Bad dialogue versus Good Dialogue…

We all know the importance of good dialogue in our writing, but how do we achieve it?

Well for me, good dialogue is all about ensuring our characters speak the way we speak and I don’t know about you, but when I talk I don’t tend to be very grammatically correct; in fact, I very much doubt most of us are.  So why would we make our characters speak the Queen’s English, when the majority of real people don’t?  Unless we’re writing about royalty in the first place, of course!

Take the following example: 

Jane looked out of the window.  “Oh no, it is looking rather cloudy outside,” she said.  “I hope it does not rain.  I have an appointment at the hairdresser’s this morning and this afternoon I am taking Charlie to the park.  If it rains, my hair is going to be ruined.”

What class do you think this character is from?  How do you picture both her and the room she’s standing in?  What’s the view like outside the window?

Now what if I was to tell you Jane is a working class woman, living in a terraced house in the North of England and she’s actually looking out onto a back yard…  The above dialogue doesn’t work, does it?  In this context it feels unnatural, melodramatic even and it most certainly doesn’t fit with the character I’ve just described.  

Here’s the example again:

Jane looked out of the window.  “Oh no… it’s looking a bit cloudy,” she said.  “I hope it doesn’t rain.  I’ve got an appointment at the hairdresser’s this morning and this aft, I’m taking Charlie to the park.  My hair’s gonna be ruined.”

Can you hear/feel the difference?

That’s because in real life we’re a lot more relaxed in the way we speak.  We don’t pronounce each and every single word of what we’re saying, we have a tendency to run words into each other.  So unless we’re really emphasising a point, a lot of the time ‘is not’ becomes ‘isn’t’, ‘I have’ becomes ‘I’ve’ and ‘does not’ becomes ‘doesn’t’… and so on.  And in real life even when it comes to individual words said in full, we don’t always articulate these properly either.  As in ‘going’ becomes ‘gonna’.

Of course, there are other things to consider when it comes to writing good dialogue, such as the need to avoid being too ‘on the nose’.  Our dialogue needs to say a lot, without saying much at all – subtle rather than all out clear.  A bit like when we ask someone if they’re ok only to be told they’re fine.  Naturally, we know they’re not fine at all…  So in other words, they’re showing us they have a problem, rather than telling us.

10 responses to “Bad dialogue versus Good Dialogue…

  1. You're welcome, Donna. A good way to test how well your dialogue is working is to read it out loud. It will be more obvious if it sounds natural or not if you do… Think in terms of television and how it would sound hearing it rather than reading it x

  2. Suzie, It's true. Some people have a natural knack for dialogue — those people who eavesdrop on others!! Others have to work harder at it.

  3. Lol, Paulita. Eavesdropping is certainly a good way to pick up natural speech. It's certainly something I often do myself, but then again I'm probably just being nosey x

  4. Actually, if you replicated everyday conversation, it would probably be spinkled liberally with 'ums' and 'ers' and 'well' and 'you know'. The trick is to make it sound natural without all these things which often break up 'real-life' dialogue.

  5. you're so right. Dialogue is very important and a lot of people get it wrong. It's all about making it sound natural, but not too realistic – some people pause a lot when talking, or say 'um, er, etc', which isn't so great in writing. Also, what's annoying is when people have characters saying unnecessary things to explain to the reader, when as a character, they would already know the answer. Luckily, we've often been told that the dialogue in our stories is one of our strengths. Which is weird, seeing as we spend most of our time in the house, not talking to people 😀

  6. Thanks for dropping by, Ladies. You make a good point about characters saying unnecessary things for the readers sake, when as characters they would already know the answer… For me, it's important to always write from our characters' point of view, finding an alternative way to impart any extra information that the reader might need. This might take a bit more thinking about to achieve, but it's so worth the effort as it creates a more polished piece of writing x

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