“The dialogue was so believable, I forgot it was spoken by fictional characters.”
Most writers dream of such compliments. After all, dialogue is one of the basic ingredients for a good story. Yet realistic dialogue is an illusion; no good writer recreates human vocal interactions. Real people trip on their tongues, stutter, speak over each other, and most say more than is necessary once speaking. Reading a verbatim transcript of a conversation is almost painful.
Record a casual exchange over a cup of coffee. Precisely transcribe ten minutes of dialogue, including every pause and false start. Once transcribed, re-write the dialogue with readers in mind. Do not cheat and write a short script. Attempt to write the exchange as if it were appearing in a novel.
How does a good writer trick readers or an audience into accepting dialogue as realistic? He or she assumes the role of editor. Just as an editor removes minor flaws from a text, so must a writer act on behalf of characters’ speech. A talented writer excises the “oh, uh, yeah, well” patterns many of us use. Experienced writers force subject-verb agreement into conversation, unless poor grammar is essential to a character. Most importantly, writers do not allow characters to ramble unless it is a device to communicate nervousness or another trait.
Readers and audiences seldom notice well-edited dialogue. Good dialogue fits seamlessly within the story.
Effective dialogue is:
- Economical and condenses time
- Tied to the plot and adds to the story
- Indirect for dramatic effect
- Without prompts or cues
- Realistic in terms of emotions, not wording
- Audience appropriate
- “Said” much of the time
- Not a break in narrative, nor broken by narrative
- Not a replacement for narrative exposition
Words of Caution
Not every story requires dialogue, while some are nothing but dialogue. A writer needs to discover what the unique balance is for a particular story, as well as what the audience expects from a genre. For example, crime novels are driven by internal dialogue and brisk exchanges between characters. A crime novel without dialogue would seem strange. However, a personal tale of mountian climbing would need to dialogue because it is a first-person narrative.
Economy of Dialogue
The only “law” good writers observe is “every sentence serves a purpose.” If a sentence does not fit this law it should be killed. In dialogue, every word is important. Dialogue breaks the narrative of a story or the visuals of a film. Readers and audiences pay closer attention to dialogue because it is special.
A ten minute conversation condenses into three paragraphs.
We talked about our husbands, the kids, and work. Neither of us said anything. Then, she shattered everything.
“I’ve been having an affair.”
I couldn’t breath. I had hoped I was wrong.
The writer of the preceding example omits nine minutes and 45 seconds of dialogue. Readers miss nothing. While condensed, the words quoted reveal the essential information. The narrator’s reaction is not spoken; the lack of a response is a response. Not every statement requires a reply.
Notice the word choice. The adulteress says “I’ve been having,” not “I am” or “I was.” The affair is ongoing. At this point it is not important when, how, or why the relationship began, so the writer omits those details. Effective word economy focuses a reader on what matters. Dialogue should be economical and purposeful, not a perfect recreation of reality.
More Than Plot
Effective dialogue advances the plot and reveals information to create a unique story. Doing one but not the other results in weak dialogue.
“I’m going to kill my wife,” he said.
The preceding dialogue might advance a plot, but what does it add to the story?
“I hate my wife,” he added.
Not only does the second line seem like a writer’s desperate attempt to affix a motivation to this character, it also lacks dramatic effect. The two statements can be re-written as one.
“I’m going to enjoy getting rid of my wife,” he said, calmly eating his steak.
Now the writer has plot advancement and a hint of a story. The dialogue leads the reader to explore possibilities. The work is interactive. One wonders, is the husband a jerk? The wife a witch? Why will he enjoy killing her? Mystery readers want to “play along” with the sleuth.
Again, word selection is important. There is a difference between “getting rid of” and killing. The wife is a burden or obstacle. Hopefully, readers want to know which she is and why.
There are a limited number of plot structures upon which to hang a story. Readers and audiences are comfortable with a defined subset of plots. Effective dialogue provides a tool for writers wanting to create interesting stories. Each line of dialogue should add to the story, usually by adding to a character.
Dialogue advancing the plot but not contributing to the story results from including dialogue for the sake of dialogue or overzealous editing. Inexperienced writers should avoid using dialogue merely because they have been told dialogue is essential.
Indirect Dramatic Effect
Remember that all fiction, and some non-fiction, requires drama to retain readers. Writing dramatically means getting readers and audiences to wonder “what next?” as the story progresses. Do not confuse dramatic effect with melodrama. Dramatic dialogue resembles a poker game or negotiation. The indirect dramatic effect is how a writer alludes to situations.
In dramatic dialogue the speakers avoid being direct. Questions and statements are subtle, as they often are in reality.
“Do you think she’s cute?” Anne asked.
Anne is fishing for a compliment instead of directly asking, “Am I cute?” People learn to be indirect as children. Those who do not learn are considered tactless. Well-written dialogue mirrors this reality.
“It’s a shame you have to work late at the office so often,” she said, facing away from him.
Disguising a question as a statement is effective dialogue because it reveals the game being played. Coupling the dialogue with narrative reveals more. Good writers balance indirect statements with clues to their meanings. The speaker does not face her lover.
A rare but effective form of dialogue is unstated emotion. Unlike other forms of indirect dialogue, the intent is clear to other characters but the words are carefully chosen. As poets know, allusions to emotions are more dramatic than blunt statements. “I can’t live without you” bests “I love you.”
The most common method for employing unstated emotions is to have one character describe another. Readers and audiences know that when someone is not present is when others reveal how they feel about the missing party.
“Your mother is never happy. She asked what the food was, as if she couldn’t tell. Then, she examined it like Quincy. To ask if we have any Rolaids, the nerve of that woman.”
Readers recognize anger in the speaker’s words. She does not like her mother-in-law. It is an overstatement that the mother-in-law is “never” happy, but this statement establishes their relationship. The writer can omit a detailed history.
The writer uses what are known as “loaded phrases” to convey the wife’s emotions. “As if” and “the nerve” illustrate the distrust and distaste felt by the speaker. The example is superior to the alternative:
“I don’t like your mother. She put on a show, insulting my cooking just to be spiteful.”
The blunt, but accurate, version is boring. In this sample, the writer over-edited. The reader doesn’t sense the depth of anger.
Real Emotions, Unreal Words
Good writers understand readers expect “real” emotions from characters. A realistic response in fiction does not mirror reality; it is understandable from the character’s perspective. Dialogue must ring true to readers based upon their knowledge of a character.
Real emotions vary in intensity and duration. Only a handful of people have near-perfect self-control, but most do calm quickly following an outburst. Fictional characters often fail to return to a calm state. Good writing requires heightened emotions that explain motivations and allow for confrontations.
“I still remember her standing up at our wedding and screaming, ‘I object, I object.’ Cruel doesn’t describe her.”
Because most readers know emotional people, they accept characters with strong emotions. There is a fine distinction between dramatic effect and melodrama. Emotional dialogue contains hyperbole, with more passion than real conversation. Also, dramatic dialogue tends toward greater eloquence than daily speech.
“For years I have waited, patiently, quietly in the background. Now, it’s my turn.”
Never Be Prompted
Prompts are lines of dialogue meant to elicit a response. Some prompts are social rituals and the last thing we really expect is a detailed response. Other prompts fill in the empty space during a conversation. Though used in real conversations, prompts are lazy writing. Unfortunately, prompts are common, especially in mass-market fiction.
Frequently used prompts include:
- “How are you?”
- “What’s happening?”
- “What did he/she say/do?”
- “How dare you.”
- “I don’t know.”
- “Do you remember?”
There are dozens of prompts, all worthy of deletion from a manuscript. Deleting a prompt, also known as an “empty cue,” seldom affects a conversation.
Audience appropriate dialogue does not refer to the content of the dialogue, but rather the language and mechanics utilized by a writer. Each writer must determine what is appropriate content. Audience appropriate dialogue is dialogue that respects the reading abilities and conceptual levels of readers and audiences. While a gifted child might read a thriller with ease, does he or she comprehend to social commentary within the text? Or, can someone with a lower reading ability but good conceptual foundation enjoy the story?
Younger readers and audiences increasingly want mysteries, thrillers, and other forms of highly conceptual fiction. For this audience, writers often utilize intermediate exposition. By design, one character is required to explain facts and concepts to a “Watson,” a reference to the fictional chronicler of Sherlock Holmes’ exploits. Holmes had to explain a great deal to Watson, therefore Watson exists for the readers.
“Sugar pills killed him?”
“The lack of his prescription did. Without his medication, his heart was vulnerable.”
He Said, She Said
Most dialogue is “said,” not muttered, sighed, screamed, or exclaimed. In school, students are encouraged to add variety to dialogue by replacing “said” with other verbs. These verbs often seemed forced within text. Most of the time it is best to have characters “say” dialogue or omit the attribution.
“My mother is a saint,” he said.
“Your mother dated Satan.”
In the preceding example there is no need to explain how the characters spoke. The man defends his mother, so readers likely assume a defensive tone of voice. The accusation his mother dated Satan does not require attribution of any kind.
Only when the tone of voice is not obvious should a verb other than “said” be used. Ironic or sarcastic comments should be attributed with another verb.
“Great,” she muttered upon hearing her mother-in-law was coming for dinner.
Using “said” in the above instance fails to convey the wife’s displeasure.
Don't Break It
Breaking the flow of either narration with dialogue or dialogue with narration damages a story. Never insert dialogue merely for the sake of dialogue. Likewise, do not interrupt an exchange between characters with narration. Writers are tempted to mix the two because teachers told them doing so is proper. It might be what a teacher wants, but it does not result in effective dialogue.
The police stopped at the doorway.
“Come in,” she said. She was sitting in her favorite chair, a dark walnut rocker. Her voice was calm. “I’ve been expecting you.”
Though not terrible, the preceding passage can be improved.
The police stopped at the doorway. They studied her, rocking calmly in a dark walnut chair.
“Come in,” she said. “I’ve been expecting you.”
The revised passage creates the scene first, then introduces dialogue. The writer leaves the attribution “she said” to enforce a dramatic pause, but gone is the long interruption created by scene description.
Exposition is the introduction of background or information otherwise essential to the understanding of a story. The key word is “essential.” If exposition does not further the plot, omit it. As stated earlier, effective dialogue always furthers both plot and story. Since seldom does exposition advance the story by exploring character relationships, it should not appear as dialogue.
“Do you remember my father’s funeral?” he asked his wife.
“It was dark, cold, and raining.”
The example fails to illustrate the relationship between the two speakers. Certainly the wife would recall a funeral, so why is the question asked? There are more effective ways to have a character brood about the past. One approach is “asked and answered,” which demonstrates a character’s contemplation.
“Do you remember my father’s funeral? It was dark, cold, and raining.”
By removing the wife’s response, the writer now presents a character feeling a deep loss. The words did not change, but they are more intense.
Risks of Internal Dialogue
Many writers are tempted to take readers “into the heads” of characters. Instead of letting readers assume what a character is thinking, the writer decides to tell the thoughts through internal dialogue. There are times when internal dialogue works, but usually it seems awkward. In the worst cases, internal dialogue ignores point-of-view and leaves nothing to the reader.
I wonder what she wants? Daniel thought to himself.
Erika looked at the ground. I bet he won't lend me the money.
Internal dialogue in the example above leaves nothing to be said by the characters. The writer has also assumed a complete omniscience, which is now rare in fiction. The question the writer should ask is, “Will this improve the storytelling?”
To reduce potential confusion, the internal dialogue might appear in italic type. In a manuscript, this text would be underlined. The fact that it is necessary to indicate when a sentence is a thought illustrates how confusing internal dialogue can become.
Layer upon Layer
Mastery of good dialogue practices allow a writer to concentrate on great dialogue. Great dialogue works on multiple levels and frequently conveys multiple meanings. The best way to learn to write dialogue is to listen to people speaking in various settings. Listen in to conversations around you and think of which lines are the most powerful. Usually, the most powerful lines are ones that say something directly while also hinting at many others.