Good dialogue is important in any novel. In order to create good dialogue, here are three tips:
1) Know the emotional center of your character.
Know how this character makes sense of the world. Then make sure the words that come out of this character’s mouth align with this center and sense.
If your character is a confident, socially adept sort, then her utterances will match her confidence and ease in every social situation. Let’s call her Joan.
If your character has a chip on his shoulder and has always had to make his way in the world, then his utterances will be consistently pugnacious and challenging. Let’s call him Mack.
Joan and Mack express their emotional centers and their sense of themselves through what they think, do, and say.
If their paths first intersect on neutral territory, say outside a coffee house, they are going to behave in character, no matter how attracted – or repulsed – they are by one another.
Joan is not going to behave rudely if Mack enters ahead of her and lets the door close on her face (although she will certainly have an opinion about his rudeness).
Mack isn’t going to suddenly develop manners just because Joan is an attractive woman who happens to have her hands full at that moment (although he might having a passing thought for ‘nice tits’).
The reader needs to see characters speak and behave in character before they start to develop and/or change as a result of the events of the story.
Technique: Listen to your characters before beginning a story. Get them to talk to you or another character.
2) Know the chemistry between the two people engaged in the dialogue.
In the case of Joan and Mack, their chemistry is not solely determined by their emotional centers. They both have fears and goals and obstacles.
Joan lost her accounting job a couple months ago as a result of a global merger. She hasn’t (yet) lost her self-confidence, but she does need another job quickly because she went all in on a condo and risks losing a lot if the bank forecloses.
Mack is coming to the painful realization that his beloved older brother has been lying to him for years about his addiction and now needs to go into rehab. The chemistry between Joan and Mack will be colored by how they relate to their own and each other’s problems.
Technique: Imagine a scene that encapsulates the very essence of the relationship you see for your two characters.
I am sometimes compelled to write a novel because I have a particular scene in mind I want to write for a hero and heroine. I mentally place that scene mid-story. Then I imagine the initial conditions that would lead to such a scene. After that I follow the logical consequences of what I have set up.
3) Know your story in order to determine the proportion of dialogue to narration.
Is Joan and Mack’s story a comedy, a psychological thriller, or what? If it’s a comedy, it’s likely to have lots of dialogue. If it’s a psychological thriller, then the action will revolve less around the dialogue and more around the creation of spine-tingling, bone-chilling goings-on.
Technique: Imagine what other art form your story could be. I imagined my Regency novel The Temporary Bride (affiliate) as a 3-act play, where most of the action occurs on one main set in a series of scenes. It is necessarily dialogue-intense.
See also: More Writing Tips
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen