten tips for writing dialogue

by Discoveries Discoveries, From the Agents, Writing Tips

CBC and Curtis Brown are proud to be partnering with the Women’s Prize Trust and NatWest to create Discoveries, a writing development prize and programme that offers aspiring female authors of all ages and backgrounds encouragement and support at the beginning of their creative journeys.

This week Discoveries team member and Curtis Brown associate agent, Viola Hayden is talking us through how to write dialogue that will help make your characters believable and your novel stand out for all the right reasons.

There are no two ways about it, writing dialogue is hard but it’s worth the effort to get it right. Good dialogue breathes life into your characters and into your novel, but if it’s bad it might lose you readers. Here are some tips for not only taming this brilliant tool, but for making it work for you. 

1. Read aloud

There’s no better way to test whether your dialogue feels authentic than to bring it to life. Listen back to what you’ve written and ask yourself does it sound like something a person would really say? Is it clunky, hard to follow or understand, longwinded or dull? Are the natural pauses and rhythms of speech reflected in the grammar you’ve used on the page? If not go back and tinker until it sounds right.

2. Don’t go into detail

Dialogue isn’t the place to download information to the reader – if it’s necessary, work it in another way. Often the best way to do this is to have two characters start off a conversation, and then leave the dialogue with a ‘And so she proceeded to tell me…’

3. Keep it brief

Anthony Trollope said, Dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of a novel, but it is only so long as it tends in some way to the telling of the main story.’ There may be times when it is appropriate to use small talk, but in the main it’s superfluous, and it slows the pace. It’s wise to avoid long conversations, speeches, or soliloquies for the same reason. If it’s not adding, then it could be detracting. Don’t be wasteful, use dialogue thoughtfully and ask yourself if you can communicate the information in a different way.

4. Take full advantage

Having said be judicious, it is also important to use dialogue deliberately and to your full advantage. Dialogue done well can tell a reader so much about a character’s characterization – their background, motivation, temperament – and their true character – what they’ll do when the chips are down. Giving each character a unique voice and manner in dialogue is one of the best devices for character development in your toolkit.

You can also employ dialogue to help with your world-building. You might be writing a historical novel, a fantasy, or a novel set in a real but unfamiliar world you want to introduce your reader to – appropriate vernacular and slang can do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. 

5. Be convincing and consistent

One of the most important rules of good dialogue is to make sure it matches your character. Your character is a six-year-old, do they read like a six-year-old? You’ve put in the hard work establishing someone’s characteristics, does their dialogue ring true in light of who they are? Is it consistent? Even if the tone of a character’s speech – from shy to strong – develops over the course of a novel, the underlying voice should not change. 

6. You talkin’ to me

People speak differently to different people, so your characters should do the same. Once again, underneath this difference in tone the consistency of character should remain the same – and in fact showing a character’s different interactions will others add depth, authenticity and understanding. 

7. Create conflict and suspense

Cordial conversations are great in reality, but they’re not the most interesting to read. Conflict, revelations, suspense in dialogue are intriguing, engaging, and they move the plot forward. And remember, to create conflict and suspense your characters don’t have to be openly arguing or withholding from one another. One could be condescending, the other seething quietly, or both dancing around something unsaid.

8. Subtext

Which brings me neatly onto subtext. In his international bestselling book Dialogue, Robert McKee redefines this ‘Trialogue… the triangular relationship between two characters in conflict and the third thing through which they funnel their struggle.’ How us what they’re saying through what they’re not telling each other.

9. He said / She said

Steer clear of ‘she uttered’, ‘he postulated’. In fact, you should reach a stage in the novel where largely you can do away with identifying tags, because your characters’ voices will be distinctive enough to tell the reader who’s speaking. Likewise, don’t go heavy on the adverbs. Sometimes – often – simplicity is best.

10. Follow the rules

Once you’re happy with the flow of your dialogue, go back over it and make sure you’ve formatted it correctly. Indentations, paragraphs, and punctuation are the icing on the cake!

We hope these tips will help you write convincing dialogue and prove helpful to those of you working on your entry to the Discoveries Prize, which closes for applications Sun 17 Jan.

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