Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
We all know what dialogue is. It’s those cheesy words from the mouths of sitcom characters, words that no one in real life would ever have the guts or bad manners to say, right?
Or it’s those drawn-out speeches in movies, speeches filled with impassioned conviction and heartfelt pleas that convince opponents to lay down their pitchforks or switch to the speaker’s point of view.
Who in real life lets another person spout off without interruption, especially to argue points he or she doesn’t agree with? Even an evangelist preaching to the choir hears Amen and Tell it, brother. There’s a response if the parties agree and there’s an even stronger response when the parties are in opposition.
So… What is good—effective—dialogue? Dialogue that won’t get your words laughed out of an agent’s or publisher’s office?
Dialogue is the speech of fiction, the talk between two or more characters. It is speech appropriate for the story, verbal communication that works with and for, not against, the fiction. Good dialogue draws the reader into an imaginary world and works to keep her there.
Bad dialogue works against fiction, against that writer-reader contract that says the reader will believe the unbelievable as long as the writer does nothing to shatter that belief, does nothing to inject the real world into the imaginary one.
Dialogue is one of the key elements of fiction. Without it, there is no story. If dialogue is truly bad, no one will read the story. If it’s only moderately bad, you might find readers, but they won’t compare the story to their favorites. At least not favorably. But if the dialogue is good or great, if it does its job, then the story has a chance to be great, to be read and remembered fondly.
The Tasks of Dialogue
Dialogue, for all its importance, can’t do everything in a story. Plot and character and action and description and all the other elements have their places and duties. But dialogue does have responsibilities. Dialogue is used to
~ Advance plot. Dialogue can and should both direct and change the course of a story. A simple revelation dropped at a dinner party can lead to murder. A tidbit whispered in passing could provide the motivation for one character’s drive to defeat an opponent. A secret spilled could reunite lovers or drive them apart for years.
Dialogue is a catalyst; it should cause something to happen. Characters should not be the same after a scene of dialogue. A story’s direction should be altered by dialogue.
If your dialogue doesn’t incite change, it’s not carrying its weight.
~ Reveal character. A revelation can be about a character’s personality or motivation or back story. It can be insight or secret or a simple description of the character’s looks. Almost anything that can be revealed about a character can be presented via dialogue, either that character’s or another’s.
In truth, what another character reveals is often more telling—more compelling—than what a character says about himself.
~ Create or increase conflict. Dialogue cannot be bland. Characters shouldn’t speak with an easy back and forth agreement reminiscent of a tennis exhibition between equally skilled opponents. Rather, the words of one character should increase the tension in the other character, in the scene, and even in the reader. This verbal tennis match should have hits and misses with characters trying to score off one another.
This doesn’t mean that a character can’t be passive-aggressive. Not all tennis players have the same style, and not all characters face dialogue in the same manner. But don’t doubt that in any confrontation, each character wants to come out on top.
Dialogue should shake up the status quo, not prolong it. This can be accomplished by characters misunderstanding one another—either by accident or deliberate ploy—by characters talking across one another, and by characters with separate agendas pursuing those agendas at the expense of others.
~ Break up passages of action or description. Too much of any element in fiction is simply too much. Readers need a break between action scenes; unrelenting description can put the reader to sleep; exposition without pause is merely a report; and constant dialogue, as would constant conversation in real life, annoys people somethin’ fierce.
Dialogue, then, can be used to interrupt events, description, and exposition, to balance the storytelling elements.
~ Elicit reader emotion. Any of the story elements can be used to elicit emotion from readers. Good dialogue can do it by revealing a character’s deepest needs, by baring a character before others. By baring a character to himself. Dialogue is not fluff, it’s the important part of communication between characters. It is words with meaning. And once spoken, dialogue will result in consequences for the character.
Dialogue can be a powerful force for setting the reader against a character or for drawing her to the character’s corner.
Any number of characters can take part in dialogue, though you will often find dialogue restricted to a small number of characters. Two people in opposition keep the conflict tight between them. Adding other characters can diffuse the tension.
A new character, however, could increase tension. Especially if that character brings new arguments to the scene or takes the side of one of the other characters against his opponent.
In addition to speaking with others, characters can also speak to themselves. Thoughts are an inner dialogue and should conform to the same standards as spoken dialogue—advancing plot, revealing character, and so on. (A reminder: Thoughts are not put in quotation marks, as is spoken dialogue. Italics can be used to indicate a character’s thoughts. Yet, if you’ve written the viewpoint character such that the reader is privy to his thoughts, no adjustment to font or punctuation is necessary; the reader will know which sentences are thoughts belonging to the character. Do use italics if you’re using third-person narration and a character thinks words such as I, my or me. )
How can you keep your dialogue on track? What creates memorable rather than laughable dialogue? Consider this list—
1. Give characters different voices—different word choices, rhythms, and styles.
2. Don’t explain everything. Dialogue isn’t normal conversation.
3. Skip the pointless words and near words, the ums and uhs.
4. Use words appropriate for your audience and genre and character. Is the story young adult, suspense, action, or romance? Would a character say the words you’ve put into his mouth?
5. Limit dialogue tags to the basics of said and asked. (For more on dialogue tags and exceptions to this suggestion, see The Use and Misuse of Dialogue Tags.)
6. Alternate dialogue with action, description, and exposition.
7. Put your characters in an identifiable place and time while they converse. Give them actions while they speak. Avoid talking-head syndrome.
8. Don’t use dialogue to preach your pet message.
9. Don’t forget other characters in the scene while two of your characters converse; those others must be doing something.
10. Use dialogue to reveal information unknown to characters, not what is already known. (Keep far from examples of You know, Bob, the telling of information to a character who already knows it, simply as a means of conveying that info to the reader.)
11. Use dialogue to miscommunicate.
12. Don’t permit characters to speak at length without interruption by another character or an action scene or a bit of description. This is dialogue, not monologue.
13. Allow characters to speak over one another, cutting off each other’s words.
14. Use subtext. What is unsaid—ignored, hinted at, or implied—flavors the scene and can increase conflict.
15. Avoid repetition of names in dialogue; nobody uses someone else’s name every other sentence. Use names to help the reader keep characters straight and for effect, perhaps as a means for one character to annoy another. But don’t repeat them for no reason.
16. Remember to increase tension, advance plot, and reveal character.
17. Know the rules and learn how to break them to create unforgettable dialogue.
Good dialogue is essential for good fiction. Learn how to write it. Learn how to write it consistently.
Some writers excel at dialogue, knowing the rhythms and words of their characters and how to best to portray them. Other writers have to work harder to write realistic dialogue. The good news is, writers can improve their dialogue-writing skills. Knowing that it can be done is a first step. Learning tips for improving dialogue is a vital second step.
And putting those tips into practice can put a writer on the path to realistic and compelling dialogue, dialogue that will make a story stand out for all the right reasons.