Peter L.S. Trevor

We are stories made manifest

Writing dialogue

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When new writers ask for help with writing better dialogue, it’s not long before someone suggests going to a café or other public place and listening to how other people talk.  But is this good advice?  What’s a better answer?

Dialogue is not real-life speech.  It is stylized speech and serves a purpose for the author.

Real-life speech is meandering and often dull.  Fictional speech doesn’t meander (unless, of course, a character has a strong reason to run on and on).  Some people speak in incomplete sentences: each sentence abandoned part-way through as new thoughts occur to the speaker … resulting in a torrent of sentence fragments.  But reading that would be painful.

Nor is dialogue the information superhighway.  It shouldn’t be used as a lazy way to give the reader information or a sermon on the author’s view of the world.

Giving Characters Their Own Voice

Each character should have their own voice, a way of speaking that is unique to them.  This will be word choice, pattern, and so on.  The differences don’t always have to be dramatic; sometimes, they can be subtle.

One of the scriptwriters on the TV show “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” once recounted how she recycled some dialogue originally written for one character and put it in the mouth of another.  On reading it, the showrunner (Joss Whedon) was able to identify the character it had been intended for correctly.

A simple trick that you can use, if your mind works this way, is to imagine that your story is to be a film or TV show.  Mentally cast actors you think would be appropriate for the different parts.  How would they play it?  What is their way of speaking?  Of course, you may want to avoid anything too distinctive.

Here’s a joke from the internet to illustrate being too distinctive:

  • Standard comma: “You know Bob, Sue and Greg?  They came to my house.”
  • Oxford comma: “You know Bob, Sue, and Greg?  They came to my house.”
  • Christopher Walken comma: “You know Bob, Sue, and Greg?  They came, to my house.”
  • William Shatner comma: “You know Bob, Sue, and Greg?  They, came, to my, house.”

Things that affect a character’s voice:

Age.  Small children have a limited vocabulary of mostly short words.  This changes as they mature.

Gender. Although this may be changing, traditional gender differences include …

WomenMen
Average 20,000 words per day (provide more context)Average 7,000 words per day (more direct and to the point)
Mention emotions moreUse dialogue to identify their place in the pecking order
Use more facial expressionsUse more postures
May compliment someone on their appearanceTypically don’t compliment each other on their appearance

Hierarchy.  Are two characters conversing equals, or is one superior?  Who is boss/leader/alpha?

Intelligence.  An intelligent character tends to be more focussed and have fewer filler words, ask more questions, usually understands the other’s perspective, and be more able to keep their cool in an argument. And while they may swear, they are unlikely to prop up an argument with profanity.

Personality traits.  Resentful, forgiving, ambitious, pessimistic, optimistic, cynical, self-centred, timid, pompous, bossy, etc.

Social and cultural norms.

Non-verbal communication

Body language can augment dialogue.  It can communicate emotion or reveal a lie.  But a novice mistake is to overuse it.  Think of it as seasoning a meal; a little can work wonders; too much, and it turns into an unpalatable mess.

Gesture.  Works best before or in the middle of speech.

Posture.  Works best before or in the middle of speech.

Facial expression.  Works best before or in the middle of speech.

Tone of voice.  Works best in the middle or after speech.

Info Dumps

Two types of dialogue info dump to avoid are:

  • “As you know …”  When one character tells another character something they already know.
  • “Tell me, Master …”  When a less knowledgeable character asks an ‘expert’ to explain something.

Improving Dialogue

Tips for improving the dialogue in a scene:

  • Every character should have an agenda (whether the reader knows what it is or not).
  • Short sentences make for more natural-sounding dialogue.
  • The last word of a piece of dialogue has the strongest impact.
  • Lists of three things sounds better than two or four.
  • Turn a phrase into a question.
  • Avoid talking head syndrome … blocks of dialogue that don’t seem to have a location.  Can happen when a location is described in detail at the beginning of the scene but then never mentioned again.  Have the characters interact with their environment throughout the scene, even in unimportant ways.
  • Arguments should be shorter than in real life.  The characters shouldn’t repeat the same points over and over.
  • Last, but not least, build tension by withholding answers:

  • Wife: “Do you still love me?”
    Husband: “Why are you asking?”
    Wife: “Do you still truly love me?”
    Husband: “Are you suddenly doubting my love?”
    Wife: “Why won’t you tell me you still love me?”
    Husband: “Do we have to talk about this now?”
    Wife: “Why aren’t you answering my question?”
    Husband: “What do you want me to say?”

Conclusions

There is so much I’ve missed out or glossed over, but hopefully, this will help.

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