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I began an assignment to write a short story for a Creative Writing submission to a publication and although it was accepted, I found that I struggled with the addition of dialogue to this first-person narrative.

I began by trying to avoid dialogue between the characters and kept the "dialogue" in my head as personal mental processings and ruminations. At some point, I realised that the story would need interactions between the characters in order to build relationships relative to the story and it was then that I was met with a mental brick wall. Further thought lead me to realise that in reading stories in general, when it comes to verbal interactions between characters, I tend to lose interest, as it often feels awkward, forced, lacking depth and authenticity . It's almost as if it ruins the atmosphere that has been carefully crafted, cutting into the mood like the slap from a dead piece of meat. A good deal of dialogue is small-talk, and I have to admit,I'm not a fan of small talk in reality.

I'm interested in knowing the magic formula for writing dialogue to keep the reader, including myself as author, engaged in the story and connected to its characters.

  • 2
    Try, try and then try some more. – Totumus Maximus Jul 11 at 7:29
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    in reading stories in general, when it comes to verbal interactions between characters, I tend to lose interest You must not be reading good stories. Dialog is where most "action" takes place to move a story forward. – LarsTech Jul 11 at 23:11
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    If it sounds wooden, it ain't good dialog. – JRE Jul 12 at 9:28
  • You may want to include information about your intended audience. Don't assume that your personal preferences in reading should determine how you write unless you're writing for an audience of people like yourself. – barbecue Jul 13 at 21:53
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You leave out small talk by focusing on big talk!

By this I mean every thing a person says should be something at least one person in the conversation needs to hear, or wants to hear, or is surprised to hear, or if the other person ignores it, should have wanted to hear.

Dialogue has consequence. Cut out lines that don't have a purpose, or aren't going to have an impact on anybody. The impact does not have to be positive, the information conveyed could be confusing, devastating, joyful, relieving, it may explain something important to them. Even if the speaker thinks they are not saying anything revelatory, the listener might find it revelatory.

"I saw your husband leaving the Emporium yesterday, didn't get the chance to say hello. I love that place!"

"Oh, really? We love it too." He told me he went to Dallas, yesterday.

The only rule is, somebody has to care about it.

If you can't think of anything BIG to talk about, don't write dialogue. Write action, or skip time in the story until something interesting can be said or done or happen.

Make sure your dialogue serves a purpose that is clear to at least you, in terms of providing information, or revealing something about a character, or illustrating or sharing some emotion.

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    At the same time, though, a small sprinkling of small talk will help keep the characters seem human, rather than super human. Granted, it needs to be only enough to make them human. Even Einstein, Newton, and Hawking used small talk and didn't talk about universal physical constants and formula all the time. – computercarguy Jul 11 at 16:24
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    @computercarguy The OP specifically wants to avoid it. In fiction (especially in film, though this question is about a novel), most people don't miss it, or they expect anything that is small talk to immediately become important. it doesn't make the characters seem "super human" to skip it, or gloss over it without writing actual dialogue. We can write they discussed the weather, Mrs. Eberling was always eager to share the forecast. Cindy was about to move on when she remembered the car from last night. "Hey, have you seen that orange Camaro hanging around here? Who drives it?" – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jul 11 at 17:27
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    This answer is especially on point because the OP asked about dialog in a first-person perspective story. – cmm Jul 11 at 19:12
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Writer and former editor Jenna Moreci has a great series of YouTube videos that delve into lots of different writing topics. Some of them discuss dialogue, and here are a few cherry-picked tips of hers that you might find helpful:

  • Avoid banal pleasantries. If you're reading a story that has lots of small talk, it may have been poorly written. Small talk may be realistic, but it's boring to read and you should almost always leave it out-- unless it serves a narrative purpose. (Jenna uses the example of a character who wakes in a cold sweat from night terrors; her mother asks her the next morning how she slept, and she responds, "Oh, just fine." In most situations, this conversation is banal and shouldn't be included in a story, but here it tells you something about the main character.)

  • Read it out loud. To address your question more specifically, one way to make dialogue seem less forced and more natural is to read it out loud to yourself. If it seems clunky, rewrite it.

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Dialog in a story serves to advance the story or develop character.

I’ve been taught that dialog isn’t conversation as much as its the ‘best of conversation.’ It condenses while it evoke emotions. It informs while obfuscating falsehoods, making them seem true and vice versa.

If you are unsure about your characters dialog when you work your draft, you can either just go nutz and write it all out without trying to make it really good and pity, or you can just summarize your goal as a writer what you want to happen as a result of this dialog.

Later, you can rework it once you have a better perspective on the characters or events.

I find the more momentum I can maintain writing dialog the easier it is develop.

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There isn't one, fiction, both reading it and writing it is a subjective experience, everyone sees it differently so there's no single formula that works in all cases. The best way to learn good writing is by reading good writing. You need to find dialogue that you do enjoy reading, that doesn't cause you to disengage and learn from the style of the author(s) who wrote it.

2

Treat it like a play. Read the conversation aloud. Does it sound like something the character would say? Does it build either character, plot or world? If not, why is it there? Is it something that someone would say: "Good morning" may not be building anything, but you don't want your character to sound rude either, as in walking up to someone and just start talking. So try to sound natural. If it sounds odd to the ear, then it is probably odd to the eyes. Unless you intended it to be odd.

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    Actually you will notice in plays, and screenplays, that people seldom engage in pleasantries, they often hang up the phone without saying "goodbye", they often leave another person after a conversation without any form of goodbye. Or the scene cuts to one of them alone to leave that out. They often skip over greetings and DO just start talking. Fiction is not real life, it condenses out the meaningless parts. It isn't rude because when it happens no other characters find it rude or ever take any offense. We don't really notice it much. In film, literally every second counts. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jul 11 at 17:36
2

Every aspect of writing comes alive when it has multiple levels to it. Characters saying exactly what they mean, in a purely functional manner, is boring, unnatural, and superfluous. But great dialogue is so much more than functionality:

  • Sound: Even in real life, some people have a tendency to speak in unconscious poetry. And in fiction, you have free license to make your character's utterances as beautiful as you want --if it fits your story.

  • Attitude: Your dialogue should expose your characters' inner lives and mental states. Is your character angry? Annoyed? Blissful? Lustful? It should come out in the word choice.

  • Context: There is also a host of things that make dialog more interesting that have nothing to do with the actual words. For example, your character is a bank robber trying to make small talk with the teller to distract him from her partner sneaking over to the safe: "Lovely weather, isn't it?" It's interesting because it needs to fool someone, not because of anything in the dialogue itself.

  • Subtext: Last, but perhaps most important, is the subtext. People often say one thing and mean another. I recommend trying two passes through on your dialogue. In the first pass, have the characters say exactly what is most important to them, in a very direct way. In the second pass, rewrite the dialogue so that the characters are hiding what they really mean. "Um..." can mean "I'm in love with you, and now that we're face to face, I don't know what to say." Or it could mean "I think that's a terrible idea, but I don't want to destroy your dreams." When the subtext is strong enough, the actual dialogue can be banal and thin and still fascinate the reader.

I always believe we write best the things we love. If you're weak on dialogue, spend some time really listening to people's conversations, and learning to love the way they talk to each other, the poetry of their metaphors and idioms, the way they do and don't say what they mean.

1

Well-written, compelling dialogue does two different things simultaneously.

1. Good dialogue moves the story forward.

The more words you use to say something, the more characters you use to build an impression of a social set, the more place-names or magic-system rules or historical tidbits you weigh your reader down with, given a certain amount of narrative, the less you're really telling a story and the more you're just offering up lore. The same reason you don't have twenty major characters instead of five, or three, or one, is the same reason you shouldn't have characters saying things don't matter to move the story forward. This is narrative economy. (And other posters have remarked on it.)

2. Good dialogue makes sense in-universe.

This can be easily lost sight of, but it is the underlying reason why, for example, packing exposition into dialogue often sounds kind of absurd. "Why is that character telling the other character something everyone in the story would already know?" You, the author, have to contrive the situation so that, not only do the things said inform the reader and move the story forward, they are also completely plausible as something the particular character would think, and say out loud, at just the time you're portraying.

Dialogue often sounds wooden and out of character because the author pays plenty of attention to narrative economy, and largely ignores in-universe causality. (In fairness, many readers are a little thick about in-universe causality, so writers often get away with it.)

There ISN'T a magic formula. Writing well is hard; it takes practice, and recognizing and working on the aspects you aren't good at. But it's a skill that can be learned.

I also think that Chris Sunami's answer is very good in regards to acquiring a nuts-and-bolts notion of the how of making dialogue sound more natural.

0

Characters interrupt each other

People don't always wait for one another to finish speaking (and say "over" to indicate they are done) before they start talking. To extend Amadeus answer from above:

"That is a beautiful necklace, did you just get it? I haven't gotten any new jewelry in so long. I was going to buy myself something but my hus-"

"I saw your husband leaving the Emporium yesterday, didn't get the chance to say hello. I love that place!"

"Oh, really? We love it too." He told me he went to Dallas, yesterday.

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