How to write dialogue – 10 easy and effective tips

boat-book - how to write dialogueThe only rule in literature is that there are no rules.

It’s fashionable to say so. But this doesn’t mean that it’s true, or that in literature anything goes.

I mean, putting together one hundred thousand words or even more in such a way that they all work smoothly together to recreate the story you have in your head is, to say the least, a notable feat.

Then if  this recreation of yours is so finely honed that you manage to totally captivate your readers’ attention, well that’s sheer magic.

And magic, you know, requires formulas, rituals, a maniacal attention for apparently insignificant details.

Yes, you guessed right. Magic does require rules. Some rules at least. Some of the time.

In fact, it is essential to understand from the get go that rules are not set in stone, and that writers should experiment with them. To discard those they feel are too cumbersome for them. To reshape, to hand-tailor some others and make them fit their stylistic needs.

1) How to write dialogue – sometimes the best answer is you don’t have to

You would assume that in fiction it’s essential to devote at least a sizable part of your stories to dialogue. After all, dialogue reads quite easily and, if well done, is quite compelling. Indeed, dialogue is a very instinctive way to show what your characters feel and think.

Yet, it is possible to find some truly great novels where dialogue is simply non existent. Lately, I’ve read a couple of such novels. I’m referring to Unborken by Laura Hillenbrand, and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind.

They’re two very different kind of novels. While the former features a real hero—Louis Zamperini–and is almost exclusively based on biographic material, the latter focuses on the fictional life of a murderer endowed with an exceptional sense of smell.

These two books should make it clear that while dialogue can be a powerful tool, it isn’t always as essential as some beginning writers might tend to believe.

Even more important: dialogue, no matter how sparkling and amusing, cannot rescue an otherwise flawed novel.

2) Maybe not too much, but always intense

The second rule about how to write dialogue is quite simple: deploy it only when you really need it and try hard to use it to always carry out at least two tasks at once. For example, to illuminate your characters personalities and move your story forward.

Once upon a time, Alexander Dumas filled his novels with long stretches of dialogue. But back then he was paid by the line, and was probably a bit too extravagant to refrain himself from gaining more and more money (Alexandre Dumas – A Great Life in Brief  by Andre Maurois.)

Most likely, if he hadn’t tried so hard to maximize his earnings he might have written even more enthralling novels.

Given that Dumas’s days are long gone (but have a look at the mess Amazon is doing with KU and the number of pages actually read), I’ll repeat myself: use dialogue only when you need it and make it count.

For example, if a detective is looking for a guy and when he knocks on this guy’s door the guy’s wife tells him her husband is away, we shouldn’t use dialogue if we’re not planning to spice it up in any way.

Version A

Lewis went to see Dennis. But he wasn’t at home. His wife told Lewis she didn’t know where he could find him. Maybe he had stopped by at Molly’s for a beer, she offered.

Version B

The door opened.
“Good evening, Mrs Claremont.”
“Good evening, Mr Lewis.”
“Is your husband at home? I need to speak to him”
“I’m sorry. He hasn’t got back yet.”
“Do you know where I can find him?”
Mrs Claremont shook her head. Then looked at her wristwatch.
“Perhaps he stopped for a beer at Molly’s.”
“A beer you say?”
“Sometimes he does that.”
“Well thanks. In any case, when he shows up… Could you please tell him to get back to me as soon as possible?”

In version A we have 34 words which do the same job the 86 words of version B do. This means that in the second version we have 52 extra words that only slow the readers down and offer nothing in exchange.

Version C

The door opened.
“Good evening, Mrs Claremont.”
“Mr Lewis…”
“Is your husband at home? I need to speak to him”
“I don’t know where he is.” Mrs Claremont combed back her hair, slowly. ”I too need to have a word with him.”
“Do you… you know where I can find him?”
She looked at her wristwatch.
“Probably he stopped for a beer at Molly’s.”
“A beer…”
Mrs Claremont looked at Lewis with large liquid eyes. “Sometimes he does that.”
“Well… When he shows up… Could you please tell him to get back to me as soon as possible?”

Here in version C we have 87 words. But in this case the dialogue hints at Mrs Claremont’s attitude both toward her husband and Mr Lewis. And Lewis’s false starts and repeated trailing off signal he is probably not unaffected by Mrs Claremont’s presence.

I repeat, dialogue for its own sake isn’t just useless, it’s deleterious to a story. Unwarranted dialogue slows a story down and dilutes it to the point it is lost in the white noise of what can only be considered background conversations.

3) Don’t copy everyday conversations

In literature, dialogue must not be realistic. It has to seem so. I mean, everyday conversations are full of repetitions, false starts, ungrammatical constructions, slang, swear words, non sequiturs, sudden changes of topics, and cliches.

Indeed, everyday conversations, when read, are awful. A real pain in the ass.

If this notwithstanding you still crave for everyday conversations to the point you want to put them into your works, you would most likely be much better off just sitting in a bar and listening to all the conversations going on around you.

In fact, this is a great way to come to understand what’s the difference between everyday conversations and dialogue in fiction.

Besides, in this way you would also avoid marring your works with an avalanche of nonsense.

If you’re not sure everyday conversations are messy, to say the least, then just go around with a voice recorder all day long. Then listen to what you’ve said and to what the people around you have said.

Transcribe it all and read it. You’ll come to see what I mean.

Otherwise, you can go and have a look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). However, bear in mind that these examples come all from fairly structured settings. Between friends, in a way more informal context, things get a lot more messy. More like this short transcript.

4) Bad characterization

Given that when people speak they use a wide variety of non standard features, to better define your characters you might be tempted to incorporate such features in your writing.

Now, characterization is important, all right. But trying too hard to characterize someone relying on things like the above mentioned repetitions, false starts, ungrammatical constructions, and so on is going to backfire on you most likely.

Have a look at this dialogue and decide for yourselves.

The door opened.
“Good evening, Mrs Claremont.”
“Mr Lewis…”
“Is your husband at home? I need to speak to him”
“I don’t know where he is.” Mrs Claremont combed back her hair, slowly. ”You know, I too need to have a word with him.”
“Oh… Do you… Do you know where I can find him?”
She looked at her wristwatch.
“Mmmh… Probably.”
“Do you?!”
“Not sure, but probably he stopped for a beer at Molly’s.”
“A beer…”
Mrs Claremont looked at Lewis with large liquid eyes. “You know, sometimes he does that.”
“Well… When he shows up… Could you please tell him to get back to me as soon as possible?”

Things are a bit too murky already, aren’t they? I mean, this focusing on fringe aspects of everyday conversations looks more like a recipe for disaster than a sensible guide on how to write dialogue.

Indeed, readers are much more intrigued by what a character has to say rather than by how he or she says it.

For example in The Secret Life of Pronouns author James W. Pennebaker points out that many successful authors fail even to characterize the way males and females really speak in real life.

Consequently, rather than striving to make your characters speak like real people do, you should focus on a very restricted set of features to characterize their speech. And you should try hard to keep such “decorations” at a minimum.

For example, sudden changes of subject do occur quite often in informal conversations. But if you started using it over and over, readers would be soon fed up with this sort of realism and would put down your book for something probably less realistic but much more enjoyable.

We live immersed in reality and read books to make sense of it, not the other way around.

5) Dialogue tags

The only tags you really require are a couple. Say and ask, like in:

“Time’s up,” he said.
The guard snorted. “Already?” he asked

“Time’s up,” he boomed.
The guard grimaced. “Already?” he growled.

I don’t know about you, but I would always choose the first version over the second. One hundred times over.

However, if handled with care, also other tags can be used. Sparingly. Very sparingly.

6) How to write dialogue? Technicalities

Well, just have a look at this short passage. That’s pretty much everything you need to know.

“It was your wife,” the man said.
“But ,” Henry replied, “are you absolutely sure of what you saw?”
The man nodded. Then smiled a sad smile. “I’ve known her for a long time.”

7) Pacing

Dialogue can also be used to adjust the speed at which your story moves. Use it to speed things up. Use exposition instead to slow everything down.

Remember also that dialogue in itself isn’t a monolith. You can have clipped, almost convulsive lines just as well as articulate and ponderous ones. Besides, it’s this kind of characterization the one which works best.

8) Lecturing? No thanks

Dialogue is like a dance. Each dancer is essential. And each should respect the space of the others.

This means you should avoid having a character going on and on for a whole page lecturing the other characters and the readers.

So if you really have to deliver a sort of  lecture, turn it into a dance. And turn the single steps of this dance into questions and answers.

Also, make sure you let some aspects of what you’re exposing a bit in the shadows. To create curiosity, and to mimic what real people often do. That’s to say they forget things. They consider them a given.

Ok. Ok. I know I just said character should collaborate, like in a dance. But this doesn’t mean that they never cut others or try to speak on for as long as possible. Just make sure you keep all the fighting for the floor functional to the story.

9) A rose by any other name

Dialogue should always present subtext. In fact, just as in real life the most innocent questions can hide poisonous thorns, the same goes for fiction.

Just think of such an apparently innocent question like: “Do you like my new dress?”
Once, I said I didn’t. And if I’m here today to say so to you is only thanks to sixteen operations and seven years of rehab.

Dialogue seems easy and instinctual, but also pressing the button of a detonator seems a piece of cake. Until you realize it is you who is sitting on dynamite.

10) Unreliability

Finally you should use dialogue to make your story resonate with emotions. Raw, wild emotions. Subtle, almost subdued emotions as well. In fact, when characters speak to each other they often lie, cheat, hide information, dissimulate their real intentions. You know what I mean here.

For example, nobody likes the idea of admitting they are cowards. Or that they have a daughter they don’t have spoken to for the last eight years.

Because even if truth will make you free it often hurts.

Conlusion

In my opinion, how to write dialogue in fiction is a universe within a universe. If you look at the amount of things you have to learn this might look like a depressing statement.

But for any avid reader and any serious writer this is instead a wonderful thing. In fact, as a writer you can go on experimenting and learning indefinitively.

Instead, as a reader you can be sure that, no matter how many novels you’ve already read, you’re gong to find many more brimming with engrossing dialogue.

By the way, do you have some books you particularly love? Especially for their dialogues? Stop by and drop a comment to let me know.


Pictures by Kartal8167 via pixabay

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