by Ana Howard, editor
Mastering the art of writing dialogue that is compelling, reveals character, and sounds real is a “must” for new authors. The dialogue in your novel can make or break your chances with agents, publishers and readers. Clever and credible dialogue could be the one thing that makes your book rise above. In my experience, editors at publishing houses and agents look for dialogue that rings true, and if it doesn’t, they might immediately pass. Readers love good dialogue too. Therefore it’s essential to take the words your characters say as seriously as you take all the other aspects of your novel.
One of the most common mistakes I see is dialogue that is so grammatically correct it sounds unnatural. Good dialogue should reflect the way real people speak. For example, unless your character is very prim and proper, lives in another era, or exists at an exalted station in life, he or she would probably ask, “Where did you come from?” rather than “From where did you come?” Don’t fear ending a sentence with a preposition. This ages-old rule is routinely broken.
Along the same lines, most present-day characters would say, “I wonder who the book is about” rather than “I wonder whom the book is about” even though the latter is grammatically correct. An important part of dialogue is showing personality, so don’t try to adhere to some archaic rule when the words don’t sound genuine.
Also be aware of cultural differences. A character from the south might say “y’all” and one from the Midwest might say, “youse guys” whereas neither is accepted in formal English. The imperfections, if they fit, will add richness and authenticity to your dialogue. Your character might also say “It’s too many things that are going on,” instead of the correct “There are too many things going on.” Keep in mind the age and education level of each of your characters, and look closely at adverbs. Your character might say, “He was hurt bad in the accident,” rather than the correct, “He was hurt badly in the accident.” Think of writing “Everyone needs to bring their luggage” instead of “Everyone needs to bring his or her luggage.” Feel free to split infinitives, too. If “to bravely go” sounds better to you in dialogue than “to go bravely,” then break the rule.
In addition, don’t avoid words such as “gonna” and “dunno” if you hear your character speaking that way in your head. Even though a spell check will recommend that you change these words (it’s doing it to me right now!) ignore the advice. It’s OK to use slang, colloquialisms, and invented words as long as you don’t go overboard with them. Also don’t fear starting sentences with “and” or “but.” The same holds true for the use of run-on sentences and sentence fragments. People speak this way all the time.
And lastly, “like” is so often misused in our everyday speech that it has become accepted. For example, would your character say, “Do you feel like you’re going to die?” or “Do you feel as if you’re going to die?”
Another mistake I see in dialogue is the absence of contractions. In real speech we use contractions most of the time, so write “I’ll” instead of “I will.” Write “She’s going to…” and not “She is going to…” Of course there are times when you don’t want to use contractions, such as when a character is adamantly saying something along the lines of, “I am going to do it!” Close your eyes and listen to the way you imagine the characters are speaking.
I also see dialogue in which the characters frequently address each other by name. Many new authors write sentences such as, “Nora, I’m surprised” and “What were you thinking, Nora?” In true speech people don’t address each other by name all that often, therefore make sure you aren’t overdoing it.
Try these tips, and if you’re still struggling with dialogue, consider seeking help from a professional editor.
Ana Howard specializes in the developmental editing of fiction for children, young adults and adults.