Indie Novella Writing Course
Lesson 5 - 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.
Another tip when writing dialogue, is while however tempting it may be to use unique or phonetic spelling or slang to illustrate dialect, a state of intoxication or class, modern readers tend to prefer clear and comprehensible dialogue. While there are many examples of this working in literature, it can be confusing to a reader and can considerably slow down the narrative. Hence try not to write full sentences or speeches in a style that is not immediately obvious to comprehend.
To make matters even more complicated, once you have applied the above eight criteria to your dialogue, you should also note that having a character simply mean exactly what they say will stifle the conversation leading to a flat dialogue. Instead, if the reader has to dig a little deeper and access how informed or trustworthy a character is by what they are saying – or what they are not saying – then this creates a more vibrant exchange to read. Subtext can also illustrate when two characters are at odds with each other and are actively not listening to one another. Rather than simply having two separate monologues one after another, the author can make the prose come to life by having an exchange which perhaps acknowledges something has been said but presses forward on the alternative viewpoint nonetheless building conflict within the scene.
Things to consider when writing:
The overuse of adverbs. ‘She explained’, ‘he yelled’, ‘Mary exclaimed’, ‘Donny whimpered’ ‘Olaf said enthusiastically’. We learn to do this in childhood, however, in novel writing, less is more. ‘Dave said’ or ‘Ellie says’ is usually more than enough. This is because as authors, we want our writers to make that connection, not be told by us. Show vs tell. Sometimes the only reason why we even need to use ‘Dave said’ is just to indicate it is Dave who is speaking in case that is unclear to the reader. Even then a more effective technique is to follow up the dialogue with an action. Rather than saying, ‘Mary said angrily’ we write ‘‘That is ridiculous.’ Mary clenched her fists and glared down at the floor.’
Try not to litter your dialogue with exclamation marks and italics. Too many and the narrative becomes shouty and obvious. As with the above we do not always need to tell our reader what is happening.
Large sections of speech can at times be off putting and perhaps unrealistic. If a speech goes on for more than a few lines then consider interrupting it. Techniques can include dramatising the moment by bringing the reader back into the room through describing an action – your character turning away, wiping their eyes, glancing around and recollecting their thoughts etc. Do not be afraid to have your characters cut each other off. In real life we do not wait for each other to finish speaking. We also do not always complete our sentences or say what we mean methodically using the correct words.
Give your characters distinct voices. This relates to our lesson on character, so consider in your character’s fact file how they should speak and the type of words and phrases they should be using. Also, your characters should not be speaking the same way in all situations. Different situations such as at home with a lover, verses in a business meeting with a senior director, call for different ways the characters should behave and this should come across in how they speak. Consider the words you would use if your partner began a conversation, listen, we need to talk. Hence, consider how the situation influences emotions of your character when choosing their words and how well they can – or want to – articulate clearly
Lastly, while we have said above that one of the key characteristics of good dialogue is to carry information, dialogue should not be used to simply dump information into the narrative. This will simply slow down the narrative and look quite jarring to the reader – a reader can quickly tell when something mentioned is off-point and will simply question how natural the dialogue is. If you see a character start having a conversation about electrical wiring out of nowhere, this might be an all too obvious clue that someone is going to get electrocuted later in the story. There is no need to have characters offering up information that does not feel like a natural part of what they’d be saying.
Weekly Writing Exercise
For this week’s writing exercise, write a scene that focuses on a tense conversation between two or more people. You can choose a scene from your novel, a new short story or perhaps one of these prompts:
‘You’re home early.’
‘I’m just saying. That’s all.’
‘Have you seen Ollie? He’s escaped again.’
‘You should tell her. Do the right thing.’
‘Don’t just stand there.’
‘Kiss me,’ she said, crying.
‘I just need a moment. Tell them I’m fine’
Just to clarify, while your scene needs to feature dialogue, we’re not asking you to write ONLY dialogue (in the manner of a script or screenplay). The dialogue should be nested into your scene, the way you’d see it if you were reading a book. Try to write the dialogue quickly – you could set an alarm for twenty minutes and just go for it. Let yourself be as verbose and explanatory as you like. Just get words down on the page.
Then go back over the scene, read it aloud to yourself and edit it ruthlessly, thinking about what needs to be said, what can be left unsaid, and how you can reveal what a character really thinks through action and by giving us glimpses into what they are thinking.