By Kathy Lipscomb
1) Know your characters. When I find the dialogue in a book to be forced, sometimes it comes from not having round enough characters. If you don't know your characters enough to truly give them life, then their dialogue will reflect it. It will sound like the author is trying to tell the reader something, rather than character A and character B conversing.
You can get to know your characters by doing different things: make a character bible, have conversations with them (sounds crazy but totally works), delve into their background, have strong goals and motivations (with good reasons as to why these are their goals and motivations), etc.
2) Word choice and voice. I think these go together. This is especially important if you are not around the same age as your target audience. For example, I am twenty-nine and am writing for MG (ten-fourteen-ish) as well as YA (fourteen-seventeen-ish). I happen to talk like a teenager for the most part. I don't know if this is because I'm mentally blocked at that age or if it's because I read and write it all the time. Either way, when I'm writing from the view of a sixteen-year-old, I don't really have a problem. However, when I write from a ten-year-old, things get a little more tricky. For each age group we have to adjust the words we choose and the voice. It needs to sound authentic. A ten-year-old reading a MG book is going to know if those characters sound his or her age. If the characters sound too teenager or too adult or even younger than they are, they will know. Readers are smart.
What can we do to sound age-appropriate? How about jump in my handy-dandy (not a YA word, btw) time machine and...no? Okay, how about read. This is seriously the best advice I can give you about anything in regards to writing. Read, read, read, write, write, write, and then read, read, read, and write, write, write some more. The more we read and write in the respective genres, the more feel we'll get for the right age group, the right voice, and the correct words to use. Another thing that helps is to people-watch. I say this with a careful warning. Go to the mall or somewhere there are a lot of people of that age group (not their homes or schools, peeps--we do not want to be creepers). The mall or restaurants are good places, and just watch and listen. Try not to get caught staring too, because that can lead to some problems...
3) Are the characters leading this conversation or are you? Many times the problem lies with the author forcing the conversation to go in a certain direction. This is a fine line to walk. As authors, we need to steer the book. Why? Because each chapter, each page, each paragraph needs to have purpose. So how can we direct our character's conversation where it needs to go while also feeling natural?
Write out the conversation and then read it out loud. Even better: read it with a friend like your rehearsing lines for a play. If it sounds too forced, then maybe you're trying too hard, or putting in too much. See if there's another way to write it. Sometimes all you need is to fix some of the problems from #1 and #2, and then the conversation will flow. Sometimes you may have the wrong characters conversing. Switch up the characters, the scene. And sometimes all it takes is a little tweaking to get it to feel right. The great thing about writing is we can fix things. We revise, edit, and rewrite. Give yourself permission to play with your scenes. The first draft should not be the same as the final one.
Dialogue is tricky (umm, as is writing in general, am I right?), but it is the greatest feeling in the world when readers come back to you and say how real your characters are, how realistic their conversations and feelings are. That is our goal, my friends. Let's bring our characters to life.