I used to think I was bad at dialogue, and maybe I am. Ultimately, you’re judged on your work by the people that read it. Hopefully, you are people who have read my work and if you haven’t, maybe you will.
In either case, I’m going to give you my approach to doing dialogue in prose, because I like to think I’m special and have worked out something very important. And it’s my blog so ner ner nerner ner.
In my books, you should notice that my dialogues tend to be quick and snappy, lots of back and forth that rarely goes past two sentences before someone else talks. The temptation is to make your characters quite verbose — after all, a very good way to portray your characters’ personalities is in how and what they say — but it’s more than possible to get all that done in one sentence. If anything, it’s preferable.
But it’s not just keeping conversations flowing, it’s how you break them up. Compare these two lines.
‘You’ll swing for this,’ she said. ‘But not before I’ve burned everything you hold dear.’
‘You’ll swing for this, but not before I’ve burned everything you hold dear.’
Perhaps it’s personal taste, but I like the first version better. Same words, fundamentally delivered the same way, but they read differently. The latter keeps on flowing, but the former forces you to stop.
“X said” is punctuation, use it as such.
A lot of writers will tell you to ease up on the adverbs, and they’re right. What fewer seem to say, and what was very useful to me, is that the eye doesn’t really see the “said”s.
They’re not words, they’re stage directions for the actors in your head that are portraying the book. Short and snappy dialogue naturally ups its tempo, and dropping in a reminder of who is talking is akin to pumping the breaks. It doesn’t look daft, it doesn’t detract, it just keeps things on course.
I’m going to get all poetic here, sorry, but the most important thing in dialogue is not what is being said, nor how it is being said. Even who is saying it isn’t that important. The important thing is that you don’t trick yourself into thinking mechanically. This is something that will come up again if I do another blog about proper grammar — the rules of English are subservient to the story.
That’s not to say you should ignore them altogether — there’s something to be said for following the established rules, for ease of understanding if nothing else — but you absolutely should feel free to do so if you feel it would benefit the story.
The way people talk in the Warlocks books is very much informal, sharp, and oft-times irreverent, because that’s who they are and that’s the world they inhabit. It’s not prim and proper, it’s boots on the ground, slightly grimy. Contrast that with the way people talk in Ghosts on the Wind, where they are much more verbose and concerned with formaily, even in informal settings. Longer, slower exchanges, to match a more languid setting.
This is all stream of consciousness nonsense really. Probably not helpful at all. But you haven’t paid for a lesson, so take what you’re given.
And what I’m giving you is an excuse to remember to have fun with dialogue. It’s like a song. Without music. Or rhymes.
It’s not really like a song at all.
But it totally is.