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[Writing] Dialogue

category: Writing | course: Writing with Style | difficulty:

Dialogue is very important. A story is in its most basic form a group of characters performing actions and interacting with each other. Dialogue has three main advantages:

  • The reader finds out details or specifics about the personality of a character
  • It places the reader right into the action, instead of describing things from a faraway view
  • You can subtly give clues, leave information behind or steer the reader in the wrong direction.

It is because of these three reasons that I recommend replacing descriptions and explanation with carefully crafted dialogue whenever possible.

Writing dialogue is often seen as a separate skill from writing. Some people are born with a talent for it, others find it difficult to get a natural conversation flowing. With practice you can upgrade your dialogue, but what helps the most is listening to lots of conversations in the real world (participating in the discussions is allowed, but you usually learn more from just listening).

Typesetting

Before we move on, some tips on how to display dialogue. It needs to immediately be clear that a piece of text is part of a dialogue, but you don’t want white spaces or special characters all over the place.

  • Start a new line for every new speaker.
  • Put quotes around the spoken words (double or single, but be consistent).
  • Punctuation should be put inside the quotes.
  • If you want to put a part of the sentence after the quote, use a comma at the end.
  • Some writers prefer to always start with the spoken text, if a sentence contains dialogue. They also often indent such dialogue lines, or put a dash ( – ) in front of it.

For example: ‘Henry, come here,’ Hanna yelled upstairs. ‘Dinner is ready!’

Dialogue Tags

In every dialogue, it is vital that you make clear who is saying what, and that is done with so-called dialogue tags. There are four ways to clarify who’s talking:

  • Most of the time, a simple ‘said X’ or ‘X said’ is what you want. It is short and clear.
  • Sometimes, you want to switch said for another verb or construction, like whispered or yelled. I say sometimes, because it’s easy to overuse this and create unrealistic, cluttered dialogue.
  • Omit the dialogue tag entirely. Only use this if it is perfectly clear from the sentence or context who’s talking.
  • Weave it into an action sentence. Create the next sentence after the dialogue in such a way that it describes an action but also clarifies who’s talking.
    • Oh, don’t worry. Anna grabbed her bag and pulled out a yellow envelope. ‘Here, Peter wanted you to have this.’

Quotes vs Dialogue

There’s a difference most people aren’t aware of.

Quotes are taken out of the narrative. They are about an action and present information or explanation.

“More than a hundred euros a month we can save just by not eating out as much” – Bob Brittle on how his family copes with mounting credit card debt.

Where was Bob? How did he say it? What was the question? Quotes are usually disembodied.

Dialogue is in the action and presents a reader with a form of action. You should always use dialogue

‘More than a hundred euros a month we need,’ said Bob, as he thoroughly searched his wallet for a few dollars. ‘We can save it just by not eating out as much.’

Dialogue is preferred over quotes, always and everywhere.

Environment

Dialogue that is unrealistic is the fastest way to make your story look fake and your writing careless. Whenever people speak, they are somewhere, at a certain moment in time, feeling a certain way, etcetera – and it all affects the conversation.

A conversation between people in a shelter will be a lot of whispering, words chosen carefully, and someone regularly telling everybody to shut up because somebody is coming.

A conversation in broad daylight, in a busy shopping district, will be much lighter. The people may be walking while talking, or trying on clothes, or cars pass by with considerable noise.

You should not put focus on these kind of things, unless they of course have a meaning or some importance in your story, but you should use them to make the dialogue more lively.

Character

Together with environment, making different personalities interact makes a dialogue realistic. Dialogue is the best way to show a character’s personality: how they talk, behave, react to certain events, feel about certain topics, etcetera.

One may talk decently and with well-chosen words, while another utters slang. One may be very quiet, while another constantly yells and seeks attention. One speaks with short and concise words, while another person takes four long sentences to say the same thing.

You must, however, always make sure that the dialogue is easily readable and understandable. Spelling words incorrectly to show someone dropped out of school is not the way to go. Going over the top with this only annoys readers.

General Tips & Tricks

One important thing to remember is: dialogue in stories must be as realistic as possible, but not be described exactly how they work in real life. Let me explain that.

Conversations usually start with a ‘Hi, how are you?’ ‘Fine. You?’ ‘Great!’ and more. Cut the crap – only use the dialogue to display what you want to make clear. Jump into it at the most important point, and get out of there before people are saying goodbyes and talking about the weather.

There’s also lots of pauses, people thinking about their words or topics, or slips of the tongue. While you can use these to show character or make a topic more important, you should generally leave these out of the conversation.

Nevertheless, don’t make a dialogue a group of spoken words with ‘said X’ and ‘said Y’ after it. Put action sentences between them, vary your words for a better rhythm. If somebody is speaking for a long time, cut somewhere in the middle to let the reader breathe for a moment and then continue. 

And last but not least, the common beginner mistake: writing dialogue focussed on the reader. To make something clear, you might be tempted to repeat sentences or write something that the character already knows. Avoid this, and find more subtle or elegant ways to bring information.

‘Captain, if you don’t take action now, we will hit the rocks!’

The captain knows this, it has probably been mentioned earlier. What would be more logical for a person to say in that situation is something like:

‘Captain, you need to make a decision, now!’ or ‘We only have five minutes left (before we hit the rocks), you can’t delay your orders any longer.’

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