What Did You Say? — How to Write Dialogue in Fiction
Dialogues are all around us, and yet writing dialogue for fiction can be challenging. Writing dialogue that sounds authentic on the page and to the ear is a talent that some writers are naturally born with, but certainly not all. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to write them. Here are some tips and tricks that will help you up your dialogue game in no time.
What Is Dialogue?
This may be rather elementary, but it’s worth starting with a definition. Dialogue is a speech between characters in fiction. It is a speech that is appropriate for the story and works for it rather than against it.
There is no underscoring the importance of dialogue. It is said that readers pay more attention to dialogue than to the description of the story.
The actual business of writing dialogue is not thought of as a craft.
– David Hare
English playwright and screenwriter
The Importance of Dialogue
Nothing teaches you as much about writing dialogue as listening to it.
– Judy Blume
– Michael Morpurgo
British Children’s Writer
In fiction, dialogue plays an important role. Without dialogue, there is no story.
Well-written or effective dialogue creates a world in which the reader wants to stay and listen to the characters as the story plays out in front of them.
Badly-written or ineffective dialogue works against the story, which will certainly make the reader find another book or another means of entertainment.
The Reader-Writer ‘Contract’
Good or effective dialogue is a part of what you, the writer, offers the reader as a part of the contract between the writer and the reader. Some people believe the relationship between a reader and a writer is more intimate than that of a husband and wife. This is because the reader invites another voice into their mind space. What could be more intimate than that?
The contract between a reader and a writer is one based on complicity. The reader promises to read the book they have bought. The writer promises to guide the reader safely through the world of the book. The writer knows that the reader has many distractions and so promises the reader a good story experience.
A good story, needless to say, depends a lot on effective dialogue. Great dialogues are remembered for posterity.
Dialogue is not just a quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossing of legs.
– Jerome Stern
Creative writing professor and author
The Function of Dialogue
So that your dialogues are read for posterity, you’ll need to know their function. You might think that dialogue has only one function—to show a conversation between characters—but in fact, the dialogue has several.
1. Dialogue advances the story. Dialogue should advance the action/plot in the story. It could be a clue that can be connected later to the crime. Or it could be a whisper of gossip that could show a character in a different light. It could be a secret that is suddenly revealed. If the dialogue is about mundane things, even so, it should show something. Characters should change after a scene of dialogue. A dialogue should initiate that change. A dialogue that doesn’t is not fulfilling a function of dialogue.
2. Dialogue reveals character. The revelation can be about a character, their motivation, a back story, an incident, a secret. Anything that can be described about a character can be shown through dialogue, which is either by the same character or another. Note that whatever is revealed about a character through dialogue is far more compelling than what the character says about themselves.
For all forms, writing dialogue is almost like writing music. I pay close attention to rhythms and tones.
– Sefi Atta
Nigerian author and playwright
- Dialogue creates or increases conflict. Dialogue, which doesn’t have any conflict, is an insipid one. Characters can’t be yo-yoing words between themselves. Dialogue should increase the tension in the scene and in the reader. Characters can accidentally or deliberately misunderstand each other in order to get what they want.
- Dialogue breaks up monotonous passages. Having paragraph after paragraph of events, description, action, or explanation can be boring for the reader. One of the functions of dialogue is to break up the monotony and provide some reading relief and balance the elements of a story.
- Dialogue elicits emotion. Just like the other elements of a story, dialogue can also draw out emotion from the readers. Through good dialogue, a character can reveal their deepest needs, to themselves. Dialogue is dynamic and holds meaning. Good dialogue can bring in a change in the characters and situations, which, if expected, will make the reader happy and satisfied and, if unexpected, will make them surprised, angry, or hurt. In either case, an emotion would have been elicited from the reader.
Tips for Writing Realistic and Believable Dialogue
Now that you know what dialogue should be able to do, there are some guidelines for writing them.
- Say dialogues out aloud
When you are writing your dialogues or right after, say them out aloud as your character would. Then iron those kinks that reveal themselves. Writing dialogue depends a lot on listening. So listen to how people speak in real life and try to bring that level of authenticity into your character’s dialogues. However, fictional dialogue takes on a bit more than real-life dialogue. It should sound like something that people in real-life say and move the story forward too. Recording your dialogues in the way you expect your characters to say it can be one way to gauge how natural they sound. If they don’t, rework on them.
- Avoid small talk and filler words
Another place where fictional dialogue diverges from the real-life dialogue is in the absence of small talk. Avoid any small talk. It slows down the pace of the story and doesn’t add anything substantial to it. Small talk tugs on your story, stopping it from moving forward. Filler words like ‘um’ and ‘ah’ should be avoided, too, unless it establishes a character trait.
However, there is one exception to this rule. If small talk is used to stall the character from finding out something or change the story in any other way, then do use it. In this scene, if the audience knows what’s going on, but the character doesn’t, you’d have added the literary device of dramatic irony to your dialogue.
I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation.
– Tom Stoppard
- Keep it short and simple
In real-life, dialogues can be long and pointless. But in fiction, you don’t have that choice. The reader will get bored, or your publisher might point out the finite number of pages available to you. Literary or fictional dialogue should get to the point soon. Be ruthless and snip away lines that are not essential to the scene. Pare down your dialogue till only what’s required remains.
- Create a unique voice for each character
While developing characters, you’ll need to create a unique voice for each of your characters. When writing, you should ensure that this voice is reflected in the character’s dialogues. So that when your reader is reading the dialogues, they will be able to pick out who is saying what without getting confused.
- Be consistent in the voices of each character
Once you have chosen a voice for each character, you need to stick to it. That becomes the character’s personality. If a character uses a particular word or phrase often, then be consistent in using it in their dialogue all through the story.
- Use appropriate slang
While writing dialogue, use slang to evoke a certain world. Do keep a watch out on the genre and the character’s socio-political status before you do. You don’t want to use street slang for an aristocratic character because that is not how they speak.
For example, in the ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald,
He saw me looking with admiration at his car.
“It’s pretty, isn’t it, old sport?” He jumped off to give me a better view. “Haven’t you ever seen it before?”
‘Old sport’ is a slang term from the 1920s that men would use with their friends.
- Adapt dialogue to the person addressed
In real life, as in fiction, dialogue changes based on who is being addressed. You don’t speak the same way with your mother as you do with your employer. So, keep an eye out for the person whom your character is addressing. This is, of course, in alignment with the voice of your character. Edit or change your dialogue accordingly.
As with all other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialogue is honesty.
– Stephen King
- Reduce or avoid paragraphs
In real life, rarely does anyone speak at length before someone interrupts them. Try to recreate that in fiction. If your character might have things to say, that go on for several lines. In that case, break it up with indications about body language or observations about how other people react to your character’s words. Alternate dialogue with action and explanation.
- Avoid greetings
In real life, greetings are important but not so much in fiction. Avoid them completely if you can. They can make the situation boring. One exception is when something significant happens in the middle of a greeting. For example, someone dies is poisoned or has an accident in the middle of a greeting.
- Establish who your character is
In real life, we understand a character by observing people’s mannerisms and speech. You can do the same in your fictional work. Stephen King
says in ‘On Writing,’ his book about writing, ‘…what people say often conveys their character to others in ways of which they—the speakers—are completely unaware.’
For example, in Jane Austen’s
‘Pride and Prejudice,’ dialogue is used to introduce Mrs. and Mr. Bennet, their relationship, and their differing attitudes towards arranging marriages for their daughters:
‘A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!’
‘How so? How can it affect them?’
‘My dear Mr. Bennet,’ replied his wife, ‘how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.’
‘Is that his design in settling here?’
‘Design! Nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes.’
Through this dialogue, we get to know that Mrs. Bennet is keen to get her five daughters married but not Mr. Bennet.
- Use dialogue tags sparingly
Dialogue tags are ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ tagged to the line of dialogue. It’s a good idea to use them sparingly. ‘Said’ and ‘asked’ are the most used and use other synonyms when required. However, the purpose of a dialogue tag is to identify the speaker, not to express how they say those dialogues. You’ll need to show that instead of using a dialogue tag.
- Give your characters actions to do
When your characters are talking, give them something to do. They can’t only be talking to each other. That’s called the dreaded ‘talking head syndrome’ wherein a scene otherwise well written, characters are not rooted in reality. They seem to be heads floating and talking.
- Avoid using dialogue to carry your favorite message
Do you feel strongly about something? No matter how strongly you feel about an issue and how much you identify with a character, avoid using them to relay your favourite message. It creates a rather jarring effect and takes the focus away from the story and characters.
- Let your characters interrupt each other
To approximate real-life speech, have your characters speak over one another and ‘cut’ each other off. Dialogues need not be complete sentences. Rarely do people speak in complete sentences in life, so it need not be so in fiction as well.
- Avoid repeating names in a dialogue
When a character is addressing another character, it is not necessary to have them begin or end the sentence with the name of the other character. Maybe if one character is doing it to irritate the other, then yes, go ahead. Under no other circumstances does this repetition of names help the dialogue or story.
- Use subtext
The subtext is that which is left unsaid but is really the point of it all. Introduce subtext in your dialogues. It will make dialogues rich and layered. Let’s look at this example. Dill is a new kid in town in Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ This is the first time that six-year-old Scout and her older brother Jem are meeting Dill. Scout is narrating this incident.
‘Hey yourself,’ said Jem pleasantly.
‘I’m Charles Baker Harris,’ he said. ‘I can read.’
‘So what?’ I said.
‘I just thought you’d like to know I can read. You got anything needs readin’ I can do it…’
‘How old are you,’ asked Jem, ‘four-and-a-half?’
‘Goin’ on seven.’
‘Shoot no wonder, then,’ said Jem, jerking his thumb at me.
‘Scout yonder’s been readin’ ever since she was born, and she ain’t even started to school yet. You look right puny for goin’ on seven.’
Dill offers to say something about himself, his most valuable characteristic, which is reading to make friends with Jem. But Jem does not accept this offer. He dismisses the offering saying there is nothing special in it since Scout has been doing it for a while. That is the subtext to this exchange of dialogue. It would require something a bit more to win over Jem.
Rules of Punctuating Dialogue
Now that you know how to approach writing dialogues let’s look at how to punctuate them. You can do without quotation marks if you want to go the Cormac McCarthy way. He avoids quotation marks in his dialogues, and that’s his style. However, that is perfect for experimental fiction, not if you are writing popular fiction, Young Adult, or historical fiction. Think a bit about your audience and genre before making that choice.
If you’ve decided to go on the road well travelled i.e., using traditional punctuation, then here are some tips.
- Make sure that the end punctuation mark goes inside the quotation marks. Example: ‘Hello,’ Rajiv said. ‘How are you?’
- Add a comma after the dialogue tag if it comes before the dialogue. Example: Rajiv said, ‘Hello. How are you?’
3. Begin with a new paragraph for each speaker. Here is an example from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë:
‘If I were in heaven, Nelly, I should be extremely miserable.’
‘Because you are not fit to go there,’ I answered. ‘All sinners would be miserable in heaven.’
‘But it is not for that. I dreamt once that I was there.’
‘I tell you I won’t harken to your dreams, Miss Catherine! I’ll go to bed,’ I interrupted again.
She laughed and held me down, for I made a motion to leave my chair.
‘This is nothing,’ cried she: ‘I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home, and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; . . .’
- Omit the close quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph of long dialogue and begin the second with a quotation mark. For example:
‘Marina! Get over here!’
‘Yes, Papa?’ said Marina flying into view.
‘Did you leave the door open last night?’
‘No, never, Papa!’
‘I am asking you again. Think long and hard before you answer, young lady. There will be consequences if you lie.
‘You think I don’t know what’s going on here? I have been having my eye on you. Don’t think you can hide behind those innocent eyes. I see guilt. Only guilt in them.’
‘But Papa, I didn’t!’
- Use single or double quotation marks according to the publishing company’s house style guide. If you use single quotes for all dialogues, then use double quotes to indicate speech within speech and vice a Versa if you use double-quotes. Discuss this with your editor during the editing process.
- Use ellipses and dashes according to their function.
- Ellipses are used to indicate a dialogue trailing off. Example: ‘I wonder if things could go back to how they were…’
- Ellipses indicate a pause. Example: ‘Let me introduce the woman of the moment… Ranjana Lahiri.’
- Dashes are used to indicate dialogues that are cut off by another character or action. Example:
Karan handed over the notes, ‘Here are the notes you wan—’
‘Does it look like I want notes from you?’ Mahira asked.
Dialogue is one of the most dynamic parts of a story. It’s like a road on which you take your readers for a ride. When you write dialogue well, your readers will glide over the story-road, but if written badly, they will be forced to jump bump to bump or pothole to pothole. If you follow the suggestions given and write efficient dialogue, you’ll be rewarded with loyal readers.