There’s a lot of good, easy-to-follow advice on ‘how to write realistic dialogue,’ and I will soon share my ideas on that here, but this first post on the subject will cover when and why I choose to use dialogue. Every writer should have this conversation with themselves before refining the dialogue that’s already on the page. What do you want your dialogue to achieve? Why will you use it?
I love dialogue. Editors and readers have always praised my use of it to the extent that one or two editors have asked why I don’t try writing plays instead. I wasn’t sure how to take this ‘praise’ at first. Were they complementing my dialogue or criticising everything else? I felt as though they were saying the other areas of my writing weren’t as strong.
But I learned to accept that writing realistic dialogue was my strength, and I continue to write novels instead of plays. Why? Because I’m more familiar with novels. I read far more novels than I watch plays. Additionally, the autonomy of the novel-writing process is something I enjoy. I don’t have to work with directors, actors, props, locations, and other people to complete my projects.
Most of the time, my stories are dialogue-heavy. Sure, the sound advice is that each line of your dialogue ought to be achieving something, like moving the plot forward or developing characters. Still, that advice isn’t exclusive to dialogue. Every line of your writing should be contributing to the plot and the characters. It’s just a matter of writing well.
The main thing I do with my dialogue is show emotion. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is the oldest and best writing advice out there. And I employ dialogue more than anything else to show emotion. For example, the following passage is from my novel, The Little Movements:
Essentially, what I’m saying with this dialogue could have been communicated by simply writing: Sarah and Simon tried to change the subject and talk about something else. First, they talked about a bus that passed, but it was clear that neither of them could concentrate on anything. And then Simon said he wanted to go home to bed.
I’m not stating that my decision to write this section in the form of dialogue was correct. But I am saying that I made my decision for a reason, with intent. I chose to write a novel that showed practically all subtle emotions and motivations through dialogue. The novel is a close-up account of two marriages. The readers experience snippets of their lives. So I didn’t think it mattered if some readers didn’t understand everything about the dynamics of their marriages.
That’s what I was going for – realism. I wanted readers to get to know my characters as any person would get to know a couple. They watch and listen to them, witnessing the couple in motion and make half-informed judgements. In my novel, no character is right or wrong, the good guy or the bad guy. My decision to go dialogue-heavy helped me achieve neutrality while still exploring the characters in depth.
I hope this introduction on how to write realistic dialogue has been helpful. I will get to more practical advice with future posts, but for now, ask yourself when you will use your dialogue and what you want to achieve from it. Always write with purpose.