Courtesy The CW
“Supernatural” has some great exchanges.

There are many people who come to mind that prefer dialog in prose to description. Even peers of mine find it much easier to write dialog than long narrative passages. The difficulty in writing dialog well is twofold: Making conversations clear, and making them feel natural. Both of these challenges, however, are entirely surmountable, and it might not be as hard as you think.

Clear conversation can be a problem because once you get on a roll, you may lose track of who’s saying what yourself. In rough drafts especially, our old friend “said” can help with that. Yes, I remember old English lessons trying to tell me that “said is dead.” Catchy as the mnemonic might be, it’s not necessarily true. Said can hold up the structure of a conversation long enough to get yourself through it, and when you’re drafting or rewriting and a deadline is looming and you have to write something but nothing is coming to mind… “said” can help. You can always take it back out later.

You don’t have to replace every instance, mind you. But descriptors of emotion definitely help keep the story interesting and inform the reader of the state the characters are in. Action immediately before or after a line of dialog helps, as well. There’s no hard line between speaking and motion in real life; why should there be one in your writing? Imagine one of your characters having a conversation with another one while making breakfast. The cooking doesn’t just stop when they talk. The character at the stove is frying bacon, flipping eggs, putting toast in, and so on. Is the character at the table taking notes? Drinking coffee? Loading a gun? Use these actions to both keep the conversation clear and flesh out these two folks for your reader.

The other challenge of dialog is keeping it natural. Some characters may have reasons for not being natural, but I’ll go into more detail about that on Thursday. In the example above, if you’re setting up a future scene at breakfast, the temptation might be to fill out the conversation with pure exposition. People, however, rarely just pass expository facts back and forth in conversation. They ask questions, they interject thoughts, they go off on tangents. Banter is something that’s tempting to emulate, but first and foremost is doing your best to make your characters talk like real people.

I would recommend spending some time on public transit.

Seriously, moreso than television or films or theater, sitting on a bus or train listening to people talk can really help you nail down some ways and means to keep your dialog lively and organic. Too much exposition or straightforward emoting (“I am feeling sad because of X”) can make dialog feel stiff and clunky, even if it’s clear. The more dialog you hear outside of constructed fiction, the better your own dialog will be. That said, you can always go out and engage in a little conversation yourself! Listen to how people talk, and note your own reactions and speech.

I wouldn’t recommend taking notes right in front of someone, though. That strikes me as kind of creepy.