Today’s episode it all about writing good dialogue in fiction. It is a very important tool in the writer’s toolbox. In this first section, I thought we could start off with the basics. What is dialogue?
Ashley: Dialogue is, generally speaking, a conversation between people in a narrative work When I was researching this topic, I came across a great quote by Jerome Stern from the book, Making Shapely Fiction.
“Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs.”
Basically, dialogue is more than just words that a character speaks or thinks.
Sarah: There are four main elements to great dialogue.
- The spoken words – the direct speech
- Dialogue tags – the words that tell us who is speaking and how
- Speaker actions – what the character is doing before, during , and after speaking
- Supplementary thoughts/emotions of the speaker – what the character is thinking/their emotional state before, during, and after speaking.
This leads really well into a discussion about how we try and incorporate all of these components into realistic and engaging dialogue scenes.
Ashley: First I like to just write the dialogue how I imagine it would go without too much concern about anything else. This is usually a pretty rough first draft. Once the dialogue is written, I go through and say it in my mind so I can hear it and make sure it sounds realistic. Sometimes, if it’s particularly tricky, I will read it aloud. Once the words are down, I then start to think about how it is being said and what the characters are doing/thinking. Here’s an example from chapter eight of When the Rain Falls that has all of the components mentioned above.
“Are you nervous?” I whispered to Dylan.
“Hell yes,” he said. “Don’t tell Lizzie, though,” he added with a forced smile.
“Me too,” I said.
“I think it’s normal, right?” he asked, fidgeting.
Levi shoved a rifle into my hands. “I hope your aim’s improved,” he said with a wink.
“Me too,” I muttered under my breath.
“Hopefully, we won’t need to use them,” Dylan said to me. At least someone was still sane.
Sarah: For me, it does come pretty naturally. I write with a very narrative style to begin with, so that helps. But everyone has to start somewhere. My favorite technique is to play it back to yourself by using the text-to-speech function on your computer. This allows you to close your eyes to imagine the scene. I know the speakers sound a bit robotic, but it works pretty well—if it’s just straight talking without speaker actions, or it doesn’t have enough dialogue tags, you’ll soon get confused without being able to read along. And sure, you might argue that’s what the new line/new speaker rule is for. But for most readers, if you’re using dialogue tags correctly they become almost invisible. And, this also helps with being able to convert your book into an audiobook. If you don’t have enough dialogue tags or speaker actions it’s going to be noticeably confusing in audiobook form. As for emotion, you really need to ask yourself the question—is how the character is feeling coming through with all these things combined? For me the emotion part of it is wrapped up as a combination of the other three elements. We work out what the character is feeling by their actions, facial expressions, and the words they speak. If the emotion isn’t coming through, you might be lacking another element or maybe you need to reword the character’s speech. It should be immediately apparent to the reader without explicitly saying “I felt angry” in the next sentence. Also think about the order you write these structural elements in. I often find writing the action sentence before the dialogue 1) reduces the need to use dialogue tags, because it becomes apparent who is talking when the speech follows directly after a character action, and 2) gives the reader the information about the character’s state of mind before they speak, so it gives the words themselves more context and tone.
E.g. Helene narrowed her eyes. “But you were telling the truth, weren’t you?”
Consider this sentence if you change the position of the action statement:
“But you were telling the truth, weren’t you?” Helene narrowed her eyes.
In the first we know it’s Helene speaking. In the second, without prior context we don’t know until we read the second sentence. And even then, it’s not clear (it sounds like it could be someone narrowing their eyes in response to the question) and sounds quite blunt. So, to make it clear I’d be tempted to put: ‘Helene said, narrowing her eyes.’ It also changes the intonation of the question, because in the first example where we already know Helene is narrowing her eyes before we read the question, it tells us the question is more rhetorical with the extra context.
Any other tips about writing realistic dialogue?
Ashley: When writing your dialogue, really think about how people speak. Sometimes dialogue can sound really forced and unnatural. It’s a strange habit, but I’ve noticed in a lot of the pieces I critique, that people tend to have very fluffy dialogue that no one would ever really say out loud. Eg, “I would prefer that we go on a walk to the beach. It is a nice day outside.” Vs “I’d rather go to the beach. It’s a nice day.” So, my biggest tip is to read your dialogue out loud and trim it down as much as you can. If you struggle to read it, it probably needs some work. Also, double/triple check you know the grammar rules for writing dialogue. It can be tricky to get a handle on it. And when you get it wrong, it totally construes the meaning. Especially when the dialogue tag and the action are mixed up. Also, keep your dialogue short. If you need your character to give a speech, break it up. I rarely have characters say more than three lines of dialogue at once.
Sarah: I have a bit of a pet peeve when it comes to using correct grammar along with dialogue tags. The dialogue tag is part of the sentence—you don’t need to put a period after your character has finished speaking and have the dialogue tag separate. They go together. The other thing to note with dialogue tags, is that if it’s anything other than the way someone speaks (e.g, said, muttered, whispered) it shouldn’t be a dialogue tag and should rather be part of a separate action sentence. Speech cannot be shrugged, smiled, nodded, or any other form of action. If the verb can be used without making a sound, it’s an action not a dialogue tag.
Now that we’ve talked about how to physically write dialogue, I thought we could talk about reasons why writers use dialogue as a literary device.
Ashley: I love using dialogue. In fact, many of my chapters are predominantly dialogue. This is because dialogue is a multi-faceted literary device. Not only can it go a long way in establishing the tone of a novel, but it is also a quick way to give your characters a distinctive voice. In addition, dialogue is a really great way to progress the plot — reveal conflict and escalate conflict between characters. Whenever I can, I prefer to use to dialogue to progress the plot as I feel it makes the story feel more visceral and dynamic. Rather than using just narration to try and show things.
Sarah: There’s the obvious point that speaking is a huge form of communication in real life, so your characters should also use it as a form of communication to make the book feel real. But it also is really important for secondary characters, who often don’t see into their thoughts the way we do with the protagonist. For secondary characters, their speech and actions become the only way for readers (and your protagonist!) to judge the intentions and motivations of secondary characters, and therefore has a lot more importance to the overall story.
Because of this blind point and the fact your character can’t read minds (usually) it makes it really fun to play with speech. We all know how easy it is to misinterpret people, and how easy it is to take something ‘the wrong way’. If you find the perfect words you can twist your character’s perception of an innocent situation into something more sinister. Using speech you can create all kinds of conflict—both real and imagined from the perception of your protagonist.
Establishing character voice (and character) is a really important function of dialogue. How do we go about giving our characters distinctive voices through their dialogue.
Ashley: A mixture of actions and the types of words a character uses really helps to establish voice. Are they younger and use particular slang? What about the time period your characters are in? How do they speak? Here’s an example from the first draft of our ancient Greece novel where a character from the past meets a time traveller from the future.
To her credit, Helene looked truly taken aghast. “What a horrid accusation,” Helene snapped back. “No one has put me up to anything. I heard word that my husband was dead … his body left to rot outside the city.” She swallowed down her tears. “And I find you wandering around, possessed by the Maniae, next to—”
“Honestly, are you high or something?” Simon interrupted. “And who the hell are the Maniae?”
Helene’s cheeks flushed red with rage. “That’s all you have to say? I suppose you’ll ask me who Zeus is next.”
“I know who Zeus is,” Simon muttered under his breath.
Sarah: Voice is achieved using all the parts of dialogue described at the start of this episode—speech, actions, emotions. But the dialogue specifically tells us about where they might be from, how they view the world, and what their thought processes are like (especially when we are not granted access to a character’s thoughts).
I thought we could delve a bit more into using dialogue to progress plot. Why is it important and how can it be used for plot progression.
Ashley: I never truly appreciated the importance of using dialogue to progress plot until joining my novel critique group. When you come across entire chapters without dialogue, suddenly, you appreciate what you are missing. Having dialogue really helps with flow, and breaking up description. Here’s an example from chapter one of When the Rain Falls.
I came up behind him, and immediately felt like something was wrong. The night was still, except for the rain pounding on the verandah. But an undercurrent of unease made the hairs on my arms stand up in alarm. To top it off, the front door swung on its hinges with the wind, banging rhythmically against the doorframe.
“What the hell?” Dylan said as we both stared at it.
“I don’t like this,” I said. All my instincts told me to run.
“Is anyone home?” Dylan called out. “Is everyone OK?”
“Hello?” Dylan said, louder this time.
“It looks like the place has been broken into. Should we go in?” I asked. “Or maybe we should just call the police.”
“It does. Someone might be hurt, though,” Dylan said. “We should check just in case.”
I ignored the feeling in my gut that told me to get the hell out of there, and stepped forward.
Sarah: To be honest, it depends on what kind of book you’re writing. If you’ve got a lone character survival story for example, you may not use much dialogue, but there will still be some. In a lone survivor story this might be done by utilizing flashbacks, or monologues and imagined conversations. Dialogue definitely does break the story up into more manageable chunks for the readers and allows us to see another side of the character—how the character views themselves (internal thoughts) versus how they present themselves to the world (dialogue including speech and emotive responses and actions to speech). The two can be quite different, which affects your plot. And I’m going to go back to my favorite subject of theme—the character has something to learn in this book, so their internal thoughts and dialogue may not be the same. Or, rather, the way other characters view their dialogue and what’s outwardly presented might be discordant from the way the character views themselves, and secondary characters can respond to this with their own dialogue which creates conflict to move the plot forward, until the character ultimately learns the theme.