Writing dialogue that is both natural and engaging can be a tricky task. We want a dialogue between our characters to be realistic, but we also need it to advance the plot or reveal important information. Thus, writing dialogue effectively requires consideration of diction, pacing, plot movement, character development, emotion, and more.
The first step is determining if the dialogue is the best medium through which to convey the information you wish to reveal. Is it something that your character would normally bring up in speech, and is he/she speaking with another character with whom it is fitting to discuss? If not, you may consider using description or interiority (the character’s internal thoughts and feelings) in place of dialogue. If you come to the decision that dialogue is most well-suited, you’ll need to determine whether the scene will require direct dialogue, indirect dialogue, or summary.
Direct dialogue is when you quote the characters directly. Indirect dialogue is when you offer the substance of what was said without quoting it. A summary is when you condense a conversation into a few sentences describing what was said over a period of time. Generally, you will utilize direct dialogue the most frequently. However, an indirect dialogue is a great tool for breezing through the more boring parts of conversations that your audience likely will not want to read through (i.e. “We said hello” instead of “‘Hi,” I said. ‘Hey,’ she answered,” or, “I asked about her parents and she said they were doing fine” instead of giving an in-depth quote about her parents’ well-being and their move to Florida after retirement with their three cats). Summary is also great for when you need to mention that a conversation occurred, but writing out the conversation contributes little to the story or slows down the pacing too much (i.e. Instead of writing out the football coach’s inspirational monologue in the locker room, you could simply write, “The coach gave us a motivational speech to pump us up before the big game.”)
After you’ve determined what needs to be said and through which form of dialogue, you’ll finally consider the question, “How exactly do you write dialogue?” In a workshop led by author and editor Hugh Cook at the 2018 Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing entitled “He Said, She Said,” a few simple dos and don’ts of dialogue were offered (unbolded words are my own):
- Do make dialogue tags as invisible as possible. This one is important. Only use dialogue tags when it is absolutely necessary. If you are writing an exchange between two characters, you will need them very rarely. When you do use dialogue tags, stick to simple verbs like “said” as much as possible. You can also avoid using dialogue tags by indicating who is speaking with an action instead. Loading down your dialogue tags with descriptive language and odd verbs will distract your reader from what is said in the dialogue itself and will slow the pacing.
- Do vary the location of your dialogue tags. Put some of your dialogue tags before the quote, some after, and some in the middle.
- Do place dialogue tags as close to the beginning as possible for long quotes. If you do not identify the speaker early on in a large chunk of dialogue, the reader may be confused and have to reread once they realize who is speaking.
- Do insert body language to reveal emotion or reinforce characterization
- Do use proper capitalization and punctuation. Do start a new paragraph with each new speaker.
Follow this model, for example:
Anna called the phone number and asked, “How is my little angel doing?”
“She doesn’t want to eat the spinach,” the babysitter said.
Anna frowned. “Did you try pretending the spoon was an airplane?”
Granted, this dialogue is a little dull, but it shows you proper punctuation and capitalization for sentences of dialogue both with and without dialogue tags.
- Do use different styles of speech for different characters. Consider the age and personality of each character to determine what sort of words and sentence structures that character would use.
- Don’t include the bad traits of everyday speech in your dialogue. As much as you want your dialogue to sound realistic, you do not want to include the “um’s” and “uh’s” that are so frequently found in real speech. You also don’t want to have your characters trip over their words unless there is a specific reason why they must do so.
- Don’t include meaningless or superficial information in your dialogue. The reader does not need to read conversations about how your protagonist is doing or how his classes are going unless they are fundamental to the plot development. If you do find that things such as this need to be included for some reason, try condensing it down into summary or indirect dialogue at the very least.
- Don’t overuse the character’s names in dialogue. Think about how often we really say one another’s names while speaking. One character should not address another by name any more frequently than we would in real life.
It may be overwhelming at first to keep all of this in mind while writing dialogue. If you have a good flow going, allow yourself to write without searching for all of these dos and don’ts as you go. Then, read back over it with the list in mind and revise. Remember too that for every rule there are exceptions. If you feel confident that you have a good reason to write your dialogue in a way that contradicts some of these guidelines, try it. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, you can always go back and adjust until it does.