Let’s say you’re a budding writer and you’ve decided to finally write your first book. You’ve figured out your characters, your plot, the plot twists. All that’s left is the dialogue. How hard can it be?
You’d be surprised at how many writers underestimate the difficulty of mastering dialogue. It is understandable because we talk to each other every day, which is essentially dialogue. It’s such a normal part of our lives, so, in theory, it should be easy to have your characters naturally interact with each other.
But in reality, it’s fairly tricky. When writing a story, you want to make sure that when your characters speak, it has a purpose. The story has to keep moving along, or the readers will get bored and drop your book. (Yikes!)
Dialogue is one of the most critical devices in an author’s arsenal. Well-written dialogue is that extra push to make characters really come to life. For that reason, it’s a good job you are researching how to write a story with dialogue!
To put it simply, well-written dialogue has got to:
- Be convincing
- Serve a purpose
- Seamlessly blend narration with conversation
While dialogue is derived from how we speak, it is not an exact copy and paste. If you pay attention to how people actually talk, you’ll notice a lot of unnecessary things. They use many filler words, jump from topic to topic, or fail to articulate and finish sentences.
Good dialogue isn’t the exact conversation you’ve just had with a friend, but an improvement upon that. It’s an edited version of real-life conversations.
What Is An Example Of Dialogue?
Recall your favorite book and think about a moment wherein there is a character speaking. It could be a character talking to themselves, a chat between two characters, or maybe even a large discussion amongst six characters.
Dialogue is more than just writing out what your characters are saying. In the real world, people communicate not just through words but body language as well.
Here are two examples of similar dialogue, but written in two different ways. Let’s name our characters, Gwen and Rebecca.
“Where were you last night?” asked Gwen.
“I went out to see some friends,” answered Rebecca.
In the first example, the dialogue isn’t written wrong per se. In fact, it’s a perfectly normal conversation. It just doesn’t work for a novel, it’s way too dull and monotonous.
Gwen’s judgemental eyes locked onto Rebeccas rigid form from over her coffee mug. “Where were you last night?’
“I… went out to see some friends,” Rebecca shifted her feet, her eyes darting around looking anywhere but at her mother.
The second example is the same dialogue, but instead of pointing out the obvious, it captures the reader’s attention by describing the character’s body language and reveals the character’s emotions.
What Are Two Basic Functions of Dialogue?
Dialogue has got to serve a purpose. Here are five basic functions of dialogue:
- It Should Keep The Story Moving
As I mentioned, Dialogue must serve a purpose. And that purpose is usually to keep the plot moving. If your characters are having a conversation that does not contribute anything to the plot, it’s better to get rid of it.
Everything your characters say must be meaningful. If it isn’t, you’ll just be adding unnecessary interactions that’ll drag the reader’s attention away from the main point of your plot.
In every novel, there are a bunch of basic facts that the reader needs to learn. Good exposition is when we give the readers these facts throughout the story. The information could be about a character, an important event from the past, the novel’s setting, or any other element present in the story.
There are a couple of different ways to introduce exposition. It can be done either through narration, a character’s inner monologue, or direct conversation. These facts aren’t necessarily directly involved with moving the plot, but they are important for world-building so that the reader truly understands the novel’s setting.
If done wrong, you’ll run the risk of presenting your readers with a giant wall of text that contains way too many details, which will cause the reader will lose interest. And instead of this being vital information they must pay attention to, it just becomes something they hastily skim through. (All that world-building down the drain!)
- Deepen Characterization
Everyone has their way of speaking. There are plenty of factors that influence the way you speak, like accents, where you grew up, people that surround you, your personality, and the list goes on.
Even in a novel, you must consider their characters’ accents, personalities, past, and what they would audibly sound like. If the words and way they speak are like a real person, and the reader can connect why they speak the way they do, this is where your characters come alive.
Ask yourself, “Does this make the reader understand the character better?”
It’s commonly said that you should, “Show, Don’t tell.” In deepening characterization, narration and dialogue work hand in hand, allowing the reader to piece things themselves.
Dialogue can deepen characterization through:
- Showing character relationships
- Showing tension between characters
- Revealing character traits
These are little tools that help the author and reader identify who’s speaking. These are typically phrases like, said, and asked.
However, new writers tend to plug in a verb instead of simply using ‘said’ in an attempt to write more stylishly. Using verbs like whispered, shouted, thundered, exclaimed, and God forbid, adding adverbs to the tag.
Your readers don’t need to be directly told that Uncle Joe said something heartily. An even worse case in point is to use sparkly ‘said’ alternatives plus an adverb. To a more experienced reader, this screams that the author is trying too hard to sound more ‘authorly.’ (The dialogue tag police are on their way.)
Using these tags instead of a simple ‘said’ or ‘asked’ can be quite annoying and completely go against the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule. Instead of writing ‘Uncle Joe said heartily.’, have him show it instead, ‘Uncle Joe had a big smile across his face.’
Showing, rather than telling, provides more personality to a character and allows the reader to actively participate in piecing these characters together. It’s a more enjoyable experience overall.
How To Effectively Use Dialogue Tags
Dialogue tags are great! But, they can easily be done wrong. Dialogue tags are dependable, but developing an over-reliance on them can pull a reader out of immersion. These tags are meant to be invisible, quietly guiding the reader, not dragging them out of the story.
- Don’t try too hard to sound ‘authorly.’
- ‘Said’ and ‘asked’ are still better than other verbs.
- Avoid adverbs.
- Don’t overuse the tags.
- ‘Show, Don’t tell’ rule. (Use other ways to show who is speaking)
Four Types Of Conversations
In addition to dialogue tags, you’ll have to decide which type of conversation your characters are having.
A back-and-forth argument. It could be between just two people, or maybe even the character having an internal battle with themselves, or even between multiple people.
Participants will have contradicting points, and the goal is to win the argument or convince the other. (Think: I’m right, you’re wrong.)
A simple conversation. Once again, there is no set amount of possible participants, as long as each participant has the chance to speak.
The goal here is to simply talk to one another. It could be something as simple as asking for the time.
A one-way conversation. This is mainly for one person to relay information to another with the other participant not necessarily saying anything. (Think: Mom ordering you to wash the dishes.)
Similar to a debate, but instead of multiple people trying to get their point across, it’ll be just one person speaking. Usually, the speaker will convey strong emotions by going against those with a different point of view while uplifting those who agree.
How Do You Write Dialogue For Kids?
Writing dialogue is already tricky, but writing dialogue from a child’s perspective is even trickier. Children don’t talk the same as adults. It’s unavoidable for them to make grammatical mistakes and use simple words.
Place yourself in the shoes of the child. Children usually overregulize verbs. These are things like "teeths", "feets", "cactuses", and such. Kids know how to communicate. They just struggle with what words to use. A 10-year-old would have a much wider vocabulary than that of a 6-year-old.
Some children are also extremely shy. If your character falls under this personality type, it will make more sense to have them use body language to speak, like pointing at things and using hand gestures, rather than speaking in complete sentences.
Generally, young children are also blunter than adults. Since they’re still young, they haven’t fully developed an understanding of social cues, so they’ll blurt out exactly what they think. (Filter less. Now’s your chance to be brutally honest!)
Helpful Tip: Write down the sentence as you normally would, then look back and edit out any ‘hard’ words. You could either replace these words with a simpler synonym or pretend you don’t know the word at all!
Tips For Writing Good Dialogue
- Trust your ear. When you’re unsure of whether or not your dialogue sounds natural, say it out loud! (You may run the risk of looking like a looney.)
- Don’t try to write and edit simultaneously. Write everything out first and edit later. Most of the magic happens during the editing process.
- Keep your dialogues honest, even if this means having your characters spit out a white lie or unconsciously manipulate someone. These are all things that happen in the real world.
- Keep it short but impactful. If your character can just shake their head, then there’s no need to have them say “No,”
- Don’t stick to strict grammar rules. No one talks in perfect English all the time, and neither should your characters. It’ll just make them sound stiff and robotic. (But don’t write in an accent!)
- Your character’s lines should have personality as well. If your character is the joker type, then have them crack a joke or two. (I’m looking at you, Uncle Joe.)
- Every conversation must serve a bigger purpose. If it doesn’t add anything to the plot or characterization, then it’s best to cut it out.