If characters are the soul of the story, then dialogue is its body (wow, what is that? A silly metaphor?). By that, I mean that dialogue is how your characters will show their personalities, who they really are, how they see themselves, how they talk to other people. They can think as they want about themselves, but thinking is one thing and doing is another one.
Dialogues are also not random. They must serve a purpose. They must reveal the character’s personality, advance the plot, show backstory, or even entertain. If they are rambling randomly and it doesn’t serve the story, it’s time to cut off this dialogue.
The characters interact when they are talking, and that’s how the story moves forward.
But how to write great dialogue?
I love to write dialogue because I love to talk.
So, I was very excited when Neil Gaiman taught his method of writing dialogue in his Masterclass.
This article is based on his teachings.
How to Write Great Dialogue in 5 Steps
1. Listen to people. This is the biggest Neil advice. He was a journalist before and that’s how he got into writing. He listened to people talking all the time, in different ways, and that’s how he discovered how to write dialogue.
Writing dialogue exercise: transcribe people talking.
Put Youtube on or something and transcribe how people talk. The more you do that, the better you will become in writing dialogue. Also, pay attention to online chats, Twitter, Facebook: people comment there like they would say things in real life, but in a more polished way so it makes sense when they are writing it.
It’s the same for us writers. Things on the page will never be as realistic as listening to a real conversation. It can’t be. People don’t make sense all the time. We start phrases and we don’t finish it, we stutter, and etc. Remember: dialogue also has to serve the purpose of advancing the story. It’s not random chat. So, it has to feel real, but not be exactly real. People do a great job when they are writing tweets, for example. They say it in a dialogue form.
2. Cut the unnecessary words. I know we say “well” all the time, but your story doesn’t need it. You have to make it feel real in other ways and not only with a bunch of filler words or swear words.
3. Use contractions. People speak with contractions.
4. Body language. While your character is saying something, they are doing something as well. It all delivers a message:
“I hate this God damned school,” John said while ripping a piece of paper from his notebook. He made a little ball and thew it in the trash can across the room. “I just want to go home,” he yawned, lazy.
This says a lot about John: he is either not a good student or not very captivated by the school. He is sleepy at the moment. He doesn’t really care about his school material (otherwise he wouldn’t rip it in such a way).
This dialogue is not random. It’s showing his personality.
5. People don’t speak what they are saying or feeling, often. Don’t make it sound like a robot.
6. During editing, read your dialog twice. First to make sure it sounds like something a human would say, then again to make sure it’s in character. It has to sound natural when you read it.
Every character speaks in a different way.
Separate some words that each character will always say. For example, you have two brothers. One of them can say “bro” all the time, while the other never says it. One of them calls his mom “mum” and the other “mommy”. This really helps to differentiate characters.
Neil Gaiman calls it “giving your character a hat”. It is not a literal hat, but it is some characteristic that really stands out from the other characters and it’s unique to them.
For example, your character can have a hard time saying words with “r”, and you always mention it. Your readers might not remember that your character’s name is John but they will remember “oh, it’s the guy that can’t say the r letter.”
This is very useful if you have a lot of secondary characters and it’s hard to set them apart.
It could be also something physical, like a gigantic nose or red hair. Remember to mention this characteristic often.
The YouTube subtitle trick worked like a charm :]