I hit a high point in my writing this week because I had some pieces I had written for my classes and submitted a couple weeks ago that I got some very positive feedback on. The part that made me feel the best is that some dialogue, which I hadn’t even felt was my best work, was very well-received.
I’ve been working on a MFA in creative writing, so I should hope that I have achieved some level of proficiency here. However, if you went back a year and looked at my ability to write and my comfort level for writing, you would have seen that I would have rated dialogue as one of the most difficult things for me to do and something that I thought I would never pull off well.
So I want to talk about what I think made that Improvement possible for me.
The first was dividing dialogue into its major purposes. Dialogue should do three things:
- Advance the plot.
- Appear realistic and believable.
3. Give characters texture.
These are all things that are fairly simple on their surface, but none of them are instantly mastered just because you know that they’re important.
The second part is getting practice, and I’ll talk about that once we get through the weeds of theory.
Plot and Dialogue
I’m a much stronger writer in terms of plot than I used to be. That shouldn’t be a surprise because of the amount of practice I’ve gotten and making myself at work in longer formats instead of just short pieces to accompany games.
The first part of figuring out putting plot into dialogue is figuring out how not to put plot in dialogue.
This comes down to just figuring out where you present your plot beats. As iconic as it is, you don’t want to have an “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” moment.
Dialogue can be exposition, but it rarely should serve just a single purpose. If you’re drawing attention to things in dialogue, it should be something that belongs in dialogue, not something you failed to illustrate elsewhere. You might make a stylistic choice to use dialogue in place of standard narration, but choices are deliberate and require you to be able to write in multiple ways, not just the one you’ve settled on.
Keeping things clear means balancing the amount of dialogue that goes into plot and the amount of dialogue that sets up the scene for that plot.
It’s the same “show, don’t tell” principle applying to dialogue as we would apply it to prose.
I think another thing that often hindered my ability to use dialogue to further plot is is that I felt that dialogue should be minimized in my stories.
Either I would snap out of of dialogue and summarize it to get to the key points, or I would make it flow too quickly and jump to the point without building to it.
Both are good as choices–you might have a stylistic or narrative reason for skipping slow speaking bits–but it shouldn’t be necessary. Learn to write the dialogue that you would have skipped. Then pick the starting point because it evokes what you want it to, not because you don’t want to bother with the dialogue. Once you get fluent enough that you can work backward and forward and in your sleep, you can skip the writing it out step.
You probably don’t want most small talk in your story. Banter is something that can be good or bad depending on your genre and on your characters: what you’re selling.
However, you also want to be careful that you’re not sacrificing the other two purposes of dialogue just to move along plot; realism and texture add a lot to speaking.
Sometimes the temptation to use dialogue productively leads to bad habits of people discussing things they both already know intimately (“Snake, remember the basics of CQC!“) or neither of them know about at all. Then you’ve gotten too low on realism.
If any two people could randomly say the same things your focal characters are saying, then you have little in the way of texture. If every song were just loud bits instead of a mixture of loud and quiet bits, it might sound a lot like my Spotify playlists, but you wouldn’t have the brilliance of Beethoven, Satie, or Pärt’s quiet moments.
What helped me was approaching from the perspective of “How is this character going to say what I need them to say?” That’s a novel approach compared to my previous method, which was “How am I going to say this with this character?”
Let the character speak, and they will get to the plot in their own time. I think my new dialogue to action portion in a scene is roughly 50/50, where previously it was something like 10/90 dialogue to prose. That’s a rough average, and some scenes have less talking than others, but it works out to be a better balance. Even though I feel like I have a lot of dialogue, my readers have been commenting that my pacing is good (and I highlight my concerns to them, so it’s not like they’re skipping over it!).
Realistic and Believable Dialogue
I owe a lot of my success here to a book called Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Amazon affiliate link). I highly recommended it; I’ve read it multiple times now and each time it’s been like an explosion of enlightenment. I will definitely read it again as I go back and edit the novel I’m working on.
I saw an interesting YouTube video the other day which included a reference to four maxims of communication, which is helpful for a basic context regarding realistic dialogue.
One tip I’d give for realistic and believable dialogue is to avoid writing it first in the character’s voices. When I do that I lose focus on the point. Swimming aimlessly in the ocean is unlikely to get you closer to land, and it’s easy to create very realistic dialogue that doesn’t do what you want it to do for your story.
Before I aimed to speak like my characters, I was having issues because I was going entirely for plot. Later, I had the same problem because I was writing entirely for realism and texture.
Instead of thinking about how your characters would say it, think about how you would say it. Take the motives and the ideas of the characters, then put them into your own words. You can edit texture in later, but it’s much harder to edit the purpose in.
I don’t want to just quote from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, but there’s a few brilliant pieces of advice about how actual people talk in it.
My favorite? Including the occasional miscommunication, mishearing, or straight-up dodge in dialogue.
It’s helpful to think about each character’s interest in things they want to talk about (or avoid talking about) and how they will override the conversation. The deliberate (or accidental) wrong answer adds a lot to realism. This is especially true when you have children or highly motivated characters who are laser focused on what they want to do and don’t care about what anyone else is thinking, saying, or doing. Watch any news (especially hard-hitting punditry) for fifteen minutes and you’ll see people do this to avoid awkward questions.
No-one has ever called me on the fact that my characters often avoid questions they get asked. When I’m running a role-playing game I’ll sometimes have a player remark that the character they’re talking to didn’t answer the question, but they’re aware of the fact that that’s the character’s interests rather than a lack of understanding.
Readers are very smart about this because they unconsciously expect it.
One of the secret arts of dialogue is that you want to focus on how people actually talk, not how people think they talk.
That old joke about coming up with the perfect retort to an insult after the conversation is over applies to how people think they talk. People think they are master communicators and bastions of honesty, but in reality most people aren’t. Few people harbor an illusion that everyone around them is a brilliant speaker, though!
You want characters to talk like you think other people talk, not like how you think you talk.
Texture in voice and dialogue is will work differently for every author. I don’t grasp the syllables of what people say very carefully; I had a speech impediment growing up I couldn’t consciously distinguish certain sounds. Because I still have some lingering hesitation about how I speak and hear others speak, I never write thick accents into my writing.
I don’t have the knack for that writing phonetically, so I don’t. This is probably for the best, because the majority of writers who use invented spelling and other tricks to convey a thick accent go too far.
What works really well are signal words; I like to look at this as when you’re talking to a Canadian and they say the word “sorry” but it comes out sounding like “sorey” in an American English dialect.
You’re looking for words that people will use differently; soda and pop, chips and crisps, and other sorts of slang that are being used to indicate background.
Let’s look at “y’all” as an example. Y’all is a perfect tool to show the American South, but don’t use it where your speaker wouldn’t. Growing up in the Southwest and picking up y’all as a nonstandard part of my speech, I use it in very specific circumstances: when I’m talking to an entire group instead of only part of a group, and never the more distinctive “all y’all.”
You want to avoid stereotypes here just the same as you want to avoid stereotypes if you did phonetic style writing, but individuals often have their own very peculiar ways of speaking.
I have a character in my current novel in progress who speaks in a very elaborate and antiquated style, despite a modern-day setting. I base his voice off of Carl Jung, who has a similar method of speech. This gives him a very distinctive texture, though I still have to be careful not to make it too over-the-top and disorient or alienate my reader.
Another thing to think about here is how you can use dialogue tags, or rather the lack thereof.
General you want to limit your dialogue tags just to where you absolutely need them for disambiguation.
If you have three people speaking and the reader doesn’t know them well enough to catch on to the texture of their voices or their motive in the scene, use dialogue tags.
One trick that I used to practice this is watching films.
When a film shows a character speaking and where instead focuses on something else while people are talking, that’s the equivalent of leaving out a dialogue tag. If the director can point the camera somewhere else, you can drop tags during similar dialogue.
I try not to say “he said” or “she said” or other markers.
A piece of advice I’ve heard from a lot of writing books is that you want to avoid other things in place of said. For instance, you wouldn’t want to say that someone growled a line of dialogue. The more honest of these books admit that people do that anyway.
The danger of tags is that they hinder instead of enhancing dialogue. Good dialogue describes itself in context. That’s the point of texture.
I have developed certain standard texture metrics that I use and I also will make additional tweaks to particular speakers. I think you might find them helpful if you want to write dialogue, so I’ll put them here.
The first is verbosity: How much will a character say in one burst?
This depends heavily on who they’re talking to and the mood they’re in, but there’s a consistent general trend. You might also note that altering it in certain circumstances can show something about a character.
This can manifest in long-term changes. The reserved kid who only opens up around their friends may go through a coming of age and show themselves to everyone by the end of a story.
It can also be something that comes from immediate circumstances.
In the opening scene of my novel, the protagonist talks to her uncle for a decent chunk of time. They have an awful relationship, and neither of them are talkers.
However, the uncle wants to make amends and restore the relationship. He talks plenty, but starts off terse; he only changes his style when it’s clear that he’s not getting through to her with his terse presentation. Even then he approaches his more verbose lines with a terse spirit: he adds more detail to simple direct statements and only rarely becomes flowery and long-winded.
As a result, there are a lot of dialogue dead-ends. The uncle will say something to the protagonist and she’ll simply ignore him. When she responds she always uses one- or two-word answers or sometimes a longer recrimination of him.
This carries over into other scenes, where we see that when she makes statements that are very short and forceful. They often focus on an I-statement: “I understand.” or “I will.” or “I will not.”
The uncle makes a lot of start and stop statements because she’s not talking to him. He’ll say a few words, stop, say a few more, and so forth. That’s not something that often comes with a break in quotes; it’s all in one paragraph built up from small statements.
When two very terse people talk, you see a lot of short exchanges.
On the other end, you have verbose people. The guy who speaks like Carl Jung is happy to go on for three or four lines in a single sentence, building clauses upon clauses and making himself a tad incomprehensible. In a circumstance that elevates his verbosity, he almost always has to be interrupted.
Another dimension I look at is emotionality. How much will a character say about things based on their state of mind?
Again, context is important.
For instance, a stoic character may be stoic because of some philosophical or emotional outlook, or it may turn out that they haven’t opened up to the people around them.
We can divide emotionality between displayed emotionality and unconscious emotionality.
Displayed emotionality is a question of how people deliberately change what they say because of how they feel. It’s the affect they display. A manipulator may consciously decide exactly how much they will reveal to different people, but anyone who has basic emotional self-regulation understands that there is a time when you will say exactly how you feel, and a time when the central message you’re trying to get out is more important than your feelings.
For instance, most people won’t say “I’m unhappy because you hit me.” You might say it to a child who’s not sure
Emotionality (and its relationship with verbosity and confidence) means the difference between one of three of the following as a response to being hit accidentally:
“You hit me!”
“Hey, careful, you hit me!” and,
“Hit me again and I will end you, you waste of air.”
Emotionality isn’t one-dimensional. These three cases highlight different emotional responses. The first two have a very clear emotional tonality of agitation through the exclamation marks.
With the first, we get very little detail; this is a more terse way to speak. In a vacuum, it sounds like surprise.
In the second, there’s still surprise, but there is more of a relationship between the parties involved, the accident was less surprising, or the character speaking is more verbose.
However, the third has a very low tonal response. It’s emotionally direct, too, because we know exactly what this character is thinking, and it ain’t pleasant.
This tonal response draws from personality. Someone who has a lot of tonality comes across as high-strung, while someone who doesn’t do a lot of emotional tone will be more stoic.
The direct response is something that the character typically controls. Here, we get the feeling that the third character here is a psychopath, they will do some real harm to someone someday. They’re venting very clear negative emotion channeled through rage and anger. It’s also worth noting that this character probably has a low degree of emotional self-regulation.
And that’s where we get to unconscious emotionality.
Here there’s some overlap with verbosity. Someone agitated will say more in a particular burst of speech. If you have someone who’s battle-hardened stuck in the middle of a firefight, they might keep radio discipline when a rookie with no understanding of battlefield communication is giving a play-by-play of everything going on around them–and interrupting other peoples’ attempts to convey information!
Unconscious emotionality is that which doesn’t deliberately pursue a communication goal. There is a purpose to the emotionality of shouting “You hit me!”
It clarifies that this was an unexpected and undesirable outcome.
Things like stammering under pressure, accidentally repeating oneself, breaking off mid-sentence into a different idea, and other unforced errors in speaking can be great ways to illustrate the emotion of the scene overwhelming a character without having to play that out by telling the reader directly.
This is a strong seasoning, though, and a little goes a long way. Too much focus on stuttering can come across as offensive stereotyping of stammerers. Too many failures to communicate slow down a text. Use discretion.
The last element of emotional texture is boldness. That’s the willingness for a character to confront another character and also the willingness of one character to speak over or interrupt another.
Imagine being in a room with a television star who’s notorious for their boisterous personality. Say something they disagree with and see how they respond. They’re bold.
Boldness is an important part of many characters because it defines them as individuals and ranks them in the social hierarchy. You might have one guy who constantly cuts you off while you’re speaking, but his boss will just trample over him. Boldness is contextual.
Another consideration is that boldness doesn’t correspond just to social stature. Joseph Stalin, perhaps one of the most vicious man of the 20th century, gained infamy for waiting for everyone else to speak and then raising his point, illustrating both patience and a keen and rational intellect.
So think of boldness along two dimensions. One is confidence, and the other is patience. Confident and patient people wait awhile to speak. Confident and brash people spout their mouths off every time they get the chance to.
A lack of confidence doesn’t mean that people don’t speak, though. It simply sets the conditions.
Mean characters who lack confidence and patience will speak when they feel like they can get one over on someone else. A timid character may try to redirect if they feel like the conversation is going to focus on them. A backbiter makes snide undercutting remarks towards other characters; around people who lack confidence, they‘ll talk as much as anyone else in the world. Then they’ll shut up when a powerful personality enters the room.
People who lack confidence and have a lot of patience may not talk during a group conversation at all; they may prefer to wait and take a more introverted approach their conversations. They may not speak at all until a group breaks off from the rest, or they wait to speak until after everyone else.
Patience, likewise, does not mean that a character never speaks, or that once they do they keep it short and concise to give other people another chance to join the conversation. It means they will wait longer if other characters take longer to finish speaking.
There are a lot of ways to get practice, and the important thing here is to be deliberate.
Mere writing is not practice.
My high-school Latin teacher (one of the last in public high schools in my state) was always quick to remind everyone that “perfect practice makes perfect.”
If you write the same way you’ve been writing, you won’t improve.
My writing practice takes two forms:
Unless I’m super-hammered with writing to begin with, I write for about a half-hour using a prompt-driven exercise. I do five random images across the half-hour period, giving each a five-minute window for a written response. I don’t plan ahead (though I might have a concept), and I let myself group the five-minute writes together in one longer story or put them each in their own individual place.
The other form is to use a deliberate skill-tailored exercise; Self-Editing for Fiction Writers has some, and I’ve done some through my MFA program. You can also find a lot of these online in writer’s communities. I don’t look at other peoples’ writing practice all that much (beyond what is required by my coursework) when I’m not teaching, but it is invaluable to see other people struggle to improve. Whether they succeed or fail, you can get some wonderful insights. If you can give them some advice in good faith to help both of you grow, that’s even better.
Getting better at dialogue has been something that came from taking a more scientific approach, and also just a lot of practice. I think some of what I’ve learned can be distilled into what I’ve written above, but there are things that I don’t quite feel comfortable putting into words yet, and some things I have yet to develop.
I think the best thing that’s really helped me has been practice with the deliberate pursuit of knowledge.
This is a lot easier as someone who is plugged into other writers’ minds, so once again I highly recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, though there are other books out there that are good.
Stephen King’s On Writing is one that springs to mind as having some expert advice for dialogue (and King’s dialogue is almost without peer), but it does occasionally get bogged down in autobiographical stuff that’s helpful but doesn’t tie as directly to craft.
I think the one take away I have is to write dialogue as often as you can, but do it with an end in mind. Experiment with different plot uses of dialogue and speakers with different textures to their voices. Record a couple conversations and listen back to them; see where things get missed and altered. Don’t be afraid to fail, but be afraid of failing to try.