At the turn of the twentieth century, the few books that dealt with fiction writing advised writers to use a narrative/dialogue ratio around 30% percent dialogue and 70% percent narrative. By mid twentieth century it was a forty/sixty split and by the end it was at least fifty/fifty.
So what about our new shiny century? What is the currently advised ratio of dialogue and narrative? No one can say for sure, but my best guess is that these days the attitude surrounding dialogue is excess is not nearly enough.
I’m kidding, but only sort of. The ratio of dialogue to narrative has increased a lot and the weight has slid to the other side. The average book today is at least fifty/fifty, with some moving to forty/sixty. Part of the reason for this increase is the popularity of deep third person point of view, which often makes it difficult to write enthralling narrative without making your character look obsessive.
Some people have a hard time with dialogue, saying they don’t know how to make characters sound like two people actually talking. Others think they know very well how to write dialogue — they can write, can’t they? While it is true that dialogue isn’t all that complicated, making it interesting while using it to move the story is somewhat of a challenge. And it’s important to master the skill. Nothing engages readers as quickly as dialogue that sounds natural while at the same time relating what the story is about.
DIALOGUE, THE PARADOX
What makes good dialogue hard to produce is that it must read like real people talk and also not read like real people talk. Good dialogue simply creates the illusion of being natural while performing the function of telling your story. It often takes years to develop an ear that translates to good writing. Here are a few tips:
AVOID BAD DIALOGUE
Don’t use formal language or strictly stick to the rules of grammar. Nobody talks that way.
Use contractions. Exceptions might be made if English is the speaker’s second language, but in normal conversation people mostly run their words together as in “we’re agonna go to the concert t’nite” Okay, so you’d never say that and neither will your characters, but I wanted to get your attention.
Be sure characters don’t repeatedly call each other by name. For some reason even experienced authors who know better frequently do this. Maybe it helps keep track of characters or something. But, in reality, people seldom use each other’s names except to get the person’s attention or when they’re angry. Remember your mother when you’d done something wrong? Well there you go. Most of the time she called you by a sibling’s name, right?
TO WRITE GOOD DIALOGUE
Keep it short. Most of us speak in incomplete sentences to get our ideas across and there’s a back and forth thing going on in conversation. However, we do know people who open their mouth and go on and on and on . . . and (yawn) on. You might even have one of them in your book. This is where you present an illusion rather than the real thing. Give that gabby character a few run-on sentences, have the other character try to get a word in edgewise, then have the point of view character think about how this character hogs the conversation. That’s pretty much all it takes. When the first character shows up again, provide the reader with a light reminder, maybe give that character an extra line or two more than the others in the scene. Next thing you know when that character comes on scene, readers will already know they’re tiresome gabbers.
Have characters give indirect answers. Dialogue that is too direct is called on-the-nose and tends to be predictable and therefore boring. Character one asks character two if they are attending a meeting that night. The obvious answer is yes or no, with perhaps an excuse. To make the dialogue indirect, have character two say something that leaves the question partly unanswered. For instance, “What time is it?” or “Where’s it at?” Or even, farther afield, “Is Becky going?” Which actually isn’t so far afield because we’ve all done something like that, and that’s why this techniques makes dialogue real.
Try to provide two to three clever lines per scene–cliches turned on their heels are good, Or an unexpected insight. Or a reply that’s so far from what’s expected that the reader is jarred or amused. It doesn’t have to be funny, although it can be, but it does have to be unexpected and off-the nose. The reason I suggest only two or three lines is this: If all the dialogue is clever, none of it is. Save these lines for important moments in your scene, which the lines will make memorable. And be sure to give them to your protagonist, not the spunky sidekick.
HOW TO IMPROVE FAST
Writing random scenes with heavy dialogue is a good practice. Beyond that, the fastest way to improve your dialogue is to listen closely to what people say and try to figure out what they actually mean. Most people have a sub-purpose in the conversation, so listen for them to. Write them down if at all possible. One unexpected side benefit is that if you do this at a party, all those people you talk to will be singing praise about what a great listener you are.
To learn more from Connie check out her workshop: Bootcamp for Novelists Series 4 – Effective Conflict. ConnieFlynn049-cropAward-winning, bestselling author Connie Flynn writes both long and short fiction and is published in multiple genres, including paranormal romance, romantic comedy and suspense, mystery, and contemporary fantasy/sci-fi. She also teaches fiction writing and was a co-founder of Bootcamp for Novelists Online. She has lived in Arizona all of her life, currently on a lush green park where she walks her dog and escapes the hot desert sun and crazy politics. Her latest release is the-twists-and-turns romantic suspense, KNOW WHEN TO RUN. Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000026_00031]Shadow on the Moon A wolf biologist plows through a raging snowstorm to save her pack of wolves. A reclusive scientist’s life’s work pulls in an evil he cannot escape. As they cope with the dangers, state police rush to the mountains to destroy them all. Will their fated love be strong enough to save them? THE DRAGON HOUR A Scottish paradise lost in time is invaded by 21st century thugs. During a robbery gone wrong, Luke carries his wounded cousin through a window in time, killers hot on their heels. Caryn rules this land and knows Luke has a duty because he’s the legendary Dragon Slayer. Her duty is to convince him.
This blog originally appeared on the Savvy Authors Site, where Connie Flynn is now teaching Bootcamp Courses. A Crash Course in Dialogue begins this coming Monday 5/5. Registration closes 5/7 so click on the Savvy Authors link above and check it out now.
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