I can’t say I am the biggest expert on dialogue, it’s actually the part I hate the most in writing my stories. I have learned a few things over the years though and thought I’d share!
Don’t Replicate, Improve!
Your dialogue should be realistic and believable, but you should never emulate a true-to-life conversation. There are several reasons for this: real-life conversations can be boring, rambling, and pointless. Here are some things to avoid that often happen in real-life conversations:
- too many “um”s and “er”s – some are okay. They can be used to show the reader when a speaker is hesitant but don’t overdo it
- don’t jump from topic to topic
- don’t have characters speak over each other/interrupt too much
- kill the dull bits and keep it clever
Conversation Needs Conflict!
Shooting the shit happens in real life but shouldn’t in your writing. There should be a goal to the conversation — maybe one person needs information from the other, maybe they are trying to prevent the other person from doing something. This will keep the pace strong and the reader interested. Take for example this conversation:
“He’s holding us back. There’s only one thing we can do,” I said.
“Don’t say it, I don’t want to hear it!” Marnie replied.
“We have to kill him. He’s been sneaking food, he doesn’t help out on missions. He’s slowing us down, Marnie.”
“He’s my son, Angela!” Marnie said.
Give It A Purpose
This ties into the point above, your conversation should have a point. Just as it shouldn’t be two characters just discussing their day, the conversation should have some use to the story. If it’s just filler, it should be cut. At the same time, you can use a conversation about everyday things between two characters to illustrate a specific point about their personalities or their relationship — as long as you remember to use conflict to show this.
If you don’t know if your dialogue is necessary, check for some these points:
- does it create suspense/cause worry for the reader?
- does it change the character’s situation (like bad/good news)
- does it reveal the character’s desires/goals/motives to the reader?
If your dialogue does any of those then it should stay. There might be other reasons to keep your dialogue, those are just example questions to ask yourself. Again, it comes down to “does my dialogue move the plot forward?”:
“We should ask the rest of the group, then,” I said.
“Ask them what? If they think we should kill my son? What is wrong with you?” Marnie asked.
“They deserve the choice.”
“He told me, you know. He told me about what you did. Is this your way of covering it up? Do you think you can hide it forever?” Marnie asked.
Subtext is Sexy
Just like in real life, a conversation might reveal something deeper. An author can have a couple argue about what to have for dinner to show how they are drifting away from each other. People don’t always reveal what’s on their minds, especially if it is something embarrassing or negative, something they don’t want to deal with just yet, but it shows up in how they talk to other people.
Your Dialogue Should Define
Some key things to remember is that the way someone talks will be different than the mannerisms of another. You can show a lot about a character’s personality by the way they talk in your story rather than what they say. Using short sentences and strong wording can indicate someone ready to take action — or someone is itching for a fight. Rambling, stilted sentences with an “um” for good measure shows weakness and hesitation.
The way two characters talk to each other, regardless of what they are saying, can also illustrate their relationship with each other.
Keep in mind not to use too many expletives, even if your character is a bad-ass, too many f-bombs will take away from your writing, rather than add to it.
“What do you think Angela and my mom are talking about?” Joe asked.
Matt looked away.
“Um… don’t worry about it. Angela said she just wanted to — uh — ask your mom about something. It’s nothing,” he said.
Exposition, Exposition, Exposition!
A great way to feed information to your readers, which might otherwise be too dry, is to slip it into dialogue. this gives the dialogue purpose, as well as catching your reader up on history and setting. Just be careful that you are subtle about it, so you don’t bore your readers with too much!
“Listen Marnie. The world as we knew it is gone. It’s us or the Rotkins now and I, for one, don’t intend to turn anytime soon,” I said.
“And that means killing people? Killing people you think are slowing us down?”
“Yes. The day the virus got loose was the day morals lost all meaning. It’s all about survival. It’s all about living to see the next day,” I said, turning away.
The Careful Art of Tagging
Tagging is how you show who is saying what. While it’s important for the reader to understand who is speaking, you also don’t want to use too many tags as it can sound repetitive — while also making sure not to use too few as cause confusion to who is speaking! On top of that, stick to the simple tags (“said”, “asked”) while only using emotive tags selectively (“exclaimed”, “screeched”.) Using too many emotive tags can make your writing seem weak.
“You’re as bad as those monsters out there,” Marnie said.
“I’m doing this for the greater good, you don’t have to understand,” I replied.
“You keep telling yourself that.”
“What would you have me do, then? Let your son steal food, let him slack off, let him put everyone else in danger?” I asked.
“Fuck you.” Marnie hissed.
Variation Is Key
This pretty much applies to the whole of your writing but remember that you don’t want to continuously use the same sentence length throughout your entire conversation. People don’t talk that way and it doesn’t sound natural. Use abrupt one-liners, long sentences, and even physical replies (like a shrug, nod, middle finger) to vary the flow of the conversation:
“If you kill him, you better know that you’ll be sleeping with one eye open for the rest of your miserable life, Angela.”
“Take him and go, then,” I said.
“Take him and leave. That’s the only other option. You want him to live? Take him and go,” I said.
Marnie’s mouth gaped.
“We’ll give you each two days’ rations. That’s more than fair.”
Get To The Point
As mentioned above, writing dialogue doesn’t mean write like people actually speak — for one thing, you have to be a lot more concise than people tend to actually be when they speak. In real life, people will ramble, they get distracted, they use a lot of “um” and “er” but in your dialogue, you want to keep it snappy. You want the conversation to still be natural, but you will want to cut the chit-chat. Also, unless your character is overly formal and stiff, keep your conversations informal. Most people speak informally so that’s the way you want to write.
Paint A Picture With Action and Dialogue
Don’t forget, while you are playing out that conversation, to show the reader what is happening around the characters. They could be walking to Mordor, cooking a meal, or finding lost treasure — make sure to describe these things so your characters aren’t just talking in a blank space.
“What was all that about?” Joe asked, watching his mother storm away from Angela.
Matt shrugged as he stuffed his water bottle, gloves, and gun into his backpack.
“Matt, dude, you know what’s going on, don’t you? Tell me!” Joe exclaimed.
Pulling his backpack on, Matt walked away, leaving Joe behind.
All those tips are well and good but don’t forget your basic grammar as well:
- Punctuation should be inside the quotation marks
- Start a new paragraph for each new speaker
- Don’t use quotation marks when writing a long speech that requires paragraph breaks within it
- Single and double quotation marks are both correct but make sure to double-check which your publisher prefers if submitting to an anthology call
- Use dashes to indicate if the person’s speech is cut off
- Use ellipses if the person trails off
Think I missed an important point? Feel free to comment below! And don’t forget: show me some of that sweet, sweet love by sharing this on your blog, Facebook, or other social media!
Until next weekend!
x P.L. McMillan