Dialogue is one of the most important aspects of any story. Whether dialogue is used to reveal character, to advance the plot, or simply for entertainment value, dialogue can make or break a work. In this article, we will discuss how to write dialogue that has a purpose, is effective, and is realistic.
The purpose of dialogue
The main purpose to have dialogue in your story is to relay information. The key aspect of dialogue is ensuring that it sounds natural and flows well with your story's pacing. Below are various types of dialogue with distinct purposes in a narrative.
Write dialogue to drive the story forward
Dialogue's primary objective should be to move the plot forward. In dialogue, it is important to describe what the characters are feeling and thinking, but you should also use dialogue as a tool to push your story to the next scene.
This can be done by writing dialogue between characters talking about the story's problem or a plan to solve said problem. These kinds of conversations should be how most of the dialogue in your story is structured.
Outlining dialogue can be helpful in this situation because you should already have a set path for the story to follow. As long as plot-driven dialogue follows that path, it will help move your plot forward while also giving readers insight into what's going on inside of the characters' heads.
Write dialogue to reveal character
Dialogue can be used not to just move the plot along, but to reveal character. It's is an excellent tool for revealing character because it gives writers the opportunity to express who that person is on the inside.
A tough conversation reveals much about a person's personality and how they handle difficult situations. The dialogue itself can show their true thoughts, feelings, or intentions.
It also shows what kind of responses are most natural for them which makes dialogue very effective in showing how these characters will act when faced with certain circumstances later on in your story.
The most mundane dialogue can be entertaining if it reveals character or the character is strong and well-thought-out. So before you start to write any piece of dialogue, figure out your characters!
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Write dialogue to develop relationships
You can also use dialogue to show how characters act around each other, which will give readers insight into the nature of different relationships in your story.
Is a character shy or bashful when talking to another character? Does a character speak in single-word answers when forced to talk to specific someone?
Dialogue is extremely important when you're wanting to show two characters connecting, falling in love, or hating each other through argument.
Write dialogue for exposition
Using dialogue as exposition can be tricky but if done well, it's usually entertaining and informative at the same time.
Good dialogue that's used to explain exposition is very effective when one of the characters in the conversation is not aware at all of the history–meaning they are in the same boat as the audience. This outsider character should be the one steering the conversation in order for the character explaining the exposition to not seem like their giving a lecture for the whole scene. This can be done by having the outsider character ask the questions which should be the questions the audience themselves are dying to know.
How to write effective dialogue
Now that we know the different purposes of dialogue, who do you write dialogue to be effective as possible? Effective dialogue has to serve its purpose but also be easily digestible.
Remove unnecessary dialogue - get rid of small talk
Most of the conversations that we probably have in real life are just small talk. This kind of dialogue in a story doesn't matter and should be cut (unless the small talk is meant to convey a specific emotion of everyday life or awkwardness).
We don't want real dialogue because it doesn't go anywhere and doesn't reach a point in real life. We want something that appears to be real dialogue and leads to an actual purpose.
Every piece of dialogue needs to have a purpose. Try to write a conversation to be as efficient as possible to keep your reader from falling asleep or losing track of what's going on.
Differentiate characters - give them a distinct voice
Another important aspect of creating realistic dialogue is that each character should sound completely distinct from one to the next.
Believable dialogue can be achieved by having characters speak in their own voice and not the author's voice. If the dialogue sounds like it could come out of your mouth, then no one is going to be able to tell who is who. The reader should believe they are listening to someone who actually exists speaking these words–not you being a ventriloquist.
Giving a character a distinct voice can be achieved in a number of aspects: syntax and diction, levels of energy and formality, humor, confidence. Writing dialogue can be fun when playing around with these different aspects.
By giving characters distinct voices in their dialogue, you can get to the point where you don't even need to dialogue tags in order for the reader to know who is talking.
Use and create conflict in your dialogue
Conflict gives a reason for characters to respond to one another.
If you boil it down to its essence, a dialogue between characters is a conflict between people. This doesn't necessarily mean they are arguing, but it is a give-and-pull of ideas. They're exchanging information while also trying to get something out of the conversation for their own selfish reasons.
But writing dialogue with actual conflict can allow you to show a character's flaws via another character. Conflict in dialogue can as well convey information while keeping your audience engaged in the action.
Great dialogue with conflict can create an arc within the conversation itself by slowly building tension between characters ending with its own climax. The best dialogue is found in conflict and leads to even more conflict.
Avoid using dialogue tags too much
It is important that you not overuse dialogue tags in your dialogue–identifying who says what by "he said" or "she said".
The reader does not need this information and so many dialogue tags actually break the flow of reading. By formatting dialogue like this constantly, you are also creating an unnatural tone for your dialogue which can lead to a lack of authenticity when writing characters.
Use action instead. If they are interrupted, use the em dash and cut a character's dialogue short in mid-sentence, and then write the second character's dialogue immediately after. This is better than saying dialogue tag directly after their statement as it takes away the power from their words.
How to write realistic dialogue
There are times where dialogue is written in a way that helps the reader feel like they're part of the story, as if they were actually listening to these characters talk rather than just reading dialogue on paper. This can help your readers understand what's happening instead of making them confused or bored by dialogue that sounds too formal and robotic.
In real life, we don't always say what we mean. Sometimes we yell in anger when we're trying to come from a place of love for our spouse. We may be overly nice when attempting to extract information or a favor from someone.
For your character to talk like a real person, the way a character speaks may not always line up with their true intentions.
You should know the intentions of that character for every line they speak. There's always a distinction of what a character says versus what a character means. Dialogue becomes stale when it states exactly what a character thinks.
Natural exposition as dialogue
It might be challenging to supply expository information in as dialgoue. Real people don't explain things to one other that they both understand. It's more effective to provide explanatory dialgoue on an outsider unfamiliar with the setting rather than reinforcing what your characters already know. If you understand the circumstances under which these characters would say such lines in the real world, you'll learn more about the world and won't have to suspend your belief.
Make the audience feel like they aren't being spoon-fed everything. Balance the dialogue with sections where the characters receive information and sections where they figure things out for themselves.
Write dialogue that's messy
People don't talk perfectly all of the time; dialogue isn't always clear-cut and concise–it can be messy like real life. This is why dialogue that flows naturally and realistically will draw readers into a story even more than dialogue that reads as contrived.
Have your characters interrupt each other, stutter, lose train of thought every once in a while. Writing dialogue with these kind of human elements can make dialogue feel more realistic.
But it's important not to cross over into writing dialogue with poor grammar and incomplete sentences because readers will lose interest quickly if your characters sound like children who have never been taught how to speak properly.
That being said, there are many times throughout books where writers use fragments instead of full sentences so their dialogue makes sense within the context of each scene–thereby avoiding dialogue with poor grammar and incomplete sentences.
There are also times where dialogue is written in a way that helps the reader feel like they're part of the story, as if they were actually listening to these characters talk rather than just reading dialogue on paper. This can help your readers understand what's happening instead of making them confused or bored by dialogue that sounds too formal and robotic.
Compelling dialogue example: The opening scene of Inglourious Basterds
What makes this dialogue great:
- The dialogue creates an arc of tension between the characters that builds suspense. There is a sense of relief when it seems like Hans Landa has found them innocent, but then his tone goes subtly menacing when he's going for the kill.
- Each character's personality is revealed in the way they talk. Hans Landa uses very proud and cordial speech to assert authority, Mr. LaPadite uses short and quiet sentences to show he's a reserved man.
- Mr. LaPadite hides his true intentions well in his dialogue–we the audience don't think he is hiding anyone until the camera pans to reveal them. Hans Landa is very polite the entire conversation even though he is trying to extract information from Mr. LaPadite.
The mechanics of written dialogue
- Quotation marks: Every piece of dialogue written for a book should be wrapped with double quotation marks. "Hello there!"
- Dialogue Tags: Dialogue tags should be outside the double quotation marks. A dialogue tag is a word or words that tell us who is speaking, such as "he said," "she exclaimed." Dialogue tags are necessary for clarity, but they can also take up valuable text space if overused. A dialogue tag doesn't need to be used after every line of dialogue in order for it to sound natural; often, one or two are all is needed in the first few lines of the conversation.
- Dialogue punctuation: Commas should be used in dialogue to separate dialogue tags and the dialogue. For example: "Hello," he said, "I'm here for an interview." If you have to punctuate dialogue with an exclamation point or a question mark, leave them inside the quotation marks instead of a comma: "Where is the library?" he asked.
- Paragraphing a conversation: When a different character talks, their dialogue should start a new paragraph.
Dialogue is a powerful tool when it comes to writing fiction. It can help to set the mood, show character development or reveal information without relying on narration. Each piece of dialogue in a convesation needs to serve a purpose for the story and be as effective as possible in that purpose. As equally important is writing dialogue for your characters so they sound like real people instead of aliens trying to mimic human speech. Listen to some real conversations in a coffee shop and think how you can use them to create a scene of dialogue with a narrative purpose.