Have you ever read a book where the dialogue was stilted, unrealistic, and unconvincing? I’ve seen this happen all the time, and more often than not I end up delivering the book posthaste to my neighborhood used bookstore…unfinished.
If I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t begrudge these writers of their efforts because truly natural dialogue–whether internal or external–is difficult to achieve in even the best stories. However it can be glaringly obvious when it’s stiff and can dead-stop story momentum.
So what are the tricks of the trade to writing good conversation? Start by having one–with yourself! We all do it whether we are alone in the car, waiting in line at the grocery store, or simply lying awake at night in bed. The conversation we each have with our own internal characters: friends, family members, our own soul or even with God. Use these conversations as cues for how to write natural dialogue because you are already doing so on your own. Make mental notes about what you’re talking about, to whom your talking, and even the kinds of words or terms you use on your own inside your noggin.
What do you do when you can’t get anything going on the screen? When I’m particularly stuck, I go to a lined pad of yellow paper and begin jotting down the conversation as if I were looking at the script of a play; I try to be honest about the conversation as I write it down and it tends to come out naturally. Often I end up laughing at myself (I’m easily amused).
Be willing to go wherever the conversation leads. Let it be quirky. Let it be open. Let it be honest. But most of all just let it be you.
Below is a sample from my book OLDE MYSTERIUM, and the types of conversations my characters have with each other…and in my head:
“May I help you?”
The voice startled Daniel and he turned to see a man with wisps of white hair sticking out over his ears and circling around his bald, brown pate. The man was old and yet his frail frame did nothing to hide the vibrancy behind his black eyes. Daniel could not tell what his accent was, but guessed it was Middle Eastern.
“What?” Dan said.
“Are you looking for something containing the great mysteries?” the man said, motioning to the rack of books in front of them.
“Uh, not really. No.”
The man nodded. His thin hair waving, as if by a breeze. “Understandable. People today are far more concerned with the next football game or the next movie release…or the next great getaway from the drabness of life. The search for entertainment overcoming the search for knowledge. So what are you looking for?”
“Actually I was just curious. What is this place?” Dan asked.
The man’s thin hand waved over the store. “This is a lifetime of collected knowledge. The secrets of the ages.”
Daniel’s spine tensed, feeling uncomfortable but his curiosity nagged onward. “You’ve read every book in here?”
The man nodded. “Most of them twice.”
“Wow.” Daniel scratched his chin. “So what do they say?”
The old man’s smile was slightly wolfish. “Nothing mostly. Every book in here contains small gems of wisdom buried within pages of rubbish. Every book except one.”