Make sure to tick/check these questions off as you answer them, and leave a comment with any of your own tips :)
(Note to all of you reading this post: I made it months ago and upon changing the font size several days ago the entire post turned upside down. I've tried to put it all back as it was (which took me ages), but I apologise if there are still any errors or other inconveniences upon reading it).
1. Do your characters babble without direction?Yes, dialogue can be tough, yet for a reader it can be very intriguing. However, if the dialogue goes on for miles without clear direction, without moving the plot forward, this will lead you nowhere and it will lose your reader's interest.
For example, having too many dialogue tags can slow down the pace of your text, as can be seen in the following example:
"You lied to me!" she shouted.
"No, I didn't!" he rebounded.
"You did. You cheated on me!" She wailed.
"I... I'm sorry," he muttered.
Sounds pretty boring, doesn't it? The dialogue seems to simply drag along at a snail's pace without really going anywhere. To improve this dialogue, simply get rid of some of the excess and redundant dialogue tags. We know who is speaking and having it repeated over and over will only cause for the reader to lose interest. The improved version would go something like this:
"You lied to me!" she shouted.
"No, I didn't!" he rebounded.
"You did. You cheated on me!"
"I... I'm sorry."
Now that you have this in place, make sure the story is moving forward. For example, is that first sentence by the cheating boyfriend really necessary? Would the story maybe flow better had that sentence simply been left out? Could you not have shown what he was trying to say simply by showing him involved in a certain action, or conveying a certain emotion?
2. Do your words come to live?"You cheated on me. I'm leaving you."
Pretty emotion-filled words right there, huh? But do you really get a feel for them? I guess not really. But what about now?
"You cheated on me. I'm leaving you." She tried to sound strong, but he could hear her fragile voice break upon voicing the words.
This additional information makes a huge difference. As long as you remember to involve the senses of the reader, you can hardly go wrong!
Depending on which point of view you are using, two other things you might consider to make the scene come to live more:
- Showing the character's internal thoughts of the other characters or of a specific situation or event. (Wouldn't it show so much about the character if the cheated girl would have had a thought like "you arrogant bastard" or "I'll never love again." Both would paint a whole different personality for her!)
- Showing body language (The girl could ball her fist in anger, or she could cast down her glance in melancholy, etc.)
If your character does not pull your reader into the story, you're doing it wrong. Even if you have implicated some of the above steps, your dialogue might still sound somewhat flat, the words might not have fully come alive yet. Well, have you tried to invoke all senses? (Yes, not just what your character hear or see, but also what they smell, taste, feel.) No better way to put this than through the following quote:
"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of the light on the broken glass."- Anton ChekhovAnyway, you have to show rather than tell. Furthermore, you have to involve taste, feeling, emotion. What if a certain sight evokes a certain memory, or is accompanied by a given taste or smell or something? A great quote I found on Write to Done that perfectly exemplifies is the following:
"The chill winter air tasted of bonfire smoke. Jill warmed her hands at the crackling log fire, fragrant with apple wood, and wished devoutly she had worn shoes that did not pinch."
This is not directly dialogue, but it does prove the point. So, what makes this description stand out? Let's just list all the senses used in this short section here:
- Taste ("[the] air tasted like..")
- Touch ("the chill winter air," "Jill warmed her hands")
- Sound ("the crackling log fire")
- Feel ("[she] wished she had worn..")
- Smell ("fragrant with apple wood")
3. Are the conversations robotic?Now, seeing there's more life and movement in your dialogue, have you checked that it is not robotic? Dialogue needs to have surprise, conflict -- it needs to catch the reader's interest and keep it. Why does it need to have these? Well, it needs to provoke emotion, get the reader involved in the story, pulled in so much they don't want to ever put the book back down. How can you achieve this? As pointed out in the last section of my first paragraph, you need to show people rather than tell them. For example:
"You lied to me!" she shouted. Her hands were balled by her side. "You cheated on me!"
Jack lowered his head at her accusatory words. "I... I'm sorry."
I'm guessing this is not the best dialogue you've ever read, but with a bit more work I'm sure you can see that it's now already much better than it was before.
4. Have you considered sentence lengths?
If you haven't, you might -- without even being aware of it -- be boring your reader out of reading your work. Sentence lengths, if all of the same size and possibly also the same structure, can make your work come across as monotonous and uninteresting. How to fix this? Vary your sentence lengths, paragraph lengths, and organisation of your sentences. By all means, dare to use fragments! Yes. Even fragments.
The chamber was cold, empty and forlorn, chilled by the relentless wind.
That's too many adjectives. A story needs to dance with wordplay and colorful language rather than lengthy and - to be honest - somewhat uninteresting adjectives and adverbs. As Stephen King said in his work On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:
"The road to hell is paved with adverbs."- Stephen King
Look back at the first sentence and compare it with the following, more lively and intriguing one:
The room was as cold as a taxman's heart.
Sounds better? Certainly does!
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Now onto your thoughts: What tips do you have for other writers?