Writing Dialogue

Feeling chatty?

Dialogue is a lean language in which every word counts.

Sol Stein

Hey guys, let’s talk conversation this week.

Or rather, let’s start by hearing how this introduction would sound if I speak it aloud. Below is me typing as I speak:

So, writing dialogue is, erm, hard, you know, like no one is that eloquent or anything in real life, so you might wonder: why shouldn’t we just write it all like this since it’s more realistic, you know? Like it would be easier to make characters sound more, like, real by making them more like us in real life – if you’re writing about human people that is. Okay, going to stop now, the grammar is horrible when trying to get down like every utterance and dear gods I need to stop saying like and be less, erm, longwinded.

Okay, as you can see from the above, there’s realism and then there’s banal rambling.

If you’re still not convinced and want a purely accurate conversation for a very serious and gritty novel, then please try writing a transcript first. Of what or who, it doesn’t matter much, as you’ll quickly start to notice how infrequently people come out with interesting turns of phrase, or even finish their sentences. There’s a lot of false starts, interjections from the listener (these are important for any conversation), non-verbal gestures that aid communication (hand gestures, facial expressions…) or just noises from the speaker that hold meaning (sighs, laughter…).

This has nothing to do with people being ineloquent or unable to carry a conversation; it’s the opposite: people don’t have the need to fully articulate their speech to be able to communicate well. But to write all these other points down when describing a conversation between characters would mean dialogue would be pages long.

Not everyone can get away with Tolkien-esk descriptions!

Now before you say anything dear reader, I adore Tolkien, but if you can write an entire separate book about the flora of your setting and you’re not Tolkien, then you really need to rethink what descriptions can be edited out of your story.
The same goes for dialogue. Do you really need that conversation about breakfast in there?

So how do you write convincing, yet interesting dialogue?

This is going to sound slightly devious, but my suggestion is to do what all good writers do: listen to the conversations around you… and then embellish with a flourish.

Essentially: nick the best parts of real-life conversations, sack off the rest (anything boring!) and then get ruthless and edit, edit, edit! Cut it down and finish by throwing in some drama to spice it up again.

It’s easier to think of writing as not your darling, but as a form of entertainment. Of course it can mean a lot to you and so you want it to be personal, reflect some of your values, desires or whatever you get a kick out of by inserting into your work, but overall if you have any intention of sharing your writing outside of an audience of one, then it must entertain in some form.

“Entertain” could mean evoking a range of different emotions, but doesn’t mean you have to make your writing generic in order to capture a wider audience. Even if you write a piece for only one person, part of your intentions will always be that you don’t want to bore them. *

With that in mind, now we’ve covered listening to real conversations – final point: try to empty your head of preconceptions and just hear the other person’s voice – let’s go into the inventive mindset of embellishing with a flourish.

Firstly: all storytellers are fabricating a fantasy out of nothing more than inspiration, so embellishing reality is what we do. It’s a talent and a virtue to make something as dull as two characters passing a lighter between them, into a charged scene that’s worthy of attention.

The best advice for how to make something interesting, is to pay attention to what you like when reading or watching media. On top of that, add variance.

Are you using lots of long conversations? Shorten some of those utterances! Struggling to think of reasons why two characters would keep talking? Have one talk about their past and the other ask questions or act uncomfortable with the unexpected opening up.

Even if it’s not appropriate for your story or if characters haven’t met, writing dialogue between two characters can give you ideas and a feeling of how each person speaks and their temperament with different personalities.

Batman: The Dark Knight

There’s no rule (there’s no Scott Pilgrim style Vegan Police!) stopping you from having two characters meet outside your story or script to interact in a drabble or full-blown short story. For example, it can be enormously useful to have your protagonist meet the villain at different stages of the plot. How do they feel about what’s happening? Do they empathise with or understand each other – or do they even want to? Not only can this help with plot ideas, but it can also lead to some stellar lines/conversations that you might want to include in the main story.

Where you want his conversation to take place outside of the story is down to you, remember that doing this is a tool, not to included into the main plot (unless of course you want to), so go wild with it! Sometimes is handy just to have conversations take place “in the void”, aka: there are only the characters with no backdrop, but personally I find having something to interact with outside of the conversation can often drive it forward if it begins to lull.

Just stop yourself before the Great Necromancer Razzik and Timmy the plucky hero ex-farmhand start talking about the weather…

Or worse: one-sided plot-device fantasy romance. <shudders>
This webcomic series is very fun however: Happle Tea.

Still with me? Good work, thank you for reading! I know a lot of these writing advice posts have been conversational, please let me know if it works for you or you’d like to see it switch up.

In the meantime, let’s finish by including a list of ten tips for reference.

  • Note what books/series have dialogue you enjoy. What works and why?
  • Listen to the conversations around you** and then take stock of the beats in conversation. Who dominates the topic? Why? How? Mix what you’ve heard into your characters’ dialogue and embellish with a flourish: cut out the boring parts and make the turns of phrase more interesting to read. ***
  • Embellish, but be aware of what’s too much. Characters, unless it’s part of their mien, shouldn’t all sound like they’re regurgitating a thesaurus.
  • Give every dialogue a purpose. Someone is reading your writing and their time should be respected: be ruthless, murder your darlings and cut anything that doesn’t progress the plot, add character or deepen your world.
  • Remember there are more interesting ways of creating exposition than having one character label the world or give a history lesson to another.
  • Be precise with your word choice. A strong verb is better than endless adjectives. The woman shouted, “Get down!” Rather than: The woman said extremely urgently and loudly, “Get down!”
  • Every character is different. Show them to be. Conversational preferences, ticks or habits give them uniqueness.
  • Characters will act contrarily to each other and/or when in front of different audiences or environments.
  • Read what you’ve written aloud if in doubt. Better yet, ask someone else to read it.
  • Be consistent with how you layout your dialogue. It’ll make editing easier.

And that’s it for this week’s writing tips!

Dialogue is difficult to do well and needs constant refinement to make it feel current and readable to a modern audience, as any high school student reading Shakespeare or Austin will undoubtably tell you.

Keep with it, continue practising and you’ll feel confident with creating different and interesting voices for each of your characters.

What other tips work for you? Share in the comments and catch you next week for more handy writing advice!

The next post is on Saturday for Life in your Fortress of Solitude (part 2).

* Especially if it’s for a certain one. Hoo boy, is writing for that person deliciously nerve wracking. Maybe try it while in isolation? At best, you’ll be writing some new scenes together if you know what I mean… and at worst, neither of you will ever speak of it again and at least you’ve had some practise for what doesn’t quite work. Win, win.

** Harder in the current climate admittedly, but listening to anyone you live with talking after a few weeks of living indoors will yield some more unique results than coffee shop snooping. If you live alone, phone someone and really focus on their words.

*** This also prevents anyone from recognising themselves in your fiction – please only insert someone you know into your writing with their permission and, by all that’s good, let them read it prior to publishing! I’m looking into doing a multiparter on ethics, culture and writing in the future, but it’s a somewhat spicy subject, so it’s on the backburner for now until things have settled down and I can give it undivided attention.

This week’s featured image is Behind Glass by Johan van der Keuken.

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