Guest post by author EJ McCay
Good dialogue is a wonderful thing. It can grab a reader and pull them into your story. Your characters feel real when the dialogue feels real.
Bad dialogue can stifle your flow. It can make your entire work feel unbelievable. It can kill your characters, pace, and story.
What makes dialogue good though?
Have you ever just listened to a conversation? One that you aren’t apart of? Have you noticed that conversation doesn’t have the best grammar? Or how about its repetitiveness?
Here’s what I mean:
“I ain’t gonna do nuthin’.”
Is it how people talk? Yep. Do you understand what that person was saying? Yep. And yet, it’s completely wrong. It’s also great dialogue. It feels real because it’s how people speak.
Another example using repetitiveness:
“I wanna coke. Hey, sweetheart, you wanna go get a Coke?”
“Yeah, I’d love that. Let’s go get a Coke.”
Now, let’s try this conversation with a thesaurus:
“I wanna Coke. Hey, sweetheart, you wanna get a soda?”
“Yeah, I’d love that. Let’s go get a pop.”
Which of these two conversations are real? Which one have you heard? The first example because people don’t look for new or different words just to keep from repeating a word. We’re people, not walking thesauruses.
You’re probably thinking, “but I was told I needed perfect grammar and nothing should ever be repeated. It’s why I’ve purchased my fourth thesaurus for the year.”
Here’s the thing. You’re taught those rules when you’re learning to write for a reason. In the parts of your writing that are exposition, poor grammar makes it difficult for a reader to understand your story, and repetitiveness either in words or phrases gets on your readers nerves. So, they are good rules, but like all rules, you need to know when you can break them. Dialogue can be when it’s time to break the rules.
Your dialogue also needs to be appropriate for your character, like accents, euphemisms, level of intelligence. A coal miner in PA shouldn’t sound like a lawyer from New York. And neither of these two characters should sound like an outback tour guide in Australia. All three speak English, but they don’t sound the same. I’m not say you have to throw a shrimp on the Barbie. I’m saying there are things that can keep these three characters from sounding exactly the same.
How many times have you had a conversation where the topic just abruptly changed? You’re talking about cookies and the next thing you know you’re discussing why Brenda got her nails done. That’s natural dialogue.
We’re fickle. We move. We change. You can only discuss the same topic for so long. How about an ADHD character? You really think they’re going to stay on topic for even ten minutes? Nope. They’re like Doug from Up. SQUIRRELL!!
A conversation doesn’t have rules. It doesn’t follow the Chicago Manual of Style. It happens naturally. It flows and moves. It’s bouncy and unpredictable.
Bad dialogue feels fake. It’s stiff. It’s not alive. It doesn’t breathe. It just sits there like words on a page. Natural, good dialogue moves. It floats off the page like a cloud enveloping the reader into your world.
Your reader wants to escape. They want to fall into your world and forget the troubles of the one they’re in. It’s why they read your blurb and decided to get your book. Good dialogue allows them to make this escape into your story and forget everything, including that they are reading a book.
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EJ McCay grew up in Charleston, South Carolina and currently resides in Lubbock, Texas. She lives with her husband and two girls. Writing wasn’t always her dream. That came about when she was in her mid-twenties. Since then, it’s become more than a passion, it’s become part of what makes her tick. She writes in multiple genres from YA to Adult Romance. When not writing, she’s a nerd-herding lover of Chuck, and enjoyer of good coffee. Some of her favorite books include Ender’s Game, The Percy Jackson Series, and the Alex Van Helsing trilogy–just to mention a few.