We all love that punchy dialogue delivered so slickly from the pages of Grisham or Ludlum. It seems so effortless, but is it? How to properly write dialogue in a story is absolutely essential to a successful author, and can make all the difference between success and failure.
Of course, we should talk about the mechanics of writing dialogue. How it looks and how it’s punctuated. After that, the two videos below get into the creative aspects, how to make dialogue realistic, etc.
First of all, there are at least three different standards, depending upon where you live in the world. In USA, every word that a character speaks is enclosed in one apostrophe (‘) – make sense, huh?
‘I’m tellin’ you – this is how you mark dialogue in the States, bub.’
If you are in UK, and a few other countries following those literary standards, you may see markers at the beginning and end of dialogue looking like this – (‘”), a double apostrophe, also known as speech mark in UK.
“I say, I wouldn’t dream of using anything else for dialogue. God Save the Queen!”
In some European countries, such as France, dialogue is simple started with a, em-dash (—).
— Vive La France!
In Portugal, for example, you will this:
<<Bom dia Signora!>>
Let’s stick with America – other punctuation marks, such as a question or exclamation, go inside the speech marks, before you close the dialogue.
‘How the hell was I supposed to know?’
If someone interrupts another character’s dialogue, the em-dash is used again:
‘Pass me that—‘
‘Who gave you the right to take over?’
If a character doesn’t finish a dialogue, either he is lost for words, or it doesn’t need saying, we use three dots:
‘Speak of the Devil …’
These basic rules of how to punctuate dialogue will get you through most situations. Now on to the creative aspects. the two videos below give slightly different points of view about writing effective and convincing dialogue.
Good evening everyone. My name is Robert Wiersema, and I honestly couldn’t ask for a better backdrop. I’ve spent the last 42 years of my life, through a process of slow diligence and happy accidents, creating a life surrounded by books.
I write them. I talk about them. I review them. I sell them. It’s the life I always dreamed of and I couldn’t be happier. What surprised me though, one thing that I had overlooked when I was dreaming of the life that I’m now living, is how happy teaching makes me.
I’ve been teaching creative writing, introductory creative writing, for the last couple of years and it’s one of the most fulfilling things that I do. It’s not without its problems though. One of the hardest things to teach in a first-year creative writing class is dialogue.
Now, it’s difficult for two reasons. The first is that dialogue is the hardest thing to write so it’s the hardest thing to teach. I mean, dialogue. Well okay, endings are hard too, and beginnings, and sex scenes are really difficult.
Ok, dialogue is one of the most difficult things to write, so it’s one of those difficult things to teach. The other aspect of it, though, is that it seems like it should be so easy. We all talk. I mean in our culture we’re talking from the moment our eyes open in the morning till they close at night.
We don’t shut up, so it should be easy right? It’s not, so I have four rules or maxims or guidelines when teaching dialogue. I just want to run through them with you tonight. The first one picks up on that idea that it should be easy, that we we all do it.
Well, no, because rule number one: Dialogue is not conversation. When I’m talking about conversation, especially in this room, I’m not talking about large C conversation, I’m talking about small c conversation.
I’m talking about the conversations you have at work in the morning, before you start work or with a friend that you meet in line at the coffee shop.
‘Hey, Bob. How was your weekend?’
‘Not bad, no. How was yours?’
That’s conversation but it’s not dialogue. What I advise my students to do if they’re confused about the distinction, is they should record themselves. Take a little recorder and just put it on the table in front of you while you’re talking with friends.
Then go home and transcribe even five minutes of it. Transcribe every word and then compare what you’ve got there with, I don’t know, a passage from Elmore Leonard. You will very quickly see the difference between conversation and dialogue. They’re not the same at all.
Rule number two: The corollary to the first – dialogue is not monologue. It’s right there in the name people. Dialogue is not monologue. It involves more than one person and you know when you get to it in a book. You know it when you’re amongst friends, that some people talk in pages and pages.
That’s not dialogue. Remember the movie The Incredibles, where the super-villains would always monologue at the end and that would give the chance for the heroes to get the jump on them. As in every James Bond movie you’ve ever seen, every bad book you’ve ever read. That’s the rule of no monologuing. We’re talking about dialogue here.
The third rule, and this is a toughy: Dialogue is focused but not forced. There’s a distinction. Dialogue needs to develop around common ideas. You don’t want ideas spewing out everywhere. It needs to be it needs to be controlled but it shouldn’t be forced either.
It should be an interplay. It should be a bit of a dance. You want ideas to come out. You want points to come out. You don’t want them hammered home. Think of that great scene in Pulp Fiction where the two guys are in the car and all they’re talking about different names for hamburgers.
In Europe, the Royale with cheese, scene I mean. That’s great dialogue. It doesn’t really add anything to the movie but you know Quentin Tarantino loves to hear himself talk when it’s coming out of the faces of beautiful actors so it fits.
It’s a great chunk of dialogue. It’s focused but unforced. Finally and most crucially, dialogue is interactive. It’s not one person talking and the other person listening. It’s a process of exchanging ideas. It’s a process of building on ideas, of creating meaning between the speakers.
The magic of dialogue doesn’t happen in one person’s voice or the other person’s voice. It’s the totality of it. It’s the scene. it’s the meaning that comes about through that dance of ideas.
So those are the four rules of dialogue. Just to just to refresh your memory: Dialogue is not conversation. It’s not monologue. It’s focused but not forced, and finally, it’s interactive. Now with those four points you can craft fantastic dialogue on the page.
It’ll leap off, and if you follow those four points it will leap off the page. How different would our lives be if a parent talking to a child didn’t monologue. How different would our lives be if our politicians, rather than delivering speeches, interacted and genuinely exchanged ideas. How different with the world be if we all followed four simple rules.
Hello everybody. A lot of writers come to me with their writing woes ,and all the complaints I hear about, the one that comes up the most is the dialogue. You people hate writing dialogue.
It never comes across and, naturally, it rambles on and on. You don’t know what your characters would say. As for me, I really like writing dialogue. I love building characters, analyzing their personalities, creating connections and obviously dialogue is a great way to do all these things.
So I’m going to give you some tips for creating natural dialogue that’s enjoyable to read. All this stuff I’m about to say is stuff that I do in my own personal writing process and I’m pretty damn good at dialogue.
The first step is to get to know your characters. This is the work that needs to be done before you start writing the dialogue. You need to know your characters fully before you start writing for them.
Basically, if your characters don’t feel like real people ,you’re gonna have a really hard time writing their dialogue. It sounds like some foofy but hear me out. Think of the people you know really well in real life – a mom, a sibling, a significant other.
If I asked you how would they respond to a difficult situation, or what would they say if they were really excited, you’d be able to answer that, right? Not only that, you’d probably be able to give a really specific answer almost immediately. If you know your characters just as well as you know your family or friends, then their dialogue should come to you just as quickly.
The second step is to give your dialogue purpose. Typically, dialogue serves one of two purposes. Either you’re trying to build a character or you’re trying to move the plot along. Usually; dialogue should be a little bit of both. You want your dialogue to show the readers what your characters are about.
Are they happy, cynical, brooding? Obviously, your characters should be discussing what’s relevant to the plot or subplots. If neither of these elements are addressed, then your dialogue is useless, which brings me to my third point.
Avoid meaningless conversation. Here’s what I’m talking about:
‘Hi. How are you?’
‘I’m fine. You?’
‘I’m good. How was work?’
‘Same old, same old.’
Now this whole conversation is pretty standard. We’ve all had exchanges like this probably on a daily basis, so it’s normal for writers to want to include it. But here’s the thing – it’s boring.
No one cares about any of that. If you imagine your character is having an exchange like this just add a bit of narrative explaining that the exchange went down. Then you can dive into the dialogue that readers really care about.
Now there is an exception to this rule? As always, meaningless conversation is okay if it’s not actually meaningless. You can include dialogue that doesn’t serve a purpose if the way it’s spoken or the tone of voice is loaded.
The words themselves offer pretty much no value, but the way in which they’re spoken could be super important to the story. Someone’s pissed the off and kind of passive-aggressive. So long as you communicate the feeling of the moment, basic dialog won’t read as meaningless.
The next rule to follow is to give each character a distinct voice. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but not all US human folk talk the same way. You’d think that wasn’t common knowledge based on some of the books I’ve read.
The same robotic voice all spoken, with perfect grammar. You need to make sure that all of your characters speak differently and in a way that’s reflective of who they are and what they’ve been through.
I’m not saying each character needs to have a unique accent or a catchphrase, but our personality and life experience plays a role in how we communicate with others. Think about whether or not your characters would be emotional, or cuss, or use slang, or be polite .
All of this crap varies from person to person. On a related note, the next rule of writing dialogue is to keep time and setting appropriate. Sometimes, writers think they’re writing appropriately for a character and they’re not.
I’ve seen middle-aged writers add hip dialogues for their teenage characters and maybe that would have been hip dialogue when they were teenagers, but certainly not today. I’ve read books where the characters were supposed to be speaking in Old English, but the dialogue sounded more like Siri Old English.
Does not mean that you cannot use contractions and that you must type like a robot writers. If you don’t know about something, research it, because if you don’t know what you’re doing the dialogue is gonna read as inauthentic and unbelievable.
The fifth rule for writing dialogue : Make sure it flows. This is actually sort of counter-intuitive because conversations in real life don’t always flow. Real dialogue can be disjointed or go off on tangents or someone can interrupt in the middle. These are things you should typically avoid.
You want a majority of conversations to run smoothly because then it’ll be much easier for the reader to understand what’s going on. It might not be a hundred percent true to real life but it’ll enhance the entertainment level of your novel.
Now there is a trick to writing smooth, seamless dialogue – write in the dialogue first with zero narrative. Don’t write any of the ‘he said’, ‘she gasped’, ‘he wrinkled his nose’, she grabbed his hand. Skip that crap. This will help you focus solely on the words being spoken because sometimes adding the narrative can be distracting.
If you have a lot of people talking, you can even color code the dialogue. That way you can track how many times each person is contributing to the conversation so you don’t inadvertently exclude anyone.
Bottom line: Write out the entire conversation dialogue. Only you’re done, you can go through it. Make sure it’s nice and pretty, and then add in all that super awesome narrative which brings us to my next rule:
Don’t just write what your character said. Show how they said it. It’s extremely important to illustrate the emotion behind whatever conversations going on. Whenever you’re conveying emotion in writing, it’s always best to show not tell.
What’s the easiest way to do this? Body language. If your character is super crazy mad, maybe he’s clenching his fists or grinding his teeth, or a veins bulging from his back. If another character is super surprised or scared, maybe his eyes widened, his face drained of color, he flinched or his mouth gaped open.
These all communicate emotion in a visual way that a reader is going to be more apt to connect to. Now it’s also important to know when to hold off on these nuances. If you’re trying to write a really fast-paced scene, like quick witty banter, or a heated shouting match, then these notes should only be added when necessary.
Like when an important action occurs or to clarify who’s speaking. If a conversation is really firing off, then excessive narrative will slow it down. But other than these exceptions, painting a picture of what a character is doing or how they’re speaking will really transform basic dialogue into an engaging conversation.
Here is my last rule for writing dialogue: Outline the conversation ahead of time. I know you’ve already outlined the entire book, right, but if you’re gonna be writing an especially long conversation, or you want to cover a lot of points, make yourself a little flow chart.
That way, you won’t forget any points and be forced to awkwardly add them in somewhere at the end. Even if you don’t know exactly what’s going to be said, a flow chart should help guide you in the right direction.
You should already know what you’re trying to accomplish with your dialogue. Maybe you’re trying to build a connection between two characters or share pivotal plot points with the reader. Outline these points in the order in which you want them to occur and then follow your outline while you’re writing.
These are my rules for writing dialogue. This is all stuff that I do whenever I write dialogue and it’s made the process super seamless. I encourage you to implement these steps into your own writing and let me know what you think.
How to properly write dialogue in a story – Video Transcripts PDF Download