Talking on paper (well, pc screen), that’s how I think of dialogue. I’ve heard so many rules about how dialogue should be written over the years… It’s got to be snappy, but not to snappy. It’s got to be natural, but don’t use too much slang. It’s got to be real, but not too real. It’s got to be… honestly, peoples’ opinions on dialogue seems to be endless.
I’ve personally only got a few rules for dialogue:
1. When you’re done, read it out loud. This tool is good for more than just wondering where to put commas, believe me. If you’re talking differently for each character, then you’re doing it right. If it sounds like the same person talking through every character, you need to make a change. Probably a lot of changes.
2. If you’re doing a local dialect, like Boston or New York or East London, then don’t do every other word in that dialect; or more accurately, what you think that dialect sounds like. Just enough to remind the reader that the character comes from somewhere else. For instance: If I’m speakin’ from my native Boston-area, then I’m gonna do something like this. Or, if my character’s from bleedin’ England, then I try not to go overboard with the local slang; mostly because I only know summat of the proper words.
3. Know your character. The more in-depth your character sketches and backgrounds are, the more easily distinguishable their voices. Someone who’s been to college and graduate school is going to sound a lot different than someone who doesn’t have any higher education and even more different than a high school dropout. Even if you’ve got siblings who grew up together, if one’s a sports fan and the other a reader, their focus and speech will be different. One’ll get right to the point and the other sibling will be more loquacious. (see what I did there?) Some characters’re going to use contractions and others will not. If you do not use any contractions, then your character will sound more formal.
4. Research, research, research. If your book takes place in a different time, or if they travel through time, then do your homework. So far, I’ve researched 1940s speech and Victorian speech. Let me tell you how much of a pain that was, but how much better the novels were by the end of it.
5. If your world is brand new – whether set in the future, or an alternate earth, or a fantasy world – don’t feel constrained to stick with regular English. I just read a novel where the author created their own pidgin and my God. It was so incredibly original that it blew my mind. Don’t worry about the reader, because most of the new vocabulary we pick up is through context anyhow.
And that’s pretty much it. Not a lot of rules as such, but pretty vital to my personal creative process. I hope it helps. 😀