A client of mine has written a novel. While editing, I wonder how many novels he has read.
(Also read on if you’re writing non-fiction. This is also relevant for you.)
Often, his dialogs go like this:
John said, “What’s the matter, Mary? Are you ill?”
Mary said, “No, just a bit out of sorts. I got some bad news this morning.”
John said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Do you want to talk about it?”
Mary said, “I’d rather not if you don’t mind.”
John said, “That’s Ok. Let’s take it easy today.”
Mary said, “Thanks for understanding, John.”
If you regularly read novels, you’ll find this a bit odd. There are so many “saids” here. In most novels, there is more variation. Sometimes, the speech tag “said” is missing if it’s clear who’s talking. And there’ll also be some details about what the characters are doing while they talk. Something like this:
John noticed that Mary’s face was very pale and said, “What’s the matter, Mary? Are you ill?”
“No, just a bit out of sorts. I got some bad news this morning.” Mary looked unhappy. She slumped down into her chair.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said John. “Do you want to talk about it?” He leaned towards her and put his hand on her forearm.
Mary looked at his hand but didn’t move away. “I’d rather not if you don’t mind.”
“That’s Ok. Let’s take it easy today,” John said, and he turned to his laptop.
Mary said, “Thanks for understanding, John,” and also started her work.
Does this sound a lot more natural to you? Easier to read? Nicer to read?
This is how most novels will present their dialogs.
By reading many books in your genre, you’ll know what the conventions are.
This is true for non-fiction as well.
So, this is what you can do:
1. Read – or at least browse through – several books that your audience might read, too.
2. Become familiar with the way the story/content is built up, check the order of chapters in non-fiction, how are certain story elements (such as dialogs in fiction or examples in self-help books) presented?
3. Don’t think you can be original. It usually falls flat (few sales, bad reviews).
4. Don’t think that because you have a great story to tell, you don’t need to bother with conventions.
5. Have fun! Write a great book!
Know what your reader expects – read books in the genre that you’re writing in.