Dear Duke, I have noticed something about my writing: I do not know how to conduct a dialogue. I do not know how to add an emotional "burden" to the discussion. It does not sound believable what I write. To me, it seems more like a lecture than a simple conversation. I just wanted to write engaging more with the emotional side of my characters than with the intellectual. How can I do it?
Hi! You’re in the right place because dialogue is actually my favorite thing to write and any book of mine you pick up will probably be like at least 40% people talking. Idk if this is because I did so much theatre or because I just can’t shut up, but it’s high time I did a real post about it, so:
Advice for Aspiring Authors: On Dialogue
- You need it so don’t resist it. Books that are just huge chunks of prose are exhausting, and if you never use dialogue you’re either (1) summarizing or (2) writing a really boring book, and either way the the result is the same. Your reader is going to be bored. Choosing the right scenic mode is important and sooner or later people are going to have to speak in the moment.
- Don’t stress about speaker tags. Putting this at the top because a lot of new writers seem to get hung up on it. But I’ve already addressed this, so read this post here. Pro-tip? If you’re writing a conversation between two people or even three, you often don’t need speaker tags at all. I recently wrote a conversation that takes place over the phone which consists of about 25 lines exchanged and didn’t use a single speaker tag because it was, in all instances, obvious who was doing the talking. Later in the same MS I have a really chaotic hospital scene where like twelve people are yelling at the same time and interrupting each other and there are no speaker tags because idgaf if anybody knows who’s saying what. It should feel like chaos. (If you want a really great example of this, pick up a copy of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary and read the funeral scene.) Readers are smart. They’ll figure it out.
- Different people speak in different ways. Who a character is will often determine how they speak. For instance, Theodore von Wammelspout, Crown Prince of Prosenstatz, is probably going to have a very different dialect than Paw Paw O’Halloran, Louisiana shrimp fisherman. (If you want a better example of what I’m talking about, watch the movie Kingsman and pay attention to how and when Eggsy switches dialects, or read the prologue to The Taming of the Shrew and pay attention to the immediate tonal shift in Christopher Sly’s dialogue when he wakes up from a drunken stupor thinking he’s a lord.) Think about a character’s origins and upbringing and backstory when deciding how they talk.
- But stay away from writing dialect unless you really know what you’re doing. Don’t try to phonetically write a character’s accent or dialect unless you’re a linguist, because a lot of dropped consonants and deliberate misspellings can be really difficult to read, come out like you’re trying too hard, or even end up looking vaguely racist. If a character has an accent, find a way to tell us they have an accent and then spell all their dialogue correctly. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule–i.e, if a phonic misunderstanding is crucial to the story. But basically, unless you’re writing Trainspotting, don’t do this. What’s much better and much more effective is to describe how a character says something or what their voice sounds like. What’s the texture? The color? The temperature? A warm, rough, slow voice belongs to a different character than a cold, high, slick voice does. Or maybe the same character can switch from one to the other. Give your character’s voice the same attention you would give their body or their habits or anything else.
- It’s a character speaking, not the narrator. Each character should have their own voice, in the same way that each story will have a slightly different narrator, even if it’s a neutral third person narrator. Writing is all about voice and style, and part of the challenge is that you as the writer have to be a mockingbird and be able to speak in as many different voices as you have characters. It will take practice. It will require a lot of questions asked, such as “Who never says a bad word? Who swears like a sailor? Who talks in a constant, uninterrupted stream and who hardly says a word?” For an exercise, write out a plain uninteresting sentence like, “He was on his way home from the store when he got a flat tire,” the way the narrator would say it, and then rewrite it in every character’s voice. Because one character might say it just like that–”I was on my way home from the store and I got a flat tire”–and another might say, “You’re not going to fucking believe this. Okay, so I’m on my way home from the store, because we’re out of beer again, because Steve was supposed to go get more and he didn’t, the dickhead–and what happens? Well, obviously, because this worthless excuse of a city can’t be bothered to keep the roads clear, I drive right through a patch of broken glass and BANG! Blow a tire. Swear to God, I thought it was a gunshot, I nearly ran my car into a telephone pole.” If all your characters sound alike or sound like the narrator or (worse) sound like you, it’s time to stop and reevaluate.
- Characters don’t speak for you. Look, unless you’re writing a really boring story it’s going to have a bunch of people in it with a bunch of different ideas and some of them should believe things that you don’t agree with or speak in a way you find objectionable. Characters are sometimes going to have to say things you find morally deplorable and they have to say them with conviction. I recently wrote a scene where my FMC’s boyfriend and her dad argue about what they’re going to do about her, like she’s not a grown-ass woman who can take care of herself. And they both say things that are utterly atrocious and that if I heard a man say in real life, I would probably punch him in the face. But that’s important. In fiction, you gotta tell it all and tell it like it is. Fiction isn’t true but it should be honest. Not every character can agree with you or with each other. (This is a big part of the reason that authorial intent is a flawed concept. An author who depicts something isn’t necessarily condoning or endorsing it.) You should be writing about difficult shit and writing about it from every vantage point and using dialogue to do that. You don’t need to agree with angelic equality crusader Nancy and homophobic Uncle Jeff equally but they need to be equally convincing. Write disagreements. Write arguments. Let characters fight and get pissed and tell each other to fuck off. It’s honest, and it’s interesting. Conflict is good.
- Incomplete sentences are your best friend. So are run-ons. That scene I mentioned that was 25 lines with no speaker tags? There’s also not a complete sentence in that whole exchange. We rarely speak in full correct sentences, even if we know perfectly well that what we’re saying isn’t grammatically perfect. So something like this:
“Seen my keys?”
“In the basket.”
Totally acceptable. People are lazy. They talk in fragments. Dialogue doesn’t have to be correct, because it often isn’t. Stick commas and dashes wherever the fuck you want to mimic the pattern of speech. Worry about what’s natural, not what’s correct. Sometimes what goes unsaid is just as interesting as what does get said. For instance, if Joe turns to Carol and starts to say, “Have you ever thought about–” and then never finishes the sentence, that’s going to keep a reader wondering. Has she ever thought about what? In much the same way, you can have a character ramble for an entire paragraph in an epic run-on sentence if that’s the way they talk, or if they’re distressed or upset and trying to get the words out. The last book I finished has a chapter at the end where one character literally talks without interruption for nine pages. And as insane as that sounds it’s actually totally necessary because she’s telling a story that’s important for the readers and the other characters to hear but it’s a hundred times better to hear it in her own voice, grammatical correctness be damned.
- Don’t try too hard to be eloquent. How many people do you know in real life who spout off perfectly articulate declarations of their feelings? Probably none. They ramble and stall and repeat themselves. Real-life conversations are not movie conversations. They’re not smooth. They’re not perfectly timed. A character just saying “Fuck me” because they have no idea what else to say is perfectly plausible (and also a great opportunity for comedy). Here’s an exercise if you’re having trouble: Make two columns on a page, and on one side write out what this character is trying to say (i.e, “I love you.” “I’ve been trying to tell you for years.” “But I’m afraid you don’t want me to.”) and on the other write out what they actually say (i.e., “I really hope you’ll stay.” “You know you’re always welcome to stay.” “I don’t want you to feel like you have to stay. Just that you can. If you want to.”) Sometimes the juxtaposition between what we’re trying to say and what actually comes out is so important. So don’t worry about perfect articulation or doing justice to the “emotional burden.” Worry about the intent and the impact and how those two things align–or don’t.
- Read it out loud. This is one of the most important things teachers in playwriting workshops will tell you to do. Read it out loud. If it feels awkward or unnatural, it probably is. Thus also to dialogue in prose fiction. Even better option? Get a couple of friends to read it for you. This will work wonders for helping you figure out what feels awkward.
- HAVE FUN WITH IT. When I say dialogue is far and away my favorite thing to write, I’m not kidding at all. You can learn so much about a character or how two characters interact by how they talk to each other. Do they tease, do they nag, do they finish each other’s sentences? Do they use slang, do they slur, do they talk about celebrities they’ve never met as if they’ve known them for years and they’re the best of friends? Let their personalities shine through, because when characters speak is the only time they’re not getting filtered through a narrator, even if that narrator is themselves. Dialogue provides some of the most poignant moments of characterization you’ll ever get. So play with it. Try the same line fifty different ways until it feels right. Let your characters speak for themselves.
Good luck! Go forth and write great dialogue and have a blast doing it.