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Refine Your Prose 3: Learn to Write Dialogue
“As you know, Bob…” is the worst dialogue phrase in existence. If Bob knows, why are you telling him? It’s so you can tell the reader. What follows is likely a patronizing infodump that takes the reader out of the story.
Good dialogue trusts the intelligence of the reader and lets them fill in the gaps without holding their hand. It breathes life, personality and individuality into your characters. Good dialogue hauls your reader into the story and doesn’t let go.
So what’s the secret to learning to write dialogue?
Dude, it’s cool. I’m a writer.
The very suggestion feels dirty. We’ve been taught since childhood not to listen in on private conversations. But it’s the key to writing good dialogue. Besides, everything a writer does is dirty in one way or another. And doing dirty things is a lot of fun.
Go to your local coffee shop, sit down next to a full table and listen to the neighboring conversation. Pay attention to each person’s voice, mannerisms and word choices. Take notes in the notebook you carry for story ideas. (You do carry one, right?) Listen to what they say… and more importantly, what they don’t.
Eavesdropping lets you absorb the nuances of real dialogue. It drives home how much you don’t need to know in order to follow a conversation. The people at the next table are not going to tell each other what they already know. Moreover, they aren’t going to tell you, the dirty eavesdropper next door. You have to figure out the backstory yourself based on context. And you’ll be surprised how well you do. They may make references you don’t understand, but you either figure them out based on context, or decide they’re not important and move on.
Readers are the ultimate eavesdroppers, able to spy on the most private details of your protagonists’ lives. By delivering dialogue that trusts your readers’ intelligence and makes your characters feel alive, you make your narrative that much more compelling.