Talk to Me: Writing Dialogue that Sings

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Author photo-2Dull dialogue can send your reader to sleep, but bad dialogue can send them running for the hills. Good dialogue establishes character and place, advances the plot, employs subtext, and is crisp and interesting enough to keep even the ficklest reader flipping pages far into the night. Sound like too tall an order? Read on for tips on turning your dialogue into the talk of the town (or at least your editor’s office).

  • I, Robot. You, Siri. Ever read a novel and scoffed, “Real people don’t talk like that”? You’re not alone. Realistic dialogue is key to reader engagement. But there’s a delicate balance between robot-speak and courtroom-transcript-level accuracy. Other considerations include age-appropriate language, genre-appropriate tone, and giving your characters distinctive voices. The first step? Start eavesdropping. Listen to people speaking IRL, and take note of cadence, repeated phrases, idioms, and accompanying body language. Have a teen character? Eavesdrop online by checking out your nephew’s Facebook page or scrolling through Tumblr. Take the best details to give your characters verisimilitude, then polish up the awkward pauses of real life.
  • Teapa Warning: Info Dump Ahead. You can feel it coming. The aged mentor is about to sit those tiny wizard children down with a cup of tea and explain the rules of magic, and you are about to check out until the next dragon shows up. Dialogue is not the medium for twelve droning paragraphs of mansplaining, but luckily, dialogue can be a great tool for breaking up twelve droning paragraphs of omniscient exposition. Use dialogue to impart important details of a murder investigation, or update the captain on the status of the ship. Give your characters something to do while they’re talking, too. Magical world-building info is always more fun when received while fending off a dragon attack.
  • Double-Duty Dialogue. The best dialogue has at least two layers: The ground floor, where all the action happens, and the subterranean basement of hidden feelings. Tinge your characters’ dialogue with everything they’re not Let them speak in opposition to what the reader knows of their true feelings. But don’t overplay it—the key to subtext is subtlety. Give your reader the thrill of catching that squee-worthy statement all by themselves. As any member of a fandom can tell you, the basement of subtext is where the real action—romantic, spooky, or villainous—happens.

For inspiration and education, check out modern masters like Rainbow Rowell and Jennifer Crusie, or vintage screwball comedies like His Girl Friday and Charade. Think like a screenplay. And then: get writing. The more you listen, read, and write, the better you will become. Now, grab a scene partner—or the cat—and test that dialogue out loud!

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Leah Merrill is a Kansas City native and author of more than six impossible things. Follow her on Twitter @la_mer92, and be sure to check out her stories for Dreamspinner Press under the pseudonym L.A. Merrill

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