The are two things to learn about dialogue: How to format correctly and how to make it matter to the reader. Beginners need to learn how to write dialogue in a story taking both into account.
The mechanics of formatting are quite easy, and there are many free resources available to help guide us navigate the various rules. Of course, there are differences between countries, but once these are taken into account, writing dialogue with punctuation in the right place quickly becomes second nature.
How to write good dialogue which drives the story forward and pleases the reader is a tad more difficult. It has to sound (or read) naturally, but also provide information about other things, such as character attitude, mood, motivation, and perhaps some explanation of setting and plot events.
It’s a bit of a balancing act. We don’t write dialogue between two people like it’s spoken in everyday life. It would look ridiculous on the written page. The author has to create this authenticity while at the same time removing much of the meaningless garbage that passes for human communication.
Learning How To Write Dialogue In A Story – Driving The Plot
Hi writers and welcome to my lesson on dialogue. So today I’m going to talk about how you can really make your characters come off the page and make them feel a lot more realistic just by doing a few simple things with your dialogue.
I don’t really like rules generally but I’m going to start with some rules and you’ll see what my point is in a minute. Three rules of dialogue and they are ‘subtext, subtext, subtext’ – I think you get my point, but also conflict, but definitely subtext.
Now I’m oversimplifying a bit but the point is that your dialogue should be doing more than one job. There are two things to think about. The dialogue really comes off the page when it’s complex, when the reader has to think about it a little bit, when it doesn’t feel like two people either telling each other things they already know or telling each other things that are very straightforward.
It’s very easy to understand. They’re not hiding anything. Well that’s not how people speak. When I speak to you, when we speak to each other like often I won’t directly say what I want or what I think and I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks and work it out.
I’m going to give you an example of how this works in real life. I suspect this is a conversation that many of you would have had in your lives. I know I have a number of times, so this is this conversation.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
Well, we all know that that doesn’t mean that nothing is actually wrong and we all know that would be very daft if we had that conversation with a loved one and we left it at that and assume that they really meant nothing when they said nothing.
So what things could we mean when we have this conversation? Well when we’re asking, we know something’s wrong. We can feel it. We can sense it, so these are the kind of things that are going through our heads. We don’t know what to say. We feel guilty we’ve done something wrong.
We know you’re in a bad mood. What’s going on? It feels weird. We’re a bit scared and that’s why we’re asking the question. We want to ask something but we don’t know what it is. Okay, so when we say ‘nothing’ we may mean nothing, I mean I’d suggest that’s fairly rare but we may mean nothing’s wrong.
But usually something is definitely wrong. We might not know what it is, we’re just feeling a little bit weird. We’re not sure. We might not want to talk about it. Maybe we don’t even want to think about it. Maybe we just don’t want to make it that easy for the person that we’re talking to.
But there’s no doubt about it, that despite the fact that only three words actually being said here we’ve got a very layered and complicated conversation. So this is what I mean by subtext and you’ll notice also that there’s a bit of conflict here.
We know that something is wrong and one of the reasons we might say ‘nothing ‘, if I say something now, I might say something I regret. Okay, another thing that I think goes wrong in beginning fiction often is dialogue attribution, so I’ve got a little example that I wrote for you here.
It’s not the most interesting interaction between two people in the world ever but let’s have a quick look at it. People seem to be taught to use their for vocabulary schools including some very odd verb choices and annoying adverts in the dialogue.
“Thanks,”she intoned infuriatingly.
They attract attention because they feel completely wrong for the conversation. So these colorful attributions, if you are learning at school and you’re doing a test maybe they’re the right thing to write down. When it comes to what the reader is going to enjoy reading they are not the right way to do this.
In my opinion the right way to do this is with a very simple word ‘said’ so in my opinion there’s not enough ‘said’ and there is usually in published fiction. Published writers usually get their head around this but often in beginning fiction where people are starting out there’s just not enough ‘said’ used in dialogue attribution.
I don’t mind ‘replied’ or even ‘shouted’ or ‘whispered’ if it’s used sparingly and in the right context, but ‘said’ can do a lot of this work so try and use ‘said’ a bit more or even miss out the attribution all together.
You’ll notice that the when I had the reply, the thing there was no attribution but we knew it was somebody else speaking. So often it’s very clear from the layout of the page that someone else has said something. You might not even need a dialog attribution.
A couple of examples from my work and I know tend to do that stuff man, attribution, but I do always need to work on the context in my dialogue. So here’s some examples I’ve got of two characters talking. This is in my current work in progress which is called Dead Flowers.
We’ve got Harry and Angela talking to each other. They’re sitting in a Unitarian Church and Harry is saying “trust me. I swear it on the Holy Bible” but he’s not even holding a Bible as Angela points out. So right, so I read this through and thought about how I could edit it and make it better.
My verdict on it was there’s not nearly enough subtext, so just being a little bit too straightforward with each other, so this is my rewrite so we’ve got Harry:
“You can trust me,” he said, placing his hand on the leather.
I said, “What do you mean?”
Can she really trust him? If somebody tells you they can trust you, should you believe them?You’re saying ‘do as you’re told’ perhaps. And he swears it on the Holy Bible but he knows it’s not a Bible, it’s a missile. He’s saying I’m stuck living on earth. Let me distract you here Angela’s saying to him;
“Okay, you’re funny. That’s not a Bible.”
And then he says:
“I treat you like a princess.”
Now he happens to know that Angela has a really quite horrible ex-boyfriend ,ex-husband actually, so he’s saying ‘I’m going to treat you better than that’, that’s what he’s really saying here. That’s the subtext of this conversation and she’s not sure so he’s saying:
“You know. Come on, I am.”
And finally she concedes.
“Well you call me much worse.”
Well you can probably guess where this is going. She’s going to find out just how much worse he can be. Okay so that is Angela and Harry. This is from the same book but it’s a different character. I’ve got two different timelines, so this is a modern character. Whereas Angela and Harry are back in the 1960s, this is contemporary.
So this time we’ve got a character talking. He’s saying:
“Who knows? Maybe I’ll say nothing him.”
And I mentioned that there’s an error between the lines, about the way he was speaking, so my verdict on this was he was too on-the-nose. About having subtext. Yeah a bit meta but there you go. So I reworked this one as well. See where I went with it. This time he just says:
“Who knows? Maybe I’ll just stay. I’ve always had a soft spot for Nottingham.”
And then Sean just shrugs. We don’t get any of that interior stuff. That’s giving too much away and then look what I did here, what he said – nothing. Well, we all know that’s much more complicated than it appears on the page.
I thought I’d point you in the direction of a couple of examples of stuff that might be interesting for you to take and look at. I’m not going to link to the first one because I can’t find a video on YouTube that seems legit, but you can look it up this is a scene from the Wire.
This scene uses one word. It begins with an ‘ask’. It ends in K. Actually it uses in other words as well it uses the word ‘mother’ from time to time but you get the picture, and it just shows I think it’s quite interesting because they only use one word but they communicate with each other brilliantly about something that’s really quite complicated.
A lot of that communication comes from actions and gestures and other things that are going on but it just goes to show that dialogue can be really stretched from times. I’ve always wondered if this scene came out of a bet or a dare or something like that.
I suspect it probably did but then again I’ve always liked the idea that it maybe came out of a college writing exercise where someone said to them ‘hey try and write scene where you use only one word of dialogue’.
So if you fancy doing a quick exercise, why don’t you have a go at that try and writers scene where two or more characters are talking but they only use one word of dialogue. Can you do it? Can you rise to that challenge and write something that works as well as that scene from the Wire? Look it up see if you can find it.
If you want to have a look there were some graphic images so just be aware of that and as probably already worked out there is actually quite bit swearing in that scene but have a look if you interested and then the second scene also quite sweary.
If you’re sensitive to those things, just to warn you. There is a link here to a movie clip of this one and this is known as the Royale with cheese scene and you might have heard of it if you’ve seen pop fiction. You probably remember it. These guys are just two guys at work having a chat about Vincent. He’s the guy with the longer hair, John Travolta’s character and he’s been away.
He’s been around Europe and they’re just talking about his time there and all the little differences between Europe and America but at the end of their trip they get out of the car so you realize that actually their job and what they’re going to do is actually really serious and really quite horrible.
Yet they’re talking about talking to each other as if it’s just an ordinary day at work and there’s something really powerful about that contrast. So there’s another writing exercise for you – write a scene between two or more characters where the characters are talking about something that is completely at odds with what they’re doing. Okay, so two writing exercises a scene. With one word, or a scene with that kind of contradiction like the Pulp Fiction, Royale with cheese.