How to Write Dialogue

Creating dialogue is one of the most enjoyable and the most challenging parts of writing. Dialogue isn’t like real speech. If you write dialogue to resemble real speech you’ll end up with something unreadable.

If you don’t believe me, record a conversation between your friends or family, then transcribe it word for word. It’s a mess! Real speech rambles and tends to be unfocused. It’s full of hesitation, confusion and meaningless asides, ums and ers and repetition.

When you write dialogue you need to create the illusion of real speech. Dialogue is more direct and succinct than speech, but it still sounds natural. To test this, read your dialogue out loud or record it and play it back to see how it sounds. The best dialogue flows and trips off the tongue. If you find certain phrases keep tripping you up, rewrite them until they’re more fluid.

A good way to learn how to write dialogue is to study how it’s done in modern films. Old films tend to use more dialogue – the characters ramble on. It may be great speech, but it’s more theatrical than cinematic. The best dialogue is sparse, punchy, lean and straightforward. Nobody speaks unless they absolutely have to.

Talk to Me

Dialogue carries many functions within a story, including:

  • To impart information (exposition)
  • To move the story forward
  • To reveal character through subtext (emotion, intention, mood, etc.)
  • To reveal backstory and motivation
  • To create rhythm and give pace to the story

Dialogue is verbal action. It should come directly out of each character’s needs within the story and drive the plot forward. Ideally your characters should only speak when they have something to say, so cut the waffle and get to the point.

It’s also a good idea to give your characters distinctive speech patterns. Each character should have their own way of communicating so the reader can easily tell who is talking. Using unique cadences and verbal tics will bring your characters to life and ensure they don’t all end up sounding like you, the writer.

Try to avoid having your characters tell us exactly what they’re thinking or feeling. For example:

A man flings open the door and storms into the room. He stalks across the carpet and his foot stomps on the head of an unfortunate teddy bear in his path. He clenches his fists and shouts, “I’m really angry.”

This is what I call Speaking Your Subtext and it should be avoided at all costs. Remember, speech includes non-verbal behaviours too, such as body language, gestures and micro-expressions. You can often reveal more about a character through their actions than through their words.

No No’s

Things to avoid when writing dialogue:

  • Speaking your subtext (see above)
  • Clichés (unless that’s how a character talks)
  • Greetings and passing-the-time stuff (unless relevant to the story)
  • Repetition of information already delivered
  • Dialect and phonetic speech (use sparingly, enough to give a taste of the accent you’re indicating)
  • Profanity (keep it to a minimum unless it’s in keeping with the story, setting and characters)
  • Attributions other than ‘said’.

This last is important. If your manuscript is full of characters exclaiming, shouting, asserting, whining or spouting their dialogue, it marks you out as an amateur. For example:

“What’s for tea?” asked Tom.

The ‘asked’ is unnecessary. We already know it’s a question:

“What’s for tea?” said Tom.

Occasionally you might want to indicate a character is shouting, but it should be obvious from the action in the scene. If it isn’t, re-write it.

To end, here’s an example of great dialogue from the comedy classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Arthur Dent’s house is about to be bulldozed to make way for a bypass, but his friend has some disturbing news:

’Ford,’ said Arthur, ‘would you please tell me what the hell is going on?’

‘Drink up,’ said Ford, ‘you’ve got three pints to get through.’

‘Three pints?’ said Arthur. ‘At lunchtime?’

The man next to Ford grinned and nodded happily. Ford ignored him. He said, ‘Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.’

‘Very deep,’ said Arthur, ‘you should send that in to the Reader’s Digest. They’ve got a page for people like you.’

‘Drink up.’

‘Why three pints all of a sudden?’

‘Muscle relaxant, you’ll need it.’

‘Muscle relaxant?’

‘Muscle relaxant.’

Arthur stared into his beer.

‘Did I do anything wrong today,’ he said, ‘or has the world always been like this and I’ve been too wrapped up in myself to notice?’

‘Alright,’ said Ford, ‘I’ll try to explain. How long have we known each other?’

‘How long?’ Arthur thought. ‘Er, about five years, maybe six,’ he said. ‘Most of it seemed to make some kind of sense at the time.’

‘Alright,’ said Ford. ‘How would you react if I said that I’m not from Guildford after all, but from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse?’

Arthur shrugged in a so-so sort of way.

‘I don’t know,’ he said, taking a pull of beer. ‘Why – do you think it’s the sort of thing you’re likely to say?’

Ford gave up. It really wasn’t worth bothering at the moment, what with the world being about to end. He just said:

‘Drink up.’

He added, perfectly factually:

‘The world’s about to end.’

>Read the whole How to Write series here

Images: birds fightingnon-verbal


Comments are closed.