All About Dialogue

Posted: April 16, 2014 in On Writing
Tags: , , ,

(Originally written for and posted at the Writer’s Carnival Blog on tumblr).


Dialogue can be one of the most daunting tasks facing a writer. How do you make it sound natural? How do you make sure the reader knows who is talking when? How do you handle multiple people involved? Do you include accents or not?

The first step to writing dialogue is to set your pen aside and listen. Listen to how people are talking around you. Listen to what they’re talking about. Note that often, people don’t talk in full sentences, don’t have proper segues, and sometimes mishear what others say (which can be used for comedic or tragic effects).

Think about where people are from, and the colloquialisms they might use. Do they call a carbonated beverage soda or pop? Are there local expressions that might crop up in the course of conversation? Do they speak using formal addresses or is their speech riddled with grammatical problems?

I’d recommend not trying to write out accents. Capturing a dialect can quickly backfire, as it might come across as a caricature of what you are aiming for, or even worse, making your prose indecipherable to the reader. Remember what I said about colloquialisms, though? That’s where this comes in, so people get a sense of where the character is from. A short description of the character’s speech pattern/accent/pitch can work wonders to give readers a clearer sense of the character. The one exception might be if a character stutters. “I-i-if they are in a s-s-state of p-p-panic, then taking some l-l-liberties with how they speak, m-m-might be in order.” I would strongly recommend you avoid using “…” to end your dialogue sentences, as it implies a trailing off, the character muttering to themselves as they wander down the street, and not actively engaged in speaking. Likewise, starting a sentence with “…” should be avoided even more so. Having a character be cut off in mid-sentence is best expressed as thus “I don’t know what you’re-” with the person doing the cutting starting their dialogue as you would any other.

Be clear with who is speaking. Yes, it can be obnoxious to have “he said” and “she saids” dotting the page. One way to break it up is to have the characters take an action after they speak. For example: “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Frank said, shaking his finger at his son.  Don’t feel the need to always use alternatives to said, however, as they can break immersion. Let the words in the dialogue convey the meaning you want. In addition, a new speaker should always get a new paragraph, which also aids with clarity.

Clarity becomes even more important when you add more than two people to a conversation. Think about the characters’ personalities. Do one or two characters dominate the conversation more than the others? Is everyone equally engaged? Is there one main conversation, with perhaps asides by other characters? One method to writing a multiple character interaction is to write out the main thread of the conversation first, then go back through to add other participants.

Now that you have your dialogue written out, are you done? Not even close. Read your dialogue aloud. See if it sounds natural. Mark those places where it doesn’t. If you can find a person to read your dialogue with you, even better. Do both of the participants sound the same? Is there a way to make them distinct from each other?

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