DO YOU STRUGGLE with writing dialogue? If so, you’re not alone. Writing dialogue that feels natural and moves the story forward has always been a challenge for me. For that reason, I’ve had to study dialogue — what makes it good (effective) and what makes it bad (ineffective).
Before I get into the particulars, let’s look at what dialogue does for your story
Dialogue brings your characters to life on the page and allows the reader to get to know them faster than just about anything else. How people speak — their diction, accents, and colloquialisms — convey socio-economic status, education, place of origin, and general mindset, as well as individual personality quirks.
People say what they think others want to hear and they speak in ways that will make themselves look better. For this reason, dialogue shows how your characters wants to be seen in the world, while their thoughts and behaviors reveal who they really are. The contradictions between who they are and how they want to be known can add a layer of tension to your story.
Dialogue is intimate — it bring us closer to the characters in the scene. In a real sense, readers are eavesdropping on the conversation.
Dialogue can help move the story forward by revealing intentions and intensifying or relieving conflict. It also gives you a way to vary and control the pace of your story. During dialogue, there is less action, so the pace slows, and you have the opportunity to portray your characters’ emotions, as well as subtle idiosyncrasies.
What do I mean by “effective” dialogue?
In the following excerpt from Alice Munro’s short story, “Axis,” a young man named Royce visits a young woman at her parents’ home and farm, where he meets them for the first time. First, read through the dialogue. Then, I’ll discuss why I think it works so well.
What were his plans, the mother wanted to know, his plans now that he had graduated?
Right now, he said, he was driving a taxi. There was not much to do with a degree in philosophy. “Unless I decide to become a priest.”
“You a Catholic?” the father said, so startled he almost choked on his food.
“Oh. Do you have to be?”
Grace said, “Just kidding.” But she sounded as if all the kidding had gone out of her.
“Philosophy,” the mother said. “I didn’t know you could study just that for four years.”
“Slow learner,” Royce said.
“Now you’re joking.”
He and Grace washed the dishes in silence, then went for a walk in the lane. Her face was still rosy from embarrassment or the kitchen heat, and her teasing nature seemed to have turned to lead.
“Is there a late bus?” he said.
“They’re just nervous,” she said. “It’ll be better tomorrow.”
He looked up at some feathery, slightly Oriental-looking trees, and asked her if she knew what they were.
“Acacia. Acacia trees. They’re my favorite trees.”
Favorite trees. What next? Favorite flower? Favorite star? Favorite windmill? Did she have a favorite fence post? About to inquire, he figured it would hurt her feelings. Instead, he asked what they would be doing the next day. Maybe a picnic in the woods, he hoped. Somewhere he could get her alone.
She said that they would be making strawberry jam all day.
“You don’t choose here,” she said. “You just deal with what’s ready. Follow the seasons.”
One of the first things I notice is how Munro uses indirect dialogue** at the beginning of the conversation as an effective way of entering a scene in the middle of the conversation. Telling us the father is “so startled he almost choked on his food” provides important body language that conveys much more than the words themselves. Royce’s response, “Oh. Do you have to be?” is sarcastic and seems mock Grace’s father, but it’s hard to know for sure, and that adds to the awkwardness of the interaction.
Munro amplifies this discomfort through Grace’s tone: “But she sounded as if all the kidding had gone out of her.” Later, they wash the dishes in silence, her cheeks are still red — Royce isn’t exactly sure of the cause — and her “teasing nature seemed to have turned to lead.” Royce’s question, “Is there a late bus?” and his internal reaction to Grace’s comment that the Acacia is her favorite tree reveals his self-centered, callous nature, These details, added to the actual dialogue, communicate a great deal about Grace, Royce, and the ultimately doomed nature of their relationship.
Ten ways you (and I) can learn how to write better dialogue
- When you read fiction or memoir, note how dialogue draws you into the scenes. Pay attention to what the dialogue reveals about the characters and in what ways it moves the action forward.
- Become a listener. I’ve always been more of a talker than a listener, and I think that is one of the reasons I’ve struggled with dialogue and why all my characters tend to sound like me. To write better dialogue, I’ve had to learn to listen — really listen — to the ways people speak. Their inflection and tone and choice of words. How male and female speech differs, and how speech differs in different regions. I’ve had to become a bit of an eavesdropper in public areas.
- Write down what you hear. Keep a small notebook with you, and when you hear an interesting metaphor or colloquialism or manner of speaking, write it down. Quickly, before you forget it. Review your dialogue notes for useable tidbits as you decide how you want to portray your character.
- If your character is a real person in your life, begin paying more attention to how he or she speaks. Play around with copying their styles in practice dialogue. If the person is no longer alive or you don’t have an opportunity to hear her speak, maybe you can find video of her, or borrow speech patterns from other family members who were close to her. (Family members tend to have similar speech patterns.)
- Break up dialogue with details of body language, surrounding sounds, and other sensory details so the conversation doesn’t take place in a vacuum.
- Don’t overdo dialogue tags. “Said” is usually enough. Notice how in the excerpt from Munro’s story, she leaves out dialogue tags altogether when it’s obvious who’s speaking.
- Make sure the dialogue feels and sounds natural by reading it out loud. If it sounds stilted or exaggerated to your own ears, then you’ll want to rewrite it.
- Increase tension by having your characters hold back. Typically, people don’t say what they really want to say; they don’t express what they are actually thinking because they want to be polite, or because they’re concealing a secret, or because they don’t feel comfortable saying how they really feel. Subtext can be conveyed through body language or surrounding action in the scene.
- Remember that dialogue has to have a purpose. For each scene in which dialogue takes place, you need to ask yourself: what is the purpose of this conversation? What is happening here that can best be portrayed in dialogue? What does it do to amplify the characters and/or the action? In other words, why should the dialogue exist?
- Practice. Write a lot of dialogue and subject the dialogue you write to the same analysis as in #1 above. We learn by doing, and that maxim is doubly true for the craft of writing.
I’d love to hear your take on this topic. Do you find writing dialogue easy or hard? Do you enjoy writing dialogue or avoid it? And what steps have you taken to write better dialogue?
*The Best American Short Stories 2012 (pp. 125-126). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
** Indirect dialogue is a summary of dialogue and appears in the narrative. It is used to convey the gist of what a person says, without using the actual words spoken. It is also used when conveying what someone has said secondhand. “The doctor told me I should go home and rest” is an example of indirect dialogue. We don’t hear the actual words spoke by the doctor, only what he wanted his patient to do.