Written dialogue is an illusion of real life conversation. If you like, it’s a conjuring trick.
If your characters chit chat and have pleasant conversations that go nowhere then I’m afraid you’ve got it wrong. Listen in on two people nearby your table in a café or on a bus. What’ll you hear?
Well, first they talk over each other. They ‘um’ and ‘er’ a lot.
They flit like a butterfly from one topic to another with no warning.
Most of us do it in the real world, but it won’t work for novels, short stories, or play writing.
Here is what you need to know about Writing Dialogue
- Dialogue must be in conflict. The two characters should have conflicting goals – one of them wants one thing, the other something else. The underlying tension will be all you need to keep the readers turning those pages.
- Dialogue should drive the story forward. Conversations in the real world often have little or no point to them, with the circumstances of the people involved remaining unchanged at the end. Fictional dialogue should advance the plot in some way.
- Dialogue should characterize. Another way of giving dialogue a purpose is by adding to the readers’ understanding of a character’s personality. It is one of the most important tools there is in demonstrating the relationships between different characters. The way two people speak to each other tells you virtually everything there is to know about how they get along. And demonstrating this to the readers, particularly the relationships between the major players in the novel, certainly gives dialogue a purpose.
- Dialogue should provide information. Dialogue is one of the best methods there is for getting information across in a bite-sized way. If done well enough, the readers won’t even know what is happening!
- Dialogue should flow The paradox is that when you can read something effortlessly great effort has gone into its writing. The conversations need to read easily and look good on the page. Use ‘said’ as the speech tag in preference to other verbs.
- Dialogue should be concise. Dialogue is like a rose bush – it often improves after pruning. I recommend you rewrite your dialogue until it is as brief as you can get it. In the real world, very few people have the ability to say what they mean without throwing a lot of empty words into the mix. The paradox, though, is this conciseness will seem realistic. And it will certainly be a lot more gripping for the reader.
- Don’t have the characters all sound the same. Every character in a novel is unique. They all look, think and act in different ways. The same goes for the way they speak. You need to work hard at giving each and every character a unique speaking voice.
- Give characters an agenda. We all enter into conversations knowing what we want to get out of them. The way we often achieve this is by broaching a subject obliquely. We ask someone if they are well without really caring but as an opening gambit before we launch onto the thing we want to talk about. Our agenda will be there and we’ll eventually steer the conversation to the heart of the matter (or else steer it away if our aim is to conceal information).
- Avoid obvious dialogue. Rephrase lines to make them fresh and interesting, perhaps even funny. Characters avoid having the conversation altogether by changing the subject. Come out with an outright lie. Writing dialogue that has the ring of truth is all about reflecting this reality.
- Use subtext. Partly related to the previous point but worth mentioning separately is subtext. One way of adding authenticity to a passage of dialogue is to have characters talk about one thing… when they are actually talking about something else entirely.
- Get the punctuation right. Last but not least, check you understand the nuts and bolts of how to punctuate dialogue properly. Not a very sexy topic – but an important one to get right nonetheless!
Writing dialogue isn’t about copying a real life conversation, it’s about giving an impression of it and taking the dull and unimportant bits out. Your job is to choose what is significant and then refine it to its essence.
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Jennifer Pulling loves to transport her readers to a world of passion and intrigue where real life and fictional characters entwine. She paints with words what her protagonist Claude Monet painted with oils in her page turner Monet’s Angels. The book wowed visitors when it went on sale at the painter’s house and gardens in Giverny France and prompted its sequel Monet’s Shadows.Tags: Dialogue Guest Post Jennifer Pulling Moving Write Along