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Dialogue is one of the most important aspects of writing a story.
It can make or break a reader's experience, and it's crucial to get it right. In this post, I'll provide you with some great advice on writing realistic dialogue and making your story feel more authentic.
What is dialogue and why is it important in stories?
Dialogue is a conversation between two or more people.
It's an important tool that writers use to further the plot, develop characters, and create tension or conflict. Without dialogue, stories would be incredibly dull and stagnant.
Dialogue should serve to move the story forward.
When planning the dialogue for your book, focus on the scene's purpose and ask yourself why each character is here. Think about what does each character really wants and what are their motivations.
David Mamet has three questions that authors can use when writing each scene.
- Who wants what from who?
- What happens if they don't get it?
- Why now?
Here are other tips for writing great dialogue in your book.
Dialogue should sound natural
One of the most important things to remember when writing dialogue is that it should sound natural.
This means avoiding clichés and using everyday language. When writing dialogue, try to imagine you're eavesdropping on a conversation. What would people say in this situation?
“I ain't seen him in a while,” said John.
“Did you try calling him?” asked Sarah.
“Yeah, I called, but he ain't picking up.”
This dialogue sounds more realistic than “I have not seen him recently,” which sounds too formal and unnatural. One of the most important things to remember is that people don't always speak in complete sentences.
In real life, we often use phrases like “I don't know,” “Sort of,” and “You know?” when we're talking to each other.
This might not seem like a big deal, but it can make a huge difference in the way your dialogue sounds. Another thing to keep in mind is that people rarely say exactly what they're thinking.
This is something that a lot of novice writers struggle with. They have their character say exactly what they're thinking or feeling, which often comes off as unrealistic or contrived.
One often cited example is the cringe worthy dialogue between Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala in Star Wars.
“From the moment I met you, all those years ago, a day hasn't gone by when I haven't thought of you. And now that I'm with you again, I'm in agony. The closer I get to you, the worse it gets. The thought of not being with you. I can't breathe. I'm haunted by the kiss you should never have given me. My heart is beating, hoping that kiss will not become a scar. You are in my very soul, tormenting me. What can I do? I will do anything you ask.”— Anakin Skywalker, Attack Of The Clones
Instead, try to have your characters say something that hints at what they're thinking or feeling. This will make the dialogue sound more natural and believable.
Avoid using too much exposition in dialogue
Exposition is when a character explains the backstory or provides information that is essential to understanding the story.
While it's necessary to include some exposition in your novel, you don't want to overload your readers with too much information at once.
This is especially true for dialogue. Ask yourself the following:
- Is your character conveying information relevant to the plot?
- Does the dialogue move the plot forward?
- Will placing the exposition in the dialogue cut down the number of words?
If the answer is no, then you should reconsider including the information in your dialogue.
“Try the supermarket,” his mother suggested. Mrs. Sen shook her head. “In the supermarket I can feed a cat thirty-two dinners from one of thirty-two tins, but I can never find a single fish I like, never a single.”
Mrs. Sen said she had grown up eating fish twice a day.
She added that in Calcutta people ate fish first thing in the morning, last thing before bed, as a snack after school if they lucky. They ate the tail, the eggs, even the head. It was available in any market, at any hour, from dawn until midnight.
“All you have to do is leave the house and walk a bit, and there you are.”Interpreter Of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
On the surface, this dialogue and text from the book Interpreter of Maladies doesn't seem to matter much but it sets up how Mrs. Sen's fondness for fish caused her to drive the car out and resulted in an accident.
“A policeman arrived and asked to see her license, but she did not have one to show him. “Mr. Sen teaches mathematics at the university” was all she said by way of explanation.
The accident brings the babysitting relationship between Mrs. Sen and Eillot the main character to a close and signals the start of his independence.
Use dialogue to reveal important plot points and character motivations
One of the best ways to use dialogue is to reveal important plot points and character motivations. This can be done through conversations between characters or by having a character monologue about their thoughts and feelings.
Dr Randall came towards me and said in that stupid voice they never use to each other,
‘Yes, Anna, you've got a dear little brother, but he's not very well, and we've had to take him to hospital.'
‘That box,' I whispered. Somehow I couldn't bring myself to speak normally. ‘He was in that box, wasn't he? Is he….?'
Dr Randall smiled for the first time.
‘No he's not dead, Anna. That was only an incubator.Red Sky In The Morning, Elizabeth Laird
This dialogue reveals important plot points. In the book Red Sky In The Morning, Anna's mom had given birth to her brother Ben who had hydrocephalus.
The dialogue also reveals Anna's motivations, she was worried about her brother but didn't want to appear too affected to support her parents.
Don't forget about the importance of silence in dialogue
While dialogue is important, don't forget about the importance of silence. Silence can be just as powerful as words, and it can be used to create tension or suspense.
Kapasi watched as Bobby and the monkey passed the stick back and forth between them.
” A brave little boy, ” Mr. Kapasi commented.
“It's not so surprising,” Mrs. Das said.
“He's not his.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Raj's. He's not Raj's son.”
Mr. Kapasi felt a prickle on his skin. He reached into his shirt pocket for the small tin of lotus-oil balm he carried with him at all times and applied it to three spots on his forehead. He knew that Mrs. Das was watching him, but he did not turn to face her.Interpreter Of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
In Interpreter of Maladies, the silence of Mr Kapasi is effective in this scene as Mrs. Das has just revealed to Mr Kapasi her tour guide that her son is not her husband's.
Mr Kapasi does not know how to react and the author Jhumpa Lahiri describes Mr Kapasi nervously applying lotus oil balm to calm himself down.
Experiment with different types of dialogue tags
Dialogue tags are words or phrases that identify who is speaking (e.g., he said, she exclaimed).
While you don't want to use too many dialogue tags, it's important to use the right type of tag for the situation.
Here are some common types of dialogue tags:
- Said – This is the most common type of dialogue tag and it's usually the best option for most situations. However, using “said” as your only dialogue can get very boring for your reader after a while, so it's important to mix things up.
- Asked – Use this type of tag when a character is asking a question.
- Replied – Use this tag when a character is responding to someone else's statement.
- Interjected – Use this tag when a character interrupts another character's dialogue.
Some other dialogue tags you can use are “shouted,” “whispered,” and “asked.” These tags can help show the reader how the character is speaking, and they can add some variety to your dialogue.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you don't always need a dialogue tag. If you're only writing a short piece of dialogue, you can often get away with just using the character's name. For example:
“I don't know,” John said.
“I don't know.” John rubbed his temples tiredly.
In the first example, we don't need the dialogue tag because it's clear who is speaking. However, in the second example, we use the dialogue tag to show how John is speaking.
Vary your dialogue
Remember to vary your dialogue. If every character sounds the same, it will get boring for your reader very quickly. Give each character their unique way of speaking, and ensure that their dialogue reflects their personality.
Ow, eez ye-ooa san, is e? Wal, fewd dan y' de-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now bettern to spawl a pore gel's flahrzn than ran awy athaht pyin. Will ye-oo py me f'them?
(in plain English) Oh, he's your son is he? Well, if you'd done your duty by him as a mother should, he'd know better than to spoil a poor girl's flowers then run away without paying. Will you pay me for them?— Pygamalion, George Bernard Shaw
This famous text from the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw is the first time you hear from the main character Eliza Doolittle in Cockney – a dialect of the English language spoken by working-class Londoners.
This helps the reader to contrast Eliza's social standing with the upper-class Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering.
Use subtext in your dialogue
What is subtext in dialogue?
Subtext is the underlying meaning or message in dialogue. It's what the characters are really saying, even if they're not saying it out loud. This can be a great way to add depth and tension to your story.
One of my favorite and touching passages (that still brings me to tears) is from Red Sky In The Morning by Elizabeth Laird. It is the moment when Anna's brother Ben passes away.
It was one of the first books I had read at age 13 that spoke about death and how to cope with grief.
‘Respiratory failure,' Mum had said, on the phone to Granny. I'd been afraid that we woud look anguished, choking for breath, in pain, but he didn't. Just restful, and quiet , and happy.
My foot kicked against something soft. It was his fluffy rabbit. I picked it up, and tucked it down beside him.
‘There you are,' I said. ‘There's rabbit.'
This short sentence of dialogue conveyed to me the subtext of Anna coming to grips with Ben's death. Even though he had passed away, she wanted him to have his favorite soft toy.
My hand brushed against his face. It was cold, quite cold. I knew then. I couldn't pretend any more that he would wake up in a minute, and put out his arms, asking to be lifted. That was the moment when I believed he was dead.
Subtext can be a great way to add depth and tension to your writing.
It can help to reveal hidden meanings and emotions in your characters' dialogue. By using subtext, you can create complex relationships between your characters and keep your readers engaged and interested in the story.
Use conflict in your dialogue
One of the best ways to add tension and excitement to your writing is to use conflict in your dialogue.
Conflict can be anything from a disagreement between characters to an argument or even a fight. By using conflict in your dialogue, you can create suspenseful and exciting scenes to keep your readers engaged.
“And Kwai? What about Kwai? He won nothing?” Her father's voice was rough, and yet tinged with a hard wonder. Dawan sensed the pain in her father, and dared not look directly into his eyes.
“There is only one prize,” She whispered.
Dawan looked timidly at her father and this time their eyes met and interlocked. There was a long pause, then he spat out, “You took your own brother's chance away from him!” He flung down the hammer he had been holding, and stalked away to the rice fields.— Sing To The Dawn, Minfong Ho
In Sing To The Dawn, author Minfong Ho writes about Dawan, a 14-year old girl who lives in the Thailand countryside.
She has come in first place in an examination that would provide a scholarship to study in a city school. Her father prefers her brother Kwai to go instead, and there is conflict.
Resources To Help You Write Dialogue
I have 1 book and 3 YouTube videos to recommend if you would like to learn more.
Book: The Emotion Thesaurus
If you don't know where to start, The Emotion Thesaurus provides you with a range of 130 emotions and pairs them with suggested body language cues, thoughts and responses.
For example, if a character is experiencing anger, they may have physical signs such as having a noticeable engorged vein or clenched teeth.
Videos: How To Write Great Dialogue
By using the 9 tips we’ve outlined in this post, you can make sure your dialogue moves the story forward in an interesting and engaging way.
Have you tried any of these techniques when writing dialogue for your latest book? Let us know in the comments how it went!
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