“Dialogue is more like a movie than it is like real life, since it should be more dramatic.” - Anne Lamott
I have a confession to make: I still find writing dialogue difficult. With my first ever short story (The Money Tree), I even decided not to include any dialogue at all. I was scared I would suck at it. I thought having an omniscient style of storytelling, where the narrator knows all, would solve my problem.
I’m still proud of that first story though, and it taught me to tell a story without any dialogue. However, dialogue can move a story forward, it creates interaction with your characters and above all, conflict. Dialogue done well is better than good narrative.
Why do I still find writing dialogue difficult then? Well, I tend to either speed it up or shorten sentences ‘as you say it’, which is not often stylistically considered as good prose. I mean, if your character has a certain accent or speaking disability, go for it! But do so wisely and consistently. Another thing I mess up is the sentence structure. Like when a piece of dialogue is part of a sentence or not. More on that later in this post.
In this post, we will cover what writing good dialogue entails as well as how to stylistically bring it across nicely, including sentence structure.
The Rules for Good Dialogue
“Dialogue is the way to nail character, so you have to work on getting the voice right.” - Anne Lamott
I love the quote by Anne Lamott at the beginning of this article. Dialogue should be dramatic. This was one of the first things I learned writing dialogue for my short stories. One of my friends (who happens to be an editor) made it very clear: make complete sentences. Often in ‘real life’ we abbreviate and shorten. We’re lazy. But our dialogue writing shouldn’t be.
Just write down dialogue as people say it in real life, right? No. Don’t punish your reader. People like clear and complete sentences.
One of the best online lectures I followed this year were the ones by Brandon Sanderson. He uses the MICRO rules for writing good dialogue:
Motive: Let the motivations of your characters seep through what they say. Especially when interacting with other characters. This is always more powerful than expressing the emotions of your characters through plain narrative.
Individuality: Write dialogue in such a way so you can tell the characters apart. Each character has their own way of speaking. Sanderson believes that using dialect is not the best idea. Alternatively, you can use intellect or quirks. Perhaps one of your characters has a certain saying she likes to repeat. Play around.
Conflict: Good dialogue has its own innate conflict in it. This does not necessarily mean you have to bring up an argument. The most important thing is that your character(s) should want something. Have them say it! To support conflict in dialogue, try to build tension in conversations.
Realism: How realistic do you want your writing to be? Make a decision. To write it just like people say it can be grading. Make it more eloquent. Use full sentences. Don’t make it feel stilted. A great tip Branson Sanderson gave in his lecture on dialogue was to read screenplays for good dialogue. Try it! What I like to do as well is to eavesdrop on conversations. That’s a good way to bring some individuality to your characters’ dialogue as well.
Objective: Why do the characters say something? What is their aim? You can use dialogue to progress your plot or to explain something about the world you created. What do you want to achieve?
Characters influence dialogue
Like I said in the introduction, you can play around with accents or disabilities. Every person is different and so are your characters. You have to build some kind of individuality.
Where did your characters grow up? Are they (highly) educated? Do they have any disabilities? All of these factors and more influence how someone speaks. Two psychology professors just hold different conversations and use different words than two market vendors do.
Do your research and have someone check it familiar with the issues you play around with. Know your characters.
Let’s Get Technical - Style Rules
“Good dialogue is sharp and lean. Now, in the right hands, dialogue can move things along in a way that will leave you breathless.” - Anne Lamott
Read your dialogue out loud
Does it sound right? Do people talk that way? Reading your words out loud is always a good way to self-edit.
Use the correct interpunction
I never studied writing or English. One of the best things to do when you want to learn to write is to read a lot. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
In terms of dialogue, study dialogue from your favorite authors. Copy their punctuation style. It’s that simple.
There are, however, some ground rules:
Periods and commas go inside the quotation marks: “I’d like a whiskey,” he said.
If you break up dialogue to indicate sho said what, use commas: “I don’t know about you guys,” Frank said, “but, I’m off to bed.”
If you switch between speakers, always start a new paragraph
For more tips, I recommend this resource.
The use of adverbs
Adverbs, most writers avoid them like the plague. However, they could be useful in describing how your characters say something. Early on in my writing, I royally used adverbs in my dialogue. J.K. Rowling does it in the Harry Potter books and well, she’s J.K. Rowling!
Then I read ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King, and I changed my perspective. Two equally successful writers, both on the opposite side of the ring when it comes to adverbs. King hates them. And he’s right, a reader is smarter than you assume she is. She always is. There’s no need to over explain. Make the dialogue itself powerful enough so that it ‘speaks’ for itself.
So what to do? I changed tactics down the road and toned down the use of adverbs. I only use them if I really need to. If it contributes to his or her understanding.
This doesn’t mean you should end all dialogue with “, XXX said. Change it up! You don’t have to use adverbs. Here are some examples of different emotional states:
Anger: shouted or snapped.
Excitement: shouted or exclaimed.
Fear: stammered or gasped.
Happiness: gushed or laughed.
Sadness: cried or sighed.
Conflict: sneered or demanded.
Amusement: teased or chuckled.
Storytelling: recounted or concluded.