I love dialog. It’s the stuff that grabs my interest and breaks up the long narratives that can sometimes make a book feel top heavy. As an avowed dialoger, I look for realistic dialog, and this means that unless your characters are family members of Commander Data and can’t use contractions, I expect to see characters speaking with contractions. “I do not think the beagle is a helpful employee.”
Who talks like that? Really. And yet I see this all the time. It’s one thing to avoid contractions in your narrative exposition, and quite another to avoid it in dialog.
The same can be said for your character’s voice. If they’re talking to a partner in their office, or a wife talking to a husband, it’s a gimme that their dialog will be informal. They know each other, so I don’t expect to see anything formal and stilted like, “Roger, I do not feel like attending the ball tonight.”
More realistically, the dialog would be, “Honey, I feel like crap tonight. Can we bag on the ball? Besides, your Aunt Bertie will be there and she always drinks too much.”
Realistic dialog really is the difference between a so-so manuscript and one that pops to life. It’s also a delicious way enhance character development without the author shouting, “Hey, I’m developing my author here…pay attention!” Dialog removes the temptation to tell, not show because the character trait comes through in how she speaks.
Which feels more compelling to you?
The beagle saw herself in the mirror for the first time. Giving herself a long, slow once-over, she decided that she hated her freckles and wished she were born with better markings. But, saucy character that she was, she told everyone she was a new breed borne of royalty.
The beagle saw herself in the mirror for the first time.”Oh for crying out loud,” she groaned while giving herself a long, slow once-over, “why didn’t anyone tell me I look like Picasso painted me while fuzzed up on crack?” She looked at her employer and bared her teeth. “All this time you let me think I looked like all the other beagles. No problem,” she sniffed, “I’ll simply tell everyone I’m a new breed – borne from royalty. They’ll totally buy it, especially after I ply them with a double batch of margaritas.”
It’s a lot more fun to see a character’s personality rather than be told they’re saucy, or plucky, or shy, or whatever. Our readers are far from stupid, and they’ll catch the drift of a character simply by the way they talk. But they’ll never get that chance if you don’t make your characters come to life and have them talk the way a real person – or beagle – would talk.
Sometimes I get the feeling writers don’t know their characters well enough, and don’t realize their character would never talk like Commander Data. Instead, I see lots of cases where the writer uses dialog only because they’re at a crossroads and their characters really need to say something. So their dialog ends up doing little more than imparting information. There is no differentiation between the characters’ dialog – they’re equally flat and flavorless. The only reason we know Jane Character said something is because the dialog tag said so.
Dialog should be as unique as snowflakes, and readers should be able to tell who’s doing the talking based on how they speak. This takes knowing and understanding your characters so that they’re real people. The way you articulate is far different from your best friend. So analyze why that is. How does your BFF speak – what is that “something” that makes you shake your head and smile, while thinking “Only my BFF would say that.”
Never waste the opportunity to inject brilliant dialog because it’s what makes your characters memorable. How many of you have a hard time with dialog? Why do you think that is? Do you feel you know your characters as if they were real, three dimensional people? More importantly, how do you think you could improve your dialog?