Dialogue isn’t just there to show that the characters in a story are talking, it’s far more important than that.
It performs various fundamental roles in fiction: It tells us more about the characters (i.e., tendencies, interest, and other personal attributes); adds an extra dimension to the narrative; and, above all, it helps the writer to “tell less, and show more.”
Effective dialogue, therefore, intensifies these functions and a writer needs to know how to write and incorporate effective dialogue into their fiction.
Writers ought to know that using real-life dialogue doesn’t blend well with fiction. Rather, writers ought to compress real conversations in such a way that they maintain fluency and clarity but also get to the point quickly.
Now that I have given you a tip on effective dialogue, let us get to the juicy part.
What Does Effective Dialogue Sound Like?
When you watch a movie or some other cinematic performance, it doesn’t really hit you that a good writer worked so hard to produce effective dialogue in the script.
Studying scripts is the best way of learning to write effective dialogue. This is straightforward: playwrights and scriptwriters write dialogue that has to be clear, concise, but also believable, or else the performance is doomed to suck.
So when you read these scripts aloud, you get to taste the tang of the emotions that are supposed to be contained in the dialogue.
Reasons for Using Dialogue in a Story
1. Errrr… It Gives Voice to the Characters
I had to write this in case you just came from another planet and you’re about to write your first fiction piece.
2. It develops the characters
Without the writer narrating it, the dialogue can show characters’ moods and other behaviors develop.
Good writers use dialogue to effect evolutions in the mood of at least one of the characters. Dialogue helps the writer avoid writing some boring explanations of mood changes that the character goes through and in doing so, helps the reader create vivid images of the story.
3. It develops the plot
Apart from showing the development of characters’ moods, dialogue can also carry the story from one point to another without the writer needing to play the narrator.
Dialogue can be used to reveal backstories which, in turn, can push the plot to another plot phase. The tone in the dialogue can signal the onset of events or initiate events at a later stage.
4. It adds extra dimensions
Dialogue can be used to intensify the pace or make the reader’s imaginations clearer. Just in a few words, dialogue can elaborate.
Not only is dialogue economic for the writer, but it saves the reader a lot of time while making the story more dynamic.
How to Write Effective Dialogue in 6 Steps
- Be Brief
- Unwrap Bits of the Backstory
- Unwrap Personalities
- Interrupt and Supplement with Action
- Use Subtle Dialogue
- Read Aloud
Step 1. Be Brief
Effective dialogue ‘cuts to the bone’ and removes the chuff that slackens real-life conversations.
You have to remove extra words and repetitions. For example, you could rewrite,
“He came here on Sunday,” Mary said. “He intended it to be a brief visit so he left on Tuesday” as “He came here on Sunday and left on Tuesday.”
Or if the days are unimportant to the story, you could write, “he stayed here for two days.”
Step 2. Unwrap Bits of the Backstory
Dialogue that gives away parts of the backstory keeps the reader interested in learning the whole story.
This means that they’re likely to read on to get the rest of the juice because the dialogue sort of promises them some revelations.
“It was an honest mistake, your honor,” said John.
“Well… you’ve said that before,” replied the Judge. “But you’re no longer a juvenile so the punishment is going to be stiffer now.”
The dialogue reveals that John is a repeat offender, and he came before the court in his juvenile years.
As the story advances, you can reveal more about the protagonist’s past without making it a boring narration since you introduced the backstory engagingly.
Step 3. Unwrap Personalities
Long plain narrative explanations of the characters’ personalities can ruin a story for readers.
You have to let the reader discern a lot of the characters’ attributes from the dialogue.
Don’t ruin the story by TELLING them that the character is egotistic, clever, or that they like giving mordacious comments.
You have to SHOW the reader how the character responds to things, how their speeches reveal some self-loving attribute, how they use humor in their dialogue.
Step 4. Interrupt and Supplement with Action
To make the conversations more realistic and dynamic you have to use interruptions. You can also break the dialogue with action that further explains what’s going on.
Step 5. Use Subtle Dialogue
The dialogue needn’t be straightforward always. Sometimes, you should use sidestepping and subtexts to make the storytelling aspect exciting for the reader.
You can also use silence to write perfectly effective dialogue. Supplemented by actions and reactions by the characters, you might be saying everything by actually saying nothing.
Step 6. Read Aloud
You can only sense the originality of your dialogue by reading it aloud. By reading the dialogue aloud, you experience the emotions that effective dialogue is supposed to convey to the reader.
I believe you should do this when writing your dialogue and when you’re practicing using dialogue from famous writers.
How to Format Dialogue
DON’T go overboard with attribution tags. Don’t try to be cute and ingenious with your tags; in fact, John said, she said, he said, and the likes are all you need.
I will be more thorough about this in the next section.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a beginner or an established writer, punctuating dialogue can be a problem.
Here are some of the most useful rules:
- Use lowercase dialogue tags when dialogue ends with a question or exclamation mark: “Run for your life!” she said.
- When continuous dialogue takes up more than one paragraph, each subsequent paragraph should begin with a double quotation mark. Don’t close the paragraphs with quotation marks unless it’s the final paragraph.
- Place punctuation inside the quotation marks, the dialogue tag outside: “John was just here asking about you,” Bill said.
- Compound sentences should be separated by an attribution like this: “He’s not breathing,” he said, “I checked his pulse.”
- If you write action in front of dialogue, separate them with a period: He stuck out his head. “I can see them!”
- Quotes that are inside other quotes should be quoted using single quotation marks: “He said we should ‘manage what we have’ and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
New Paragraphs for Each Speaker
This rule is simple, just like in the example below:
Docherty is conversing with his neighbor, Mrs. Stanton.
He walked to his mailbox and found nothing inside. Mrs. Stanton rose from her trimmed hedges.
“Is your wife back from the trip?”
“Yes, she just left for work.”
“Oh! I didn’t notice a car entering your garage.”
“she used a Uber”
The No-Nos of Dialogue
There are things you should always TRY to avoid. I’m not saying that they’re cardinal evils, but you shouldn’t have to overuse them if you think they actually work for you.
1. Cosmetic Dialogue Tags
You might think it’s impressive to find alternatives to the simple tags (i.e., he said, she said), but you might be committing the cardinal sin of fiction writing. If you write she grumbled, then you’re telling the reader instead of showing them using the dialogue.
It’s not a sin to use dialogue tags but they’re unnecessary most of the time. You could write without them and it’d still look and sound cool.
He smacked the arm of his chair. “I said no!”
2. Endless Talking
We all hate dialogue that bounces back and forth between the characters without action interruptions. These leave the readers with no idea of what’s going on besides the talking or where the characters are―such dialogues make the reader feel like a third wheel listening to a conversation they know nothing about.
You need to interrupt the dialogue with action and stage directions. Nobody speaks on end without doing something like shifting, picking a cup of coffee, or writing something down; hence, shuffling in some action can help the dialogue speak louder.
3. Dodge Those Adverbs
Stephen King said, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions.”
He just forgot to add that using them will get you telling instead of showing.
For example, if you write:
“I will go,” he said whisperingly.
It’s okay to write like this but if you’re as addicted to the “show don’t tell” thing, it’d be perfect if you wrote it like this:
He brought his mouth within a centimeter of her ear and spoke in a voice that barely tickled her eardrum. “I’ll go.”
In real life, we always start conversations with formalities.
This isn’t real life. And nobody’s got time for the “how ya doing?” and “how are the kids” type of unnecessary politeness.
Be economical and straightforward with your dialogue.
Using Dialogue to Effect the “SHOW, DON’T TELL” Rule
Most people will tell you that to effect the “show, don’t tell” rule, you have to avoid dialogue and “show the action” instead. The last part is correct but the dialogue is not the problem. As a matter of fact, you can use dialogue to show action or explain something indirectly.
You could use dialogue to indicate sicknesses and other health problems like in the dialogue below:
“I found Jane!” said Thomas.
“Where is she?” asked Juliet. “How is she?”
“She’s a bit grey,” he replied. “From the coldness, I think.”
In the last line, Thomas might be implying that Jane has gotten frostbite. He is not telling: rather, his words seem to show the signs of frostbite.
Authors Who Write Great Dialogue
1. Judy Blume
Judith has been writing children’s, young adult, and adult fiction for more than 6 decades and still effectively communicates to the modern generation of young adults. If there’s a writer who understands the teenage mind, it’s Judy and she shows this understanding in her works – and mouth. I didn’t finish her book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret but with the bits I read I realized that she used dialogue to fill in some backstories and explain some scenes like below:
Finally she sat down at the kitchen table, fluffed out her hair, and said, “I came in a taxi.”
“All the way from New York?”
“No,” Grandma said. “From the center of Farbrook.”
“But how did you get to the center of Farbrook?”
“On a train.”
“Oh, Grandma—you didn’t!”
“Yes, I did.”
“But you always said trains are so dirty!”
“So what’s a little dirt? I’m washable!”’
2. Toni Morrison
Morrison is one of the great writers of our time. Her novels are rich and tangible, and never so much as through the vivid dialogue offered by her deeply textured characters.
She wasn’t wasteful with her dialogue. In her book, Sula, she showcased this efficiency, and here’s one of the conversations in the book:
The woman smiled, glanced in the mirror and said, throwing her voice toward Helenex, “That your only one?”
“Yes,” said Helene.
“Pretty. A lot like you.”
“Yes. Well. She’s ten now.”
“Ten? Vrai? Small for her age, no?”
Helene shrugged and looked at her daughter’s questioning eyes
3. John Steinbeck
One of the most celebrated authors of the 20th century, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel and a Pulitzer. His dialogue is so effective that it can drag you into the book. Here is an excerpt from Of Mice and Men:
Lennies’s face broke into a delighted smile. ‘Why sure, George, I remember that…but…what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says…you say…’
‘The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ into Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?’
‘Oh, sure, George, I remember that now.’ His hands went quickly into his side coat pockets. He said gently, ‘George…I ain’t got mine. I musta lost it.’ He looked down at the ground in despair.
‘You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ‘em here. Think I’d let you carry your own work card?’
Lennie grinned with relief.
Dialogue can be an effective tool in your fiction writing tool cabinet, but you have to master it. You have to know that there should be a difference between real-life conversations and dialogue in fiction. You also have to know how to format dialogue―dialogue tags, punctuation, et cetera.
Your dialogue has to “cut to the bone,” reveal the characters’ backstories and personalities, adds dynamism to the plot, among other things.
And… apart from all the rules and the tips provided in this post, it will take a lot of creativity for you to come up with good dialogue.