Is dialogue writing an easier task for playwrights as compared to novel writers? Maybe it is.  Because the former don’t have to deal with all elements of a novel to tell their story, they heavily rely on characters for that. Whereas an author has to weave in dialogue as they construct scenes, setting, action, and context all while maintaining the flow and narrative of the story. So dialogue is sure a tricky beast for writers of fiction.  

In this blog, we will look at what is dialogue? What role does it play in storytelling? How you can use it to drive conflict in the story? Where most authors go wrong in dialogue writing? And how to improve the way your characters speak with other characters, with themselves and with the readers. 

The purpose of dialogue 

A conversation between two characters helps bring them to life. It provides character insight; what they feel at the moment, what part do they play in the story, what’s their backstory and they can reveal more through dialogue?

The main purpose of dialogue is story development. The characters’ need to communicate with one another makes it an absolute essential. Let’s look at the multiple purposes dialogue serves in telling a story: 

  • Character development 
  • Movement for story ideas 
  • Adds drama to the story 
  • Match rhythmic necessity of human speech 
  • Illuminates desire and motivation 
  • Provides tone and voice for the story or character.
  • Depicts meaning and theme, if any.
  • Changes direction of plot.
  • It helps reduce “reader fatigue”. 

Be careful about these shortcomings

The best way to improve anything is to understand what you’re doing wrong and fix it. Dialogues turn out to be boring, lame, and phony when writers rely heavily on it for revealing the story or don’t use it enough. There is a certain aesthetic needed to bring the characters and story to life. You’ll get the hang of it once you practice writing dialogue for a myriad of characters. Let’s look at what can go wrong as you give worthy lines for your characters to speak. Watch out for these mistakes: 

  • Use suitable dialogue tags 

One way to spice up your writing is through the use of dialogue tags. What are dialogue tags? They are the words you use before or after dialogue, most commonly “he said” and “she said” commonly followed by an adverb to tell the reader how the words were spoken. Beyond “he said” there are truckloads of creative dialogue tags to choose from.

  • Beware of talking heads 

Dialogue between two characters and the internal monologue are necessary to keep driving the story but can quickly turn awfully boring. Conflict is essential in every dialogue passage to maintain the expected impact for the dialogue segment. 

The conflict isn’t boiling enough if the characters only talk and don’t respond to the conflict with action. Be sure that the dialogue results in movement or change of the conflict or the characters. If characters talk and nothing happens, the readers quickly lose interest.

Two points you must remember to avoid this: 

a) Characters aren’t mouthpieces for the writer

Don’t just lend a voice to your thoughts in your characters. Let them express themselves and tell their story! Don’t set two heads talking in space. Give them a scene and a setting. Let them interact with their surroundings. Use the setting in a manner that makes the dialogue more intense and conflict heavy.   

b) All the characters can’t sound the same

Some characters talk a lot, some talk a little, some talk wise, but no character talks frivolously. Know your characters thoroughly. And write dialogue that fits your characters. Know when and how to write lines for each character type. They all need a unique set of mannerisms, turns of phrase, and tones.

  • Know the needs of the scene

A scene is something happening at the moment in a story; it includes action, conflict, and concludes with immediate consequences. To maintain the flow of action, nothing can interrupt the scene. Give your characters’ dialogue mainly when it builds tension in the scene. Too much dialogue and you’ll dilute the scene to no impact. 

  • Know when to pause

Unlike in the movies where you can see the characters speak, you hear how they verbalize their words, where they pause, and how they feel. For adding emotion we have the dialogue tags, and they do a great job of describing how the character feels or what action they do as they speak. But how does one represent a pause in their dialogue?

To understand this best. You must first learn how to punctuate dialogues. A comma allows for a quick pause or hesitation and shows a close connection between the various parts of speech. Similarly, an ellipsis, full stop, and em dashes indicate a break in thought or sentence structure. Each of these punctuations is used to different effects like, to show nervousness, agitation, interjection or hesitation in the characters.

Dialogue Writing Tips: 

John Truby in his book The Anatomy of Story, says that dialogue is, “highly selective language that sounds like it could be real.” It is, “always more intelligent, wittier, more metaphorical, and better argued than in real life.”

Terrific dialogue isn’t just important when writing fiction — it’s essential. To impress the agent to win a book deal, and for your readers to keep coming back to your next book, you need to deliver superb dialogue in every scene! How do you do that apart from not committing the above mistakes? Follow these tips while dialogue writing:

Punctuate your dialogue properly 

The flow, consistency, and tone of how your characters will sound to the readers largely depend on the punctuation. This is so crucial in dialogue writing that we have dedicated an entire article on this topic for you to get this right to the T!

Know your characters 

We will state this again – Know your characters! Know them in and out, character dynamics decide how interaction happens between different character. How long do they know each other? Where do they come from? Do they talk with an accent? Have they acquired a new accent?

Don’t make it too realistic 

It’s true that dialogue in books and movies is always more intelligent, metaphorical, sassy and delivered better than it is in real life. Writers who struggle with dialogue mostly do so because they take shelter in one of the two camps: they make dialogue do all the heavy lifting or don’t rely on it at all. The main lesson here is: Dialogue is not real talk. It is highly vetted language cleverly constructed to depict action, movement, and conflict. 

“Hey, Eric,” Wendy said
“Oh, hi! What’s up?”
“Do you know where Kenny is? He hasn’t been home in two days”
“I’ve been busy lately, don’t have a clue”

Your mobile chats read more interesting than that segment, right? The dialogue sounds realistic, yes. But, it’s also boring because it adds no purpose. The dialogue isn’t moving the plot or telling us anything beyond the dialogue. It lacks elements of tension and vital information.
Here’s how you can infuse meaning into the boring piece of dialogue:

“Hey, Eric,” Wendy said, trying to play it cool. Eric definitely knows what happened with Kenny and the freak when they went out after school. Had she been in school that fateful day, she would have never let him go.

It had been two days since Kenny had gone missing. No one in school knew or cared about his whereabouts. “Kenny is dead” was a running joke in class whenever he missed a day at school. But it was closer to the truth this time. Kenny could be dead for real and the thought shook Wendy to the core.

“Do you know where Kenny is? He hasn’t been home in two days.” She knew Eric won’t give away anything casually in the hallway. She must corner him after school. “I’ve been busy lately, don’t have a clue”.

See how that turned engrossing? Suddenly the drab conversation took on a whole new meaning.

Avoid exposition

Exposition is the informative text that tells the readers about the past, the setting, backstory, etc. It’s important for the readers to know where the characters come from and where they are going. But this doesn’t have to be told through a dialogue between two characters. Ideally, a large part of the exposition should be set in the story’s narrative, and developments like suspense, revelations or secrets can unravel through dialogue for a dramatic effect. Too much exposition in dialogue will lead to talking heads. 

Revising your dialogue is important

Your entire length of dialogue might seem clunky at first. But a round of revision can help you refine it by leaps and bounds. Go through individual dialogue segments and inspect them carefully. Ask if the dialogue is logical for the character’s disposition, is it true to the story’s time and character’s maturity, does it fit the characters credible thinking? There are many more considerations to make when refining the dialogue, you can always seek expert advice to improve your dialogue to its peak. 

Study and practice 

Finally, stock advice for all master all arts and skills from walks of life. Practice! Make observations and take notes about how your favorite author does dialogues in her books. As you practice, you will adapt their style and it will show in your dialogue. You can also find great exercises and practices in books dedicated to dialogue writing.

Brilliant dialogue has the potential to uplift your story, it’s characters and the transformation they go through in your book. Follow all the above pointers, do a lot of practice, and we’re sure your dialogue writing skills will improve to the heights of your favorite author. Keep coming back to the PaperTrue Blog, your foremost source for writing, editing, and grammar tips and help