Recently I have been obsessed with dialogue and how to create good dialogue. When I say “good” I mean creating dialogue that moves the story ahead, that has a purpose rather than just taking up space. Part of this new found obsession is because I have dived back into graphic novels. I really enjoy reading graphic novels for a variety of reasons, but one of the main reasons is because good graphic novels have amazing dialogue. I am currently reading Y: The Last Man series by Brian K. Vaughan and I am inspired with how he tells the story entirely through dialogue. Being who I am, I decided to study what exactly Vaughan (and others) do to create good dialogue.
Make It Real
This piece of advice is probably a no brainer, but it must be said. When writing out dialogue, say it out loud as you write. Listen to the structure of it. Does it sound like something you would say normally? A good trick in making dialogue sound a little more realistic is putting in conjunctions. In particular, use “and”, “but”, and “or” instead of breaking sentences up with periods. Also, keep the contractions. If you had to write any kind of academic paper ever, you know contractions are a big no, but not in dialogue. English speakers rarely go without contractions, we like to speed things up, so make those “do not” phrases back to “don’t” phrases and immediately the dialogue will sound more natural.
But Not Too Real
Making dialogue sound as if it would actually come from a person’s mouth, does not mean writing down verbatim a conversation you overhear and using that as a model. Try this exercise: when out, or at home, whenever you have a moment, listen in on a conversation and write it out as the people are talking. It is a mess. English speakers particularly do not know the meaning of succinct. The trick with good dialogue is developing speech that encapsulates the sound of someone talking but without the “um” words, the backtracking, and circular type sentence structures.
Use a Unique Voice
Something that graphic novel authors are often good at is creating different voices for each character. The mannerisms of speech and the way words are put together can help to define a character. Does the character have a quiet personality, or a loud one? Is the character a teenager or an older gentleman of wealth? Dialogue can help to define and structure a character for the reader. Use the tool in order to further define and personalize your characters, rounding them out into three dimensional beings.
Dialogue does not have to be made up entirely of words. Place pauses within your dialogue. Little gestures throughout the conversation. This will pull the reader into the story, helping them to visualize the non-verbal communication taking place between characters. Unlike a movie, or a graphic novel, where there are visual cues to help, writers must depend on the reader’s imagination, so give the reader the tools to create the kind of visualization you are attempting in the scene.
The last piece of advice that I need to remember, and that I have the most fun with when I do remember, is that all communication is miscommunication. Reaching back into my days at grad school, Jacques Lacan wrote about the disconnect between the speaker and the listener. Every single word that is uttered, written or otherwise communicated loses the original meaning. The listener never interprets exactly what the communicator is saying, that is an impossibility because language (beautiful, wonderful language) is subjective to everyone’s past, understanding, race, creed, sexuality etc. What is brilliant about being a writer is that we can play with this idea. I love to explore ways that characters lose meaning in a conversation, and I use that sometimes to help the plot along or to explain to the reader information that might not otherwise be apparent.
Dialogue is an invaluable resource in your writing, if it is done correctly. I find that dialogue is one of the last things I work on in my writing, which is a shame because dialogue is an intricate part of communication, and communication is essentially what we all do with in any kind of writing.