Dialogue

I used to hate dialogue. I didn’t know how to make it work, I didn’t know what to do with it. After a while, I learned to love it. In fact, huge chunks of my work are very dialogue heavy.

There are a few things in fantasy as well that make dialogue a little trickier.

So what gives?

Do Not Write How People Speak in the “Real World”

Think of the last time you talked to a person, anyone. Whether that was your barista this morning or your spouse.

To be honest, most of the interactions where we speak with other people in the real world aren’t terribly enthralling. They’re ordering coffee, asking our spouses what they want for dinner, talking to coworkers about important projects, etc.

It actually is pretty rare that we get into deep, time consuming conversations about life, love, and. It’s very rare that we use bigger or “fancier” words on a regular, day-to-day basis. In fact, studies have shown that English speakers use the same words over and over again. Most of them are “the, an, a, be, to, for” etc.

But why? The biggest reason is that, while we use words and language for so many wonderful things, the most practical reason is to communicate with other people and there are certain words, at least in English, that form the building blocks of most sentences.

So do not write how we talk in the real world. It will either be really mundane, repetitive, or flat out boring. You’re writing a story, not a day in the life of John Doe living in Metropolis, USA.

Speaking Serves a Different Purpose in a Narrative

Writing is weird that way. If I order coffee from the barista, I’m speaking only to him/her and giving him/her direct information. In writing, the characters are speaking to each other, but the writer is also speaking to the reader.

It’s almost like the reader is a ghost following these characters around, sort of a fly on the wall guided by the writer. And think about it, if you could be a fly on the wall for anyone, would you want to sit in someone’s cubicle all day, or would you want to skip that part until they got to the more exciting stuff?

This is how the writer directs the reader. The characters aren’t only sharing information to each other, but they are sharing it with the reader. They are advancing the story through their words in dialogue, a story that lives within a carefully created narrative structure.

This is another reason why real world conversations are pretty useless in writing fiction. They don’t equal the same thing.

Authenticity vs. Realism

You hear it all the time: “It’s not realistic for characters to be talking about this thing.” But often times writing doesn’t perfectly reflect the “real”, so instead we have to take the context of the work itself into consideration. And that’s where we get “authenticity”.

So when you’re writing dialogue, go for the authentic in the context of your story. Not what is “realistic”.

Conversations Have a Purpose

Whether you’re on a date, on the phone with customer service, ordering food, or asking your spouse about dinner plans, conversations pretty much always have a purpose.

It could be just to hang out and share a funny story, it could be more practical, but it doesn’t really matter what the purpose is so long as there is one.

This is the problem with runaway dialogue. The conversation carries on and on with no real end. The purpose of the conversation doesn’t make itself known or established.

A conversation in the story should be about sharing information between characters and the reader and/or serving a plot purpose, such as maybe a character is trying to convince the protagonist to do something the protagonist is hesitant about.

Form your dialogue around a purpose. I don’t care what it is. Maybe the purpose doesn’t even come back around for a long time, but the purpose has to make itself known or be revealed at some point. The reader should be learning something from the conversation.

Avoid the Mundane and the Obvious

Repetitive dialogue is boring. So are the obvious things. Things like:

“Hello, Protagonist McGee.”

“Hi, SideCharacter Sam. How are you?”

“I’m good. How are you?”

“I’m fine. Nice weather we’re having.”

“Yeah, it’s really nice out.”

In this conversation. I learn nothing. Nothing happens.

Don’t get me wrong, I love small talk in the real world. Small talk serves an important social purpose. In narratives, small talk is harder to work with and creates conversations like the one above. We can assume these characters know each other, we can assume they greeted each other, we don’t need to read about it unless there is a very good reason to. For example:

“Hello, Protagonist McGee.”

“SideCharacter Sam? I wasn’t expecting to see you.”

“I know.”

“Where is LoveInterest?”

“You should probably sit down.”

Here we have a surprise. The characters got right to the point of the conversation and didn’t repeat each other’s phrases back and forth. Something changes, something happens and we learn more.

Text and Subtext

In theatre, we learn that the text is the words printed in the script. The subtext is what’s behind those words: motivation, dancing around the point, attitude, mood, etc.

Read this:

A: “Honey, I’m home!”

B: “How was work? Anything interesting happen?”

A: “Fine. Business as usual. What’s for dinner?” 

B: “Pot roast. Did you pick up the pens that Timmy needs for school?”

A: “Shoot, I forgot. I’ll get them on my way home tomorrow.” 

So what do we know? We know that A has come home from work and they are greeted by their spouse, B. A was supposed to pick up something for Timmy, presumably their child, but didn’t.

That’s the text, so let’s add subtext. Let’s say that B just found out that A is having an affair. Now read the conversation again.

It reads differently, doesn’t it? B is probing for information, while A is deflecting and covering up.

This is the power of subtext and you should take full advantage of it. This should frame your writing. Conversations often serve more than one purpose, especially in a narrative. Maybe someone is spying on another character, maybe one just found out a deep dark secret about the other, maybe one is secretly in love, it doesn’t matter.

Whatever it is, remember the subtext.

Silence is Powerful

It’s not very often we’re comfortable being silent with another person. Usually it’s someone very close to us such as spouses or family members, or if there is a reason silence is necessary, like watching a movie.

For whatever reason, a lot of people get really uncomfortable when being with another person but remaining silent.

Silence serves a purpose just like dialogue. If the situation demands silence, that’s one thing, but if it doesn’t, silence becomes more ominous and awkward.

Maybe one character is giving another the silent treatment, maybe one is mad, maybe one is traumatized and won’t talk, maybe they’re enemies and are communicating physically (fighting, intimidation, etc.) instead of their words.

Place silence carefully. Silence is pretty powerful after an argument or confrontation. Silence breeds conflict, tension, and awkwardness which are really good things for narratives.

Emotions and Words

I was taught that vowels are emotions, consonants are logic. If you’re in a debate with someone and trying to make a point, you might notice yourself articulating constants a lot more. If you’re very emotional, you might notice yourself elongating your vowels.

Think of it like this:

Child: “I don’t want to go to the store!”  vs. “I doon’ waaanaaaa go to the stoooore!” 

I don’t suggest writing it that way in your work, but it helps illustrate the difference. The first is when the kid is taking a stand and making their demands. The second is when they’re expressing their emotions about not wanting to go to the store.

We use different words and say them differently depending on what we’re feeling and what we’re trying to do. Your characters should do the same.

Conversations Have Two Sides

This is a huge problem I see when protagonists are involved in conversations. The conversation is all about the protagonist, and it serves the protagonist completely. This is fine if it must be done, but it’s a problem when this is every conversation.

Your protagonist should have a reason to be in this conversation, but the other characters have their own goals for being involved too. Keep that in mind, or else your conversations will become one-sided and dull.

People Change Their Speech

Here’s some real world stuff you can put into your writing. You talk differently to your boss than you do to your friends. You talk differently to your friends than you do to your parents. You talk to your parents differently than you do to your spouse.

Maybe your speech is more relaxed, the words are less formal, the less you swear or use slang, etc.

The same goes for characters. Your character will interact with the king differently than they do their tavern buddy.

Things like age, level of education, rank, and profession come into play. A princess will talk differently than a peasant. A kid is going to speak differently than a grandparent. A soldier will speak differently than a poet.

None of these are better than the other, they’re just different.

Beat Structure

This is more technical, but it’s helpful.

A “beat” in dialogue is where the conversation changes. Either the subject changes, the emotions change, and so on.

Try this:

A: “How are you?”

B: “Could be better. I got fired yesterday.” (Beat 1: Shift from pleasantries to being fired.)

A: “Oh, no! Why?”

B: “Budget cuts.”

A: “Are you okay?” (Beat 2: Shift from wanting to know what happened to concern.)

B: “I’m pretty worried. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

A: “What does Sally think?” (Beat 3: Shift back to logistics.)

B: “I haven’t told her.”

A: “You haven’t told your wife?!” (Beat 4: Sympathy to borderline anger.)

B: “I’m worried she’ll leave.” (Beat 5: Stating fact to emotion.)

A: “She’s going to be more upset that you lied.” (Beat 6: Anger to scolding.)

Hopefully that helps illustrate it, though this is a bit of a crude example. You can apply this to all of your dialogue, hell even internal monologue can follow beat structure. It helps the writer pay attention and keep track of what’s happening in the conversation and what is changing.

Dialogue Tags

General rule: Avoid dialogue tags other than “[Character] said.” if you can. A lot of people were taught in school that using different ones all over the place “spices up” the writing, and that’s just not true. The dialogue should spice it up, the tag is just there so we know who is saying what.

Meaning that: “I told you, I never went to that concert. I had to work late.” Bob said. Works better than: “I told you, I never went to that concert. I had to work late.” Bob said angrily, screaming at the top of his lungs at Sally who had tears in her eyes.

The second is telling where you should be showing. In the next line after the first example, Sally could sniffle or rub her eyes to show she’s about to cry.

Dialogue tags are often a distraction from what’s actually happening and they’re usually more harmful than helpful.

There are some exceptions, obviously. “Asked” for questions. “Yelled.” if a character suddenly yells. “Replied” is okay if it’s not repeated. “Exclaimed.” personally makes me cringe.

My rule of thumb is to only not use “said” if I have to. If I have to make it very clear that a character cried out or yelled. Otherwise, if “said” gets the point across, than stick with it.

In Fantasy

I think dialogue in fantasy might be harder than dialogue in realism. In fantasy, you have to establish an entire new world, new cultures, and everything is unfamiliar. That means the dialogue has to be that much more informative, where it makes sense.

There’s a balancing act here. You need to give the readers information, but you don’t want the mentor character to go on for paragraphs about the “Battle of the Forsaken Tree which happened 200 years before the start of the story and involved all these kings and queens that the reader has never heard of and-“, you get the picture.

The simplest trick: Put that stuff in the dialogue where it’s relevant. Try this:

A: “This place gives me the chills. It’s eerie.”

B: “This is an old battle ground. Many warriors died here.”

A: “What happened?”

B: “A battle, the Battle of the Forsaken Tree, happened 200 years ago on this spot. It was the bloodiest battle FantasyLand had ever seen. So many died, that the King of CountryOne immediately signed a peace treaty with the Queen of CountryTwo, vowing never to war again.” 

A: “And now? 

B: “They say it’s still haunted with the souls of the dead. Most people avoid the place and strange tales are told by those brave enough to venture here.”

That was easier to read. The characters are in the place where the event happened, someone asked questions, expressed emotions, and the info-dump didn’t carry on for too long.

There’s a second part to this fantasy focussed point. There seems to be some assumption in fantasy writing that the character must speak with “heightened” speech or in “purple prose”. Basically, using long, uncommon, or “poetic” words all the time for everyday things.

Unless your story is written in that style for a specific reason, it’s generally a bad rule of thumb to use this. Use the words that need to be used. Simplicity is they key here. If your characters are speaking this way, there should be a reason.

Parting Words

That was a doozy. But I hope I got the points across. Dialogue is hard, but if you keep focus, it should be a lot less painful to do.

Writing Prompt:

Write a conversation in your story or a new scene. Use beat structure to follow the conversation.

Consider:

  • Who are these characters?
  • What do they each want from each other?
  • What are they talking about?
  • What is the subtext of this conversation?
  • How emotionally charged or tense is it?
  • Where do the subjects or emotions shift?
  • How well do these characters know each other? What is their relationship?

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2 thoughts on “Dialogue

  1. Good post, lots of useful stuff here. I’m definitely guilty of the runaway conversation. I think it’s a way of me free writing to get to know the characters but the reader really doesn’t need to know it all. Making sure each conversation has a purpose is good advice, thank you

    Like

    • Thanks! I think, especially on first drafts, runaway conversations aren’t the end of the world since the purpose (in my mind) of the first draft is for the writer to tell the story to themselves. I think keeping a goal in mind for a conversation, whatever that goal is, helps to ground the dialogue as well. Happy writing!

      Liked by 1 person

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