Indie Novella Writing Course
Lesson 6 - Dialogue
A shorter lesson, but probably the biggest challenge facing a first-time writer. Dialogue is how characters express themselves in fiction, and well-constructed dialogue is the essential ingredient of creative writing. Put simply, well written dialogue is the combination of:
a) The rhythm and tone of real-life conversations and
b) Removing the waffle, slang, the umm’ing, the ‘you knows’ and the small talk that you would get if you simply transcribe regular conversations.
So, we want real-life conversations but not real-life conversations… Conversations that ring true, but perhaps are far too well constructed to actually take place on your doorstep. Hence, this is why writing dialogue is not easy and we should not be too hard on ourselves if it takes a little work.
Good dialogue is an impression and intensification of how people really speak. One issue facing many writers is the difference between stunted, too clinical dialogue and fully transcribing what the conversation would be. One tip to immediately consider is keeping dialogue down to a minimum. This is because we also need dialogue to be meaningful and any meaning is eroded away when dialogue goes on too long and includes too much which does not fulfil a purpose. Sometimes dialogue needs to be compressed so the meaning/purpose is undiluted. Therefore, not 100% realistic and, hence in need of some guidance notes as to what makes dialogue meaningful and purposeful.
The 8 Functions of Dialogue
Good dialogue should do at least one, if not multiple, of the below. If your dialogue does none then reconsider if it is necessary and if in fact it is slowing down the narrative:
Reveal the character. It gives the reader direct access to the voices of your characters. It charactises the speaker and the reader’s impression of the character can grow from it.
Simple as it may sound, it connects speech. One leads to the next. It could be the case that the author is deliberately showing that the two characters are not listening to one another, however the connections should still be clear. You should avoid two characters simply listing off facts which do not quite fit the mood nor the characters’ previous dialogue.
It should demonstrate the relationships between the characters. Through dialogue we should understand if the characters are on cordial terms or at war with each other, but even more so, we should get subtle clues as to what one character thinks of another; i.e. ‘What are you talking about? I said I’m thinking of leaving you.’ It is a highly direct mechanism of showing conflict between characters.
4. It reveals the mood of the speaker. The example used in 3) also applies here. There is nothing worse than listless dialogue. A reader wants to know how the characters are reacting. Through dialogue you can show frustration, distress, joy or anger, without the need of telling the reader ‘Mary said angrily’. Remember, dialogue carries the emotional content and tone of your story. Through it you can reveal heartbreak, joy, fear, humour and more.
5. The background of the speaker. Possibly linked to 1) but the character’s diction can reveal their wider reading or worldview. We have said good dialogue removes the ‘umms’, ‘errs’ and ‘you knows’ but it can also be idiomatic and maintain the character’s individuality. While the reader doesn’t want a fully transcribed, entirely colloquial text, some degree of eccentricity or uniqueness in the dialogue brings the character to life. It is a means of showing your reader more about who your characters are.
6. Dialogue also drives the plot forward, showing rather than telling as you go. It brings the reader into a specific moment of the story and provides direct access to events as they unfold. It can state intensions or desires that are key to the plot. There can also be an element of foreshadowing what is to come.
7. Conveying information to the reader and can be used instead of blocks of exposition. However, be careful as dialogue should not simply be an alternative to blocks of exposition – speech still has to flow and the reason for this information needs to be as natural as possible.
8. Reveal the character’s motivation. Or hide it. Rather than provide information it can be used to misdirect the reader.