Last week you listened, you eavesdropped – you were surprised by nuance, misunderstanding, flow, pitch, tone… Now it’s time to write purposeful dialog. By ‘purposeful’ I mean dialog that
- illuminates characters
- moves the story along
- and is fun (or harrowing) to read.
Illuminates characters: The dialog you write has to be the only dialog your character would say in response to the situation or other person.
Here’s an example of five different characters being illuminated:
She says: “I love you.”
Depending on his character, he could respond (not just say something) in any of the following ways:
“No way. Really?”
“It’s too late.”
“I love you to and I’ve wanted to marry you or the longest time but I didn’t know how to ask you so will you marry me now? Today? My star, my delight! Oh, how happy I am!”
“Sure you do.”
He stared at the road ahead, and she couldn’t tell what he was thinking. (No dialog needed – we know exactly what he’s thinking: ‘He’s just not that into her.’)
You’re conveying what the characters are feeling; you’re not explaining it. Dialog has to be subtle and requires a light touch. One of the worst things you can do is expatiate on what someone is saying.
Always keep in mind that you’re writing a dialog – which means that the person who is listening is just as important as the person who is speaking. No one should say something because it’s their turn – they need to respond directly to what the other person said.
Moves the story along:
Throughout the dialog, stick like glue to the conflict at hand. If there’s no conflict occurring between characters, whether internal or internal, there should be no dialog. Remove it.
Dialog is often brief and matter-of-fact, and yet it propels the story forward – sometimes even faster than action or explanation.
How does your character convey information about the storyline? Instead of, “I’m going to have to drive downtown to fix my flat tire now,” say: “Damn tire.” Don’t be pedantic – instead imply, infer, argue, tease – show us what’s happening through how two or more characters react to each other.
Every event leading up to every line of dialog has to fit together and make sense, as well as being important to the story. Everything that happens afterwards has to be relevant to what was said.
Is fun (or harrowing) to read:
Good dialog does not sound like actual speech. It’s rare that including the ‘you know’ and ‘err’ will make your dialog more successful. The best dialog needs to sound natural.
Conversation is not linear, like a plot tends to be. Interruptions, misunderstandings, description, and action are all part of dialog, and create tension, emotion, and build relationships.
Don’t use dialog to explain something about the story: Always be writing from the heart and mind of the character. It helps to place the characters in an environment that readers can visualize. That crazy thunderstorm during King Lear’s descent into madness highlights the dialog wonderfully.
Describe the surroundings, and characters’ mannerisms, as they talk. This makes for a richer read. Intersperse your dialog with description: tell us where they were walking, how they looked, the lines on a forehead, the yellow asters on the black table…
Avoid what are known as ‘tags’ – “he barked” or “she expostulated.” Just use “said” – your dialog should convey the bark or the expostulation.
Avoid phonetic spelling. With dialect, less is definitely more. (There are brilliant exceptions to this – as in everything.)
Remember that people breathe while they speak – the breaks and rhythm, the cadence, the personality, the music – are all important when you write dialog.
Fun Writing Practice – How to Write Dialog
There are two parts to this writing practice.
This is the scenario: Joe is getting ready for a job interview. He showers, dresses in his best suit, debates over the right tie, prints out a clean copy of his resume, and packs it into his otherwise empty briefcase. He checks the mail: Uh oh. More past-due notices. No time to open them now. He’s going to be late if he doesn’t hurry. He starts walking, and takes a short cut through a busy farmer’s market. A small boy bumps into his leg, sobbing that he can’t find his mom. Joe is a warm-hearted man, and wants to help Bobby look for her, but he’s already late for his interview. And all those unpaid bills are pretty scary.
Close your eyes. Picture Joe. Hear Joe’s fast stride as he tries to push through the crowds. Picture the farmer’s market. Picture Bobby. Imagine Joe’s consternation at being faced with a forlorn young boy who’s lost. What on earth is he going to do?
Take your time with this – at least five or ten minutes. Breathe into the scene. Then open your eyes and write down what Bobby and Joe say to each other. Take up a couple of pages – move the story along through the dialog.
In this draft, don’t use any words outside of the dialog quotes. Don’t even say “Bobby said” or “Joe said.” We should be able to know who is speaking just from the sound of their voices. One is a young child; the other is a middle-aged man.
Write as fluidly as you can. Don’t edit, don’t correct grammar, don’t criticize how they talk. Try to let it happen on its own. See how they respond to each other, when given their freedom. If you really let them do this, you’ll see how they have two very distinct voices, how they really care about their own problems but are conflicted by the encounter, how they engage, change attitude, and how the conversation develops into a relationship.
Remember to stick to the conflict between the two characters. As we said earlier, if there is no conflict between the two characters during a piece of dialog, then the dialog has no place in your story. In this case the conflict is internal (Joe is late for a critical appointment but feels compelled to help Bobby).
Second Part: Read what you’ve read. Now fill it in: add setting, speech tags, thoughts, and anything else that will flesh out the encounter you just described through dialog. You need to convey Joe’s distress and anxiety because of the job interview and Bobby’s distress over not being able to find his mom, but without dwelling on either of those things. Have them get to know each other – Joe could get him an ice cream, they might sit on a bench, they might seek out a police officer. Have them discover things about each other on a much deeper level than just money worries and being lost.
What’s interesting about writing dialog this way is that the flow of conversation is much more natural than it is if you set the scene first and then add the dialog afterward.
Hopefully, your dialog has evolved into you writing a creative and satisfying conclusion to this story as well, one that does not just have Bobby being reunited with his mother and Joe going home with a clean conscience but no prospect for future work.
- dreams filled with vivid, rich colors
- the desert in the evening
- boarding the yacht for dinner
- dried leaves falling slowly in a still afternoon
- getting organized
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