Writing Dialogue

The writer found the kid standing in his office doorway. The writer was busy.

“What is it this time?”

“Dialogue,” the kid said. “It’s hard. To write it, I mean. I was wondering if you could help me.”

The kid had a notebook in one hand. A real paper notebook, the writer noticed. That was promising.

“Are we speaking?” the writer said.

“Excuse me?”

“I said, are we speaking. As in right now.”

The kid shrugged.

“Well, yeah.”

“Right. Then do that.”

The kid smiled nervously, as if one of them was possibly an idiot but it wasn’t quite clear yet who.

“Um, do what?”

“You’re having conversations all the time,” the writer said. “With all sorts of people. You’re always in dialogue with somebody or other. Aren’t you? Young people these days are always yacking or texting or twittering or whatevering. So what’s so hard about writing the stuff, then? Just write down what you hear.”

The kid frowned.

“Yeah, but. Well, talking like this is one thing. It’s real life. Writing it down is different.”

“How is it different?”

“Well, you need your characters to talk about what the story needs them to talk about, right? Not just any old thing. But you don’t want the dialogue just providing exposition, either. You know, Tell me again, professor, why are we exploring this ancient ruin? Gee, Bob, my new assistant, don’t you remember we’re searching for the lost treasure of Petawawa?

The writer made a snorting noise that might have been a laugh.

“And you don’t want them just blathering on either,” the kid went on. He was really fired up now. “You don't want the small talk people make in real life. How are you? Doing good. And you? Can’t complain. You know, the banal stuff we say to each other on a daily basis. You can’t--”

“Sounds like you’ve already got a pretty good idea of what dialogue shouldn’t do,” the writer said.

The kid blinked. He looked at his notebook, then up at the writer.

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

“That’s a pretty good start, wouldn’t you say?”

“Well, yeah. But … there’s more to it than that. Isn’t there?”

The writer didn’t answer. Instead he gestured for the kid to come in, and then to sit down on the chair across from his desk. The kid did so, with his hands in his lap like a nervous job applicant. The writer stepped around to the other side of his desk, sat down and tapped some keys on his laptop. A moment later his printer whirred and a sheet of paper slid out. The writer plucked the paper from the tray and handed it across the desk.

The kid leaned forward in the chair and took the paper but didn’t glance at it.

“Um … what is …?” he murmured.

“Take it and read it,” the writer said. “Maybe it’ll help. In the meantime, as you can see …” He gestured to the stack of loose pages on the desk beside the laptop.

“Oh, right. Yeah, right, um, sorry. I’ll let you get back to work.”

The kid jumped up from the chair and backed away from the writer's desk.

“So is it okay if I ...” he began.

“Shut the door on your way out,” the writer said. He was tapping on the keyboard, not looking up.

“Right. Sorry. Thanks!”

The kid shut the door ever so gently. Once he was alone in the hall, he blew out a big breath, then lifted the sheet and read.


Ask yourself, why do I want to use dialogue? What can dialogue do for my story? Make a list of all the things dialogue is good for. In the tips below you've find some examples (and also some things dialogue is not good for).

Avoid using dialogue for exposition. Don’t use your characters as Handy Explainers. If they simply have to explain something, if there’s really no way around it, use the following tips to keep the exposition from becoming obvious, straightforward, and boring.

Save dialogue for important exchanges between characters.

People talk to other people because they want something. Know what your characters want (or don’t want) and you’ll know what your characters need to say (or will avoid coming right out and saying).

Avoid dialogue tags that draw attention to themselves. E.g., “He hissed,” “She warbled,” “He enunciated,” “She replied.” Don’t worry about over-using the good old tag “said.” It’s so familiar that readers barely register it consciously, like a mark of punctuation.

Dialogue is wonderful for revealing character. In your notebooks, write lots of “practice” dialogues between characters. Have the characters say all the things to each other (or to you) that they wouldn’t really say in the story. You may not use most of this stuff in the actual story, but you’ll get to know your characters better. You’ll know better how they speak, and what they are likely to say, or keep quiet about.

Use dialogue to create tension. How? Have your characters talk around the central issue. Avoid getting to the heart of the matter too soon. It might seem that getting the characters into big arguments, yelling, screaming, etc., is the way to inject drama into a scene, but as soon as you have the characters “blow up” at each other, oddly enough the tension usually deflates like a punctured balloon. The suspense is over.

Silence can be part of dialogue.

Dialogue is also a physical act. It’s something that we do to each other, and with each other. So make it physical. Use gestures and actions. (And in a case where you’re using your character as a Handy Explainer, think about how they might provide exposition without words; e.g., by gesturing to something, or acting something out).

Remember the rest of the world. What else is going on around the characters engaged in dialogue? How might the rest of the world intrude on the dialogue and throw in a surprise, or increase the tension, or add comic relief?

Use indirection and deflection, the craft of keeping the reader guessing and on her toes. How? Try this exercise: try writing a dialogue scene in which a question is always answered with another question. See how long you can keep this going. Read some of your favourite writers and see how the great moments of dialogue are usually full of surprise twists, non sequiturs, questions answered with questions, evasions, silences … anything to keep the dialogue from becoming one direct statement after another and putting the reader to sleep.

Often in real life conversations are inconclusive. They don't come to the point. Conflicts are left unresolved, or new conflicts are created. People talk at each other and don't listen. Try that with your dialogue. Leave some things unfinished, unsaid, as a way to keep the reader wanting more.

Image from Gabe Wong's "Method & madness" wall at the Art Gallery of Alberta

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this!