I can’t think of a more subjective topic for a post than showing how I do dialogue. Not just writing it, but also the planning, what I’ve found to feel right when I’m reading it. And like most things you’ll find on this blog, please take it with a grain of salt. I believe there’s always something to take away from all advice, as well as something to discard. Let’s get started.
Dialogue is like that friend you made in middle school. At least, for me. They were random, and funny, and great to hang out with. They made you feel comfortable during an awkward part of your life, so you’ll always have a special place in your heart for them. That’s how I feel about dialogue. Like most people during the Age of Information, my first forays into writing was fanfiction. More specifically, Dragonball Z and Harry Potter – you know, the staples of 2000-2006.
When I read my old (crusty, decrepit) writing from this very experimental era, I noticed that almost all of the story was dialogue. (You know, when I wasn’t over-describing one of my Mary Sues wearing something I saw in an American Girl Doll catalog.) I believe that I was the most comfortable with just having my characters talk to each other, rather than write in any exposition.
When I didn’t know what I was doing, I made dialogue do anything I could think of. And given the series I was basing my fanfiction off of, I’m not surprised it was a mess. Dragonball Z is nothing but gratuitous monologues, and Rowling had a bad habit of highlighting the obvious when someone other than Harry spoke. Mine did all that, plus more!
Now, I have a more discerning eye about how I want my dialogue to feel. Reading better authors helped (cue the sigh of relief from this blog’s audience), and has been the biggest proponent for how to write powerful, hard-working lines. Nothing replaces practice, but reading also goes a long way.
Overexplain. Most of these points can be boiled down to a simple question I ask myself: “Would someone say this in real life?” If the answer is yes, then maybe it’s a keeper. If it sounds like Mr. Exposition is on the Monologue Train to Plot Point Number One, I pull the breaks.
Ask yourself: How can I get my point across in the least amount of words?
Sound “Too” Natural. To contradict myself above, I cannot write dialogue that sounds like a transcription from a police interview. When you read these transcriptions, they are littered with um’s and uh’s and er’s. These are called vocalized pauses, and while people use them all the time in actual conversation, they can clutter and slow the pace of my writing where I might not want it to. Cut out these out and look at the information left. Usually, the simplicity without the pauses are stronger.
Ask yourself: Do I really need to use a vocalized pause here?
Be Pointless. Did you know that McDonald’s makes most of its money from owning real estate, not selling french fries? That’s because they know that old adage well (you know the one). I tend to treat my writing like McDonald’s treats the ground its stores stand on: right where I need it to work for me. Dialogue tends to suffer the most from people not heeding this advice. Too many times, I read lines of dialogue that don’t do anything for the characters, plot, or mood – the three main things dialogue should exemplify (more on that below). If I can delete complete lines of dialogue and not be confused about something later in the story, then I didn’t need those lines to begin with, however natural or succinct they were.
Ask yourself: What’s the point to this reply / line / conversation?
Characterize. Remember the real estate metaphor? This is one of the jobs I give my dialogue. For someone who needs to evaluate the purpose of each word, I put dialogue to work in this way. Showing who a character is needs to be done constantly – in what they wear, what they do, and especially with what they say.
If the character speaking has curt replies, always quotes axioms, has an accent, or is an Asker, you get a feel of what kind of person they are. If a character says “sir” and “ma’am” most of the time, you can probably guess they were in the military or just plain polite. If they stutter when they are emotional, that’s another tick in the characterization column. Not every character has to have a “thing” with their speech. Most people don’t. But if yours does, don’t neglect it in their dialogue.
It’s important to realize that censoring your characters hinders the whole “characterization” thing. There are taboos in how people speak, but if you have a character that doesn’t care, don’t impose those taboos on them. If they curse, let them curse. If they talk about sex, let them. Taking yourself out of what you write can be hard, but variety of personality is an amazing thing to read.
Ask yourself: Does this dialogue characterize the speaker the way it should?
Further the Plot. Time is money. I don’t write the conversation leading up to the plot point in any dialogue – I jump right to the plot point. If my characters are talking, it’s to lead to something happening, to ask a question, to choose where to go from here. It’s to build tension – either by speech or lack thereof. If information is revealed, it’s to effect whatever is to come next.
Ask yourself: What changes as a result of this dialogue? If nothing changes, why am I keeping it?
Set the Mood. Just like music, or a clap of thunder, dialogue can change a scene from one emotion to something else completely. What started lighthearted now has your character in danger of their life. When the battle scene points towards certain destruction, daylight breaks with a side character’s Hail Mary.
Ask yourself: What is the intended mood of this of this scene, and how can I convey this in my dialogue?
My dialogue is said.
It’s not sighed, or growled, or verbing any type of noun. It is said, because said is invisible. If my character screams, expect an explanation point. If they ask a question, there will a question mark at the end of that sentence and nothing else. Sure, I’ll describe their voice. I’ll let you know if it’s deep, or lilting, or so quiet that it’s hard to hear the first time around. But I will never make my tags do any of this. Dialogue – powerful dialogue – doesn’t need to be raged, or murmured, or (*shudder*) exclaimed.
The way I used to write dialogue needed all of these different ways to hit the reader over the head with what they’re reading. But that was because the speech was weak, didn’t characterize, didn’t set the mood. But now I’m trying to be better at my real estate, trying to make every word do its part.
Nothing Replaces Practice (or Reading)
Here’s a question for you: what book do you like to reread every once in awhile? Open it and read a conversation between two characters. What about this conversation do you like? You’ve read it a few times, so there’s something there that speaks to you. Maybe you like the humor, maybe you appreciate the foreshadowing of something that happens later.
Reading good books is how I decided what I like to read in dialogue. For subtext, read Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. For witty humor, read Tyrion Lannister. For spine-tingling horror, read Annie Wilkes.
Disagree? Agree? How do you do dialogue? Don’t forget, no one writes the same; results may vary.