Writing good dialogue
by Jim Ashby
My dialogue doesn't sound right and I'm not sure what's wrong with it. Do you have any suggestions? Here's a sample from my horror novel.
“Dad, I’m tired of walking." Jake pouted. "Can’t we sit down and rest for a bit?”
Jason pushed past his brother and stood with his legs apart on the trail.
"Yeah, Dad, and it's getting dark out here, too. I think we should stop for the night." He said.
He raised his hand and squinted at his father through brown eyes. “I can hardly see you.”
"I am afraid we can't stop here, boys" he sighed. "Jason, it's just too dangerous in this area." Mr. McGuire pointed up ahead.
“It's only a half an hour more until we get there, and anyway, didn’t I offer to stop only an hour ago? But you both wanted to keep going to try to get to the camp before nightfall. Is that correct?”
“It's true.” Jason mumbled.
His father considered Jason quietly, his gaze steady and patient as it moved from one son to the other. Then he hoisted his pack and walked around them. “It’s not far now. Just across the river. They’ll be waiting for us at the camp.”
Jake looked into the gloomy forest, getting gloomier by the second, and then touched his knuckles to Jason's shoulder. He said to his brother with a sigh. “Did you hear that noise? Maybe he is right?”
Hi Jim. You're building some good tension into your dialogue, as readers will want to know why it's dangerous and if they make it to camp. You've also provided some clues about each character's emotional state, through actions, rather than 'telling.'
I do detect a few issues you can correct to make the dialogue crisper, and to illustrate, I've quickly edited the passage to reflect those changes:
“I’m tired of walking," Jake said. "Can’t we rest for a bit?”
Allan pushed past him and stood with his legs apart on the trail. "I vote we stop for the night." He squinted at his father. “I can hardly see you.”
Mr. McGuire looked from one son to the other. "I suggested stopping before we got into the forest. We could have then, but this area's too dangerous." He hoisted his pack and stepped around them. “The camp is just across the river. They’ll be waiting for us.”
Jake peered into the deepening gloom. He touched his knuckles to Allan's shoulder. “Did you hear that noise? Maybe he's right.”
In dialogue, less is often more. This is what I changed:
1. The names of the two boys are too similar. I know they're brothers and their parents may have named them similarly, but readers need to keep each character separate from all the others, so make the names as different as possible, no similar sounds or letters.
2. Remove every word you can without altering the meaning of a passage, to tighten the diction and make the dialogue crisper.
3. Remove all expository dialogue (dialogue characters wouldn't use if the writer didn't need to impart information).
4. Use names only when necessary for clarity.
5. Use as few dialogue tags as possible and allow the character's actions tell the reader who speaks.
5. Standardize punctuation.
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