I’m pleased to welcome Patty Doma, Head of Communications at Inkitt. Inkitt aims to uncover future best sellers using predictive data. Of course, great reading matter starts with compelling writing. To that end, Patty is here to share some advice on the art and craft of writing compelling dialogue.
The Art and Craft of Writing Compelling Dialogue
Whether you’re writing to entertain and uplift, educate and evoke thinking, or help readers relax the mind and unwind—you need to be sure your work has a solid foundation. Your choice of topic, your execution, and your approach must stand out—to first draw and then captivate the attention of the reader.
It’s easy for readers to get lost in long chunks of narrative, descriptions of people or places, especially in the first few paragraphs of a novel. One way to provide insight—to show the latent insecurities behind your heroine’s effervescent façade, for example—without driving readers into a deep sleep, is to write compelling dialogue.
That said, the dialogue has to be good.
You could have the most entrancing, compellingly narrated plotline, with complex characters encapsulating all relevant societal dilemmas, but if the dialogue doesn’t deliver, readers will lose interest quicker than Rachel Watson, the protagonist in Paula Hawkins’ Girl on the Train, lost credibility.
Know your audience
As you jot down thoughts, you probably have an ideal reader in mind; writing, you’re speaking to someone. Knowing your target audience and their reading preferences is a prerequisite if you want to ensure that your work doesn’t get lost in the crowd.
Suppose, for instance, a doctor is your protagonist. If you’re writing for a general audience, you might want to steer clear of weighing your dialogue down with too much medical terminology. Just because doctor-speak worked well for House and Grey’s Anatomy doesn’t mean it will work in a book. Long scenes in Latin will quickly grow tiresome for the average reader. The same applies to slang, jargon, and euphemisms. Unless this sort of language is indicative of character, leave it out.
The purpose of dialogue is to move the story along. By allowing your audience to hear characters speak, great dialogue brings your book to life. Choosing the right dialect, or adding small quirks that show a character’s speech patterns or accent, can give your dialogue an edge. Again, tread carefully: poorly written dialect can feel grating and make you, the author, come across as insensitive, bigoted—or worse.
Make your words come alive.
The infamous struggle to create a sense of “real speech” doesn’t have to be a struggle at all: it’s just a matter of cleaning up excess conversation fillers. Sticking to shorter, punchier text will make your interchange between the characters more vivacious. For instance, in books, as in films or television shows, characters rarely say hi. Why? Because customary niceties are assumed—readers make the leap without your wasting words on boring greetings or other customary exchanges.
If, on the other hand, your character is making a point of saying hello, or greeting the caller in a particular way, for a reason—screaming into the phone after yet another anonymous call, for example—write away. But have a good reason for doing so.
Use dialogue—or silence—to express emotion.
Instead of using dialogue to convey feelings and thoughts, try expressing emotion indirectly through the character’s actions. Rather than dialogue like this, stating the obvious: “I’m so mad. I could punch you.” Try this: “Thanks,” said Jane, and, with her fist, slammed the table so hard that the entire room seemed to shake.
While the first version gets the point across, the second invites readers to draw their own conclusions, making it more thought-provoking and satisfying for the reader.
Silence is another powerful way to convey emotion. Think about what it means when someone refuses to speak or answer a question—or is so frightened or distraught that she finds herself speechless. Which packs more of an emotional punch?
This: “How do you even know about that?! I can’t believe you just went there,” said Jane, with her eyes spitting fire.
Or this: Jane looked up in disbelief, a disarray of emotions darkening her face, and continued stirring her coffee.
Your possibilities are endless. The world is your oyster. There is nothing either good or bad (thanks for that one, Shakespeare). As true as such statements may be, unless your character speaks in platitudes or clichés, try to avoid both whenever possible, as they can hurt your credibility and even undermine your authenticity.
There are infinite scenarios with endless outcomes and limitless opportunities. Use your imagination, cultivate past experiences, and mine your dreams to create scenes that evoke strong feelings in the reader—regardless of what those emotions may be: happiness, anger, confusion, disbelief. Opinions and ideas vary, so never be discouraged by how your work may be perceived. When you enter the process with an open heart, ready to put on paper scenes that your audience will find riveting, however uncomfortable or scary the process, your story is bound to be a success.
Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. (Ah, sorry, I went there again. Perhaps next time it’ll be your words I’ll quote.)
Patricia Doma, Head of Communications at Inkitt
Happily for all writers, today’s technology allows reading behavior to be monitored and tracked, providing invaluable information for any author who wants to succeed.
Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered book publisher with the mission to give talented writers a fair chance to succeed, offering an online community for authors and book lovers. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books you love the most, based on crowd wisdom.