Fiction can exist without dialogue, but it’s often the interaction between characters that brings readers into the story. Dialogue helps to move the story along. It also gives your characters a voice and life of their own. So, what exactly is it?
Simply put, the dialogue is a conversation between two or more people put down in written form. It’s an exchange of information or ideas. It’s what the character’s say and is most commonly the text between quotation marks.
Dialogue versus Narration
There is no rule for how much dialogue to use—sometimes there is a lot of conversation, and sometimes there isn’t. There is often a fine balance between dialogue and narration. In novel writing, the narration is where the character tells a story, usually through a first-person narrative (someone in the story) or a third-person narrator (the omnipresent writer). Basically, a description tells what a situation is, narration tells us what happened, and dialogue shows us what happened.
With dialogue, the story usually flows quickly and is often more natural to read. With narration, the text can become denser as a subject in the story is explained or explored. Narratives usually tell what is called a summary, where you summarize the action. Dialogue, however, often happens in what we call scenes and occur in real-time. Again, scenes show us what transpired versus telling us. Sometimes it’s good to mix long narrative explanations with a small bit of dialogue.
When is Dialogue Appropriate?
Use dialogue when you want to highlight character development, plot development, or moments of extreme significance. For example, discussing the weather in dialogue format can be important if you want to emphasize the extreme temperature or if it is a critical moment in the story. In Twister, for example, discussing the hail storm makes sense. Also, key moments in a story, such as confrontation scenes, work well with dialogue. The reader should come away from a dialogue scene with an increased understanding of the plot and story. It’s also essential to use dialogue to allow the characters, especially new ones, speak for themselves.
How to Write Good Dialogue
Good dialogue can be hard to write. This is especially true for new fiction writers who are used to writing non-fiction stories or reports. Writing dialogue has evolved over time and today’s authors tend to make the dialogue sound more authentic and realistic than novels written in the past.
Let the Characters Speak for Themselves (Voice)
When you first mapped out your book, you (hopefully) fleshed out each character and gave them a backstory and a voice. Every person has a somewhat distinct way of talking and so should each character in your book.
Try to avoid having the characters all speak in the same way. Try to find distinct and creative ways that each character speaks. For example, your detective hero may speak only in short clips, and may answer the “how are you?” question with a simple “Fine.” Whereas another character may ramble on about their health problems in response to the simple question.
Think about how each character may talk. Do they use incorrect grammar or very formal language? Do they have pet expressions that they use often? For example, a person from the deep South may say “Fixing to” rather than “I am about to.” They might also say “Bless Your Heart” to someone after they feel that person has done something stupid.
Another helpful suggestion is to assign a real-life or fictional counterpart to your fictional character to help you keep on track. If you feel that the character would sound like Cher from Clueless, add that to your character cheat-sheet. It gives you a voice in your head to refer to when writing out that character’s speech.
Keep it Real
Try to make your dialogue sound like real people having a conversation. Their language shouldn’t seem rehearsed, or like they are talking with a thesaurus in their hand.
For example, most people do not speak like this.
Upon viewing Niagara Falls for the first time, Barbara cried, “What a splendid and marvelous panorama! The Falls do so create a euphonious sound!”
I know a few people who might talk like that, but most people are likely to speak like this.
Upon viewing Niagara Falls for the first time, Barbara opened her eyes wide in amazement. “Wow,” she said, “The Falls are beautiful! I also love the sound of the water hitting the rocks.”
Try to practice listening to the way that real people talk. You can do this by listening to the radio, on the bus, in the elevator, and at work. Strive to mimic real conversations that people have. You do need to remain in character, however, so if Barbara character tends to be dramatic, you could get away with more of a reaction.
People usually talk in contractions. It also makes your writing seem friendly and accessible.
A contraction is two words made shorter by placing an apostrophe where letters have been omitted. Examples include:
- I’m: I am
- Can’t: can not
- We’ve: we have
- Should’ve: should have
- Could’ve: could have
- She’ll: she will
- He’s: he is
- They’d: they would
- Won’t: will not
- Weren’t: were not
- Wasn’t: was not
- Wouldn’t: would not
- Shouldn’t: should not
- Isn’t: is not
Think of someone you know who is telling you that they are heading out to pick up some groceries. They may say it one of two ways.
“I’m going to the store.” This sounds casual and friendly.
“I am going to the store.” With less formal people, this is usually said with emphasis and to make a point. “I am going to the store.”
One is just information (they are going to the store), and the other one may sound like they are pointedly telling you that they are going to the store and you can’t stop them.
Here’s another good example. When “that’s news to me” becomes “that is news to me.” One sounds almost indifferent, and the other seems to put the emphasis on that is and can sound passive aggressive.
If the character has a more formal tone of voice, then not using contractions is fine. Otherwise, try to make it more realistic by using the abbreviated form.
Keep it Realistic, but Concise
While you need to keep the dialogue sounding real, you also want to clean up the language a bit. Fictional dialogue needs to have more of a focus than real-life conversation. You don’t need to write down everything unless it is relevant. For example, “Oh, hi! Can you hang on, just a sec, um, I need to sit down for a sec. Okay, how are you?” Unless the character is having problems and needs to sit, a simple, “Hi! How are you?” will do. Also, try to remove a lot of the “um,” “like,” “yeah,” and “you know what I mean,” after every other word unless it is necessary for the plot or character development. It goes back to keeping the dialogue real but leave readers with a better understanding of the plot—it should move the story forward.
Stick to Best Practices
Sometimes authors diverge from common writing conventions, but it is best to stick with what readers expect to see. Here are a few examples.
- Use double quotation marks. Double quotations marks indicate to a reader that someone is speaking.
- Use one paragraph per speaker. No matter how short the speech is, try to use only one paragraph for each of the people involved in the conversation. This signals to the reader that the conversation is moving along and that different people are speaking.
- Use tags. Tags, also known as attributions, let the reader know who said what. Said is the most common form of tag. For example: “The Falls are beautiful,” she said. Another tip for tags is to use them in an effective place. “The Falls,” she said, “are beautiful” sounds clunky compared to the words she said being at the end. Using tags in the middle of a sentence work better if the sentence has a long phrase or multiple phrases. Another form of attribution is linking action with the dialogue. Here’s an example of putting an action sequence in with the dialogue.
“The Falls are beautiful.” Barbara ran quickly to the observation deck to stare at the waterfalls in awe.
When used sparingly, calling people by their first name in dialogue is also a good way to indicate who they are speaking to.
“Bob, the Falls are beautiful!”
If more than Barbara and Bob are on the trip, then you need to use a tag. Otherwise, one or two instances of this form are fine. Unless Barbara is mad at Bob, she is unlikely to use his name in every sentence when she speaks to him.
- Add Action to Your Speech. Adding physical actions to your dialogue, like with tags, can bring your dialogue to life. Give clues as to whether your characters are sitting, standing, running, crying, and so forth. It’s a mixture of narration and dialogue.“The flowers are stunning,” she whispered, fighting back tears. Here you are both telling what the character is doing (fighting back tears) and saying what the speaker is thinking (the flowers are stunning). It’s also important to use action words if you are trying to explain the tone of the words being spoken. Here are two instances in which a character tells someone that they are a jerk.
“You are such a jerk,” she said, slamming the car door.
“You are such a jerk,” she said, giggling as she lightly punched his arm.
Each sentence is a valid form of dialogue and basically, say the same thing. However, one conveys anger while the other indicates flirtation.
When to Use Indirect Dialogue
Indirect dialogue is when the dialogue is summarized rather than quoted line by line. It’s a summary of the conversation rather than the whole scene. This form can be beneficial when the gist of what is being said is much more important than the actual speech.
Barbara started to talk about the Falls as soon as they reached the deck. How old were they? Where did the water come from? Could you go under them? How much did it cost? Bob could not answer her questions fast enough as she hurried excitedly through a myriad of questions. He finally took her to the information center and let them answer her excited volley of questions.
Had Bob had the answers to the questions, you could potentially write out the scene via dialogue. However, in this case, the writer is trying to emphasize just how excited Barbara is and to move the story along. Reading the following scene would quickly become tedious.
“How old are they?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where did the water come from?”
“Could you go under them?”
“How would I know?”
Put poor Bob (and the reader) out of their misery and just summarize the discussion.
Final Quick Tips
Write like you talk in real life. Remember to write out dialogue that sounds like real-life conversations.
Be careful with dialects. I know I said to write like people talk but I do need to make one caveat — don’t overdo dialects. Writing out dialects can sound exaggerated and potentially offensive. Give a flavor of it by sprinkling in slang vernacular or speech patterns. Characters need a unique voice, but they also need to be understandable.
Don’t overdo exposition in dialogue. In other words, don’t overexplain or describe things in depth. Put it in a narration versus a dialogue unless you are making a specific point or it’s a schoolteacher.
Don’t get preachy. In fiction writing, it’s extremely hard to pull off making your characters remain likable if they give lengthy dialogues about political discourses or other potentially dangerous topics. Depending on your audience, this may work, but other readers may feel manipulated and put off by the subject. Putting it narration is still risky, but it’s much better than a lengthy diatribe. Concentrate on character and plot development and your message and moral will come through loud and clear.