Some Thoughts on Dialogue

Whether you’re writing a novel, novella, short story, or screenplay, dialogue is an important feature. In fact, it can make or break you. Stiff dialogue is a killer. Scintillating dialogue can make up for plot flaws. So paying close attention to your dialogue is critical.

It’s also a great chance to show your characters’ well, uh, character.

Do the Hard Work

Human conversation has a natural cadence of language and reflexive dynamic. If you can get that right, you’re halfway there. But don’t make the mistake of avoiding dialogue or putting in a lot of useless exchanges. Dialogue must be used to enhance your storytelling. Don’t worry. It’s very doable.

The Goals of Dialogue

  • Develops your characters (gives the reader insight into how the character feels and what motivates him or her to act, reveals the relationship between the characters)
  • Moves your plot forward (gets the reader a step closer to either the climax or the conclusion of your story)
  • Helps you establish the back-story
  • Reveals important plot details that the reader may not know yet
  • Ratchets up tension between characters (there is tension in what is spoken, and especially in what is not spoken)
  • Establishes the mood
  • Sets an atmosphere for each scene

Tips for Good Dialogue

Remember, these are tips. Your own writing style may justify variations.

  • Keep it natural. People rarely speak in whole sentences and tend to use contractions a lot (we’re vs. we are).
  • Be brief. Avoid a dialogue that goes on for pages (yes, even in screenplays). Don’t wear out the reader. You can accomplish the above goals in short exchanges.
  • Stay on point. That means avoiding chitchat that doesn’t achieve the above goals. “Great weather.” “Yeah, really good.” Doesn’t achieve a thing overall unless you make it seem to fit in. “Well, I asked you here on this lovely day to…” Small talk has its place, filling in awkward silences, for example, but in your writing, another tactic is needed unless you’re revealing something necessary to the reader about your character or the plot.
  • Make your exchanges capture the essence of the moment. “You? I thought I’d seen the last of your ugly face.” “Ha! Fat chance.”
  • Save the info dump for paragraphs. Putting long diatribes in dialogue can be very tedious. This is a general observation, though. Sometimes it’s necessary, but be judicious. You can get away with one or two in your novel (80k words or more), but keep them to a page or two. Some articles on writing suggest that you spread out this information across your fictional work.
  • Use speech mannerisms and keep them consistent. This is a way to subtly support and reinforce characterization. Forceful, passive, direct, indirect, simple words, more complex verbiage, accents, regionalisms, and word choices are some areas where you can achieve this. One person might reply to a question with “Yep” and another with “Absolutely.” Both reveal very different characters or a different context. (The same character could use both in different situations.)
  • Avoid telling. Don’t use your dialogue as a way to tell how a character is feeling. If he/she is angry, tell how they look (eyes narrowed, breathing deeply, tightened lips). If happy, he/she will be smiling, eyes shining, bouncing around, etc.

Dialogue as Part of the Plot

Rather than just having a ping-pong game with characters volleying back and forth, use your dialogue as part of the plot.

Here’s a suspenseful example from Hammil Valley Rising, the first book of my Freelan series:

“Here’s the one you want,” said Sid, chuckling, his generous girth shaking with glee.

“I thought when I moved up here almost thirteen years ago I was done dealing with slime like you,” Jim said in a voice filled with loathing, still looking out at the rain.

Sid chuckled. “Now, Jim, must we lose all sense of civility in this matter?”

Jim snorted with disgust and turned to him. “I’m not going to help you pretend that any of this is civil.”

“However you want it,” said Sid, “just as long as you sign. Then you get this.” He showed it to Jim and then folded it and put it in the inside breast pocket of his suit jacket.

Achieve suspense with these:

  • Show one character having the upper hand in the scene
  • Show the other character seething just under the surface
  • Reveal something important to the reader

Remember the context. Jim is speaking to someone he detests. Jim would never speak that way to the woman he loves, the people who work for him, his friends, and others in general. Your dialogue must hold this sacred. Don’t have a character speaking to his mother in a way that is not in line with their relationship. If he hates her, he speaks one way. If he reveres her, he speaks another. Your characters will be more real and have more depth as a consequence. The best way to do this is to get into their heads, know who they are as people, and keep it in mind as you type.

A Few More Tips

  • Watch the “saids.” See my article here. There are 100k+ words in the English language. Plenty of alternatives. And they will help reveal the mood.
  • Minimize hellos and goodbyes. Manners are one thing in life, but in fiction, hellos and goodbyes can bog down things for your reader. If you need them as part of the character, fine. Otherwise, leave them out and show a character entering or leaving.
  • Use interruptions. Rarely do people get to speak without interruptions. Use them to show something about your characters or to break up a long speech. But be sure you are not making your hero look rude.

Final Thought

When in doubt, read aloud. If you can get someone to read with you, all the better. It will make flaws stand out or, even better, assure that your dialogue is realistic and flows.

Hope you found this helpful and have been inspired to start and/or continue writing!

Please check out my WIPs. And thanks for reading.

Disclaimer: I get no compensation for links in this post or on my site to other sites and/or products.


One thought on “Some Thoughts on Dialogue

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s