The Art of Conversation: Writing Dialogue

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Telling tall tales

Dialogue is an important facet in most stories.

It can play many roles:

  • Advance the plot
  • Create conflict or drama
  • Set the theme/tone
  • Get across backstory (or foreshadow events)
  • Reveal information and make it more accessible
  • Develop a character
  • Create and show relationships between characters
  • Show, not tell

Almost every novel will contain dialogue — up to and around 66% — so how do we go about writing it well?

Firstly, dialogue is NOT the same as actual speech. If you listen to people talking, the speech is punctuated with “ums” and “ahs”, random pauses as they lose their train of thought, and often runs off on wild and random tangents. Dialogue in a book should not be like this — it should be concise and relevant to the story that you’re trying to tell. However, it needs to be written convincingly enough that the reader will believe it could be genuine dialogue.

Here are a few pointers:

  • Use contractions and colloquialisms where appropriate.
  • Give each character a distinctive “voice” and be consistent (no, I don’t mean give each character a catchphrase or anything like that, but a professor of literature will speak more precisely and clearly than, say, a fisherman).
  • Keep it concise and on topic. If the characters start to stray off topic, pull them back in. Every bit of dialogue should fulfill at least one—if not more—of the above roles.
  • Cliches (and idioms) are fine in dialogue, but please don’t over-do them.
  • Bad grammar is also perfectly acceptable in dialogue, as long as it is true to the character.
  • The character’s personalities and relationships will show through in what they say and how they say it. For example, if one character dislikes another then they may be sarcastic, or snide, when conversing with that character. Whereas, to another, they might show a more motherly empathy. Be consistent, and keep the relationships realistic to the plot.
  • Read it aloud, with a friend if you can nab someone. Does it feel like a genuine conversation? Or does it feel stilted and awkward?
  • Try not to involve too many characters in any given conversation. I am comfortable with up to three or four, but any more than that and one will spend the majority of it listening.
  • Instead of adding dialogue tags to every piece of dialogue, have the character do something physical instead: pace across the room; fiddle with her cup; stare at her shoes. Even without the dialogue tag, the reader will automatically attribute the dialogue to the person doing the actions, provided it follows directly on (not on a new line).


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