Learning how to write dialogue is one of the most important parts of crafting a great narrative. Dialogue infuses character-to-character interaction within blocks of description or action; as such, when done correctly, dialogue is often the perfect way to liven a story. The key here is doing it correctly. Poor dialogue is often a burden to read and hinders the reader’s progress through the story. However, with a few simple strategies, dialogue can transform from static, uninspiring speech to something that enriches and adds nuance to your story. The ultimate goal of dialogue is to borrow the vocal cadence from real conversations and amalgamate it with clear, concise speaking that enriches the piece.
Let’s see how that’s done.
Elevate the Personalities
The character’s speech should match who they are. Many writers make the mistake of treating the character and his/her voice separately. The voice is the character—they are intertwined and should reflect each other. For instance:
- If a character has asthma, his/her voice may sound raspy.
- If a character never went to school, his/her vocabulary might be limited.
- A southern farmer may combine certain words and speak in a drawl; an English aristocrat may utilize grandiloquent expressions, etc.
In many senses, the character’s voice is essentially another form of clothing for them to wear. If we are hyper-conscious about the physical appearance of the characters, then consider voice to be part of the package as well.
Take a look at Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” In this story, “the Misfit” is an escaped murderer on the loose in the deep South who comes across a lost family. Before any conversation begins, he is described as a laconic man, wearing “khaki pants and a blue striped coat and a gray hat pulled down very low, hiding most of his face.” As he and his men begin killing members of the family, the grandmother begins the following conversation:
“Pray, pray,” the grandmother began, “pray, pray…”
“I never was a bad boy that I remember of,” The Misfit said in an almost dreamy voice, “but somewheres along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary. I was buried alive,” and he looked up and held her attention to him by a steady stare.
The Misfit’s calm-but-deadly speaking matches his personality and even his clothing, and his description of his troubled background simply adds to his mysterious, dangerous persona. Furthermore, his use of “somewheres” adds to the “unrefined” aspect of his personality, one that bobs and weaves throughout the rest of the story, culminating in the murder of the grandmother.
Deepen the Story
Not only should dialogue reflect the persona of each character, it can also engage the reader in other, subtle ways:
- Opening new pathways in the story
- Revealing backstory
- Catalyzing suspense
- Creating a mood for a certain scene
- Lead to conflict
With these goals in mind, remember only to use dialogue when it can add to the story.
Look to “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates as an example. In the following exchange, a man arrives in a teenage girl’s front yard and begins to speak with her.
“I ain’t late, am I?” he said.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” Connie said.
“Toldja I’d be out, didn’t I?”
“I don’t even know who you are.”
She spoke sullenly, careful to show no interest or pleasure, and he spoke in a fast, bright monotone.
The vague dialogue here creates suspense, and the presence of a man on a teenage girl’s front yard speaking in this way causes a creepy, uncomfortable mood to set over the scene. The manner of the man’s speech affirms something we already know by this point: the setting is in the South. The man’s word-slurring also adds to the perception that he is crude and uneducated, elements confirmed later in the scene with various other details.
Make It Purposeful
Keep conversations to the point. “To the point” does not mean “short.” Rather, don’t simply write dialogue for the sake of writing it. Everything that is spoken or done should happen with a reason. Don’t include dialogue unless it furthers the story.
To that end: PRUNE IT! Consider the following two conversations:
“Hi, George. How are you?”
“Hey, John. I’m doing well. How are you?”
“I’m fine, thanks George.”
“Anywho,” he said, “I’m happy I saw you. Can you cover my afternoon shift tomorrow? I have a dental appointment.”
“Oh,” John replied. “I gotta pick up the kids. Can you ask Anderson?”
“Ah, come on, you know how Anderson is.”
“Yeah,” he admitted. “His lungs will fail soon if he keeps up with those cigarettes.”
With some serious cuts, we can create a conversation with a similar mood and with only the relevant details:
“Hi, John. Can you cover my afternoon shift tomorrow?”
“George, I gotta pick up the kids,” he replied. Can you ask Anderson?”
“Come on. You know how he is.”
“Yeah… I suppose. His cigarettes aren’t doing him any favors.”
Silences in the dialogue is often just as important as the dialogue itself. Silences often carry implied meaning and create suspense.
“So…” he asked, “what happened this time?”
She took a long sip from the bottle. Soft rain buzzed slowly in the background.
“Again, Mary? Again? I can’t believe you sometimes.”
This conversation has possibilities for expansion, but it could be better left as-is. This dialogue screams with tension. Mary’s decision not to speak says everything.
Clean It Up
Real-life conversations can serve as good models for building dialogue, but they are often choppy, strewn with pauses, and filled with filler words.
Jane continued. “So… The lunch was okay, like, the restaurant… Well, you know how it is. It can just be so bland at times and so—”
“What’s wrong?” interjected Jack.
“I don’t know…” she replied. “I just feel like, just feel like it could be better.”
“Yeah, I mean, maybe… It’s just that… The chef had an off day.”
This dialogue is painful to read, and while the speaking style is similar to how many people speak in real life, the frequent pauses pose an obstacle to the cohesion and pace of the text.
On the other hand…
“Lunch was fine,” she replied with a short grunt. “Bland but fine.”
“Ah, come on… What’s wrong?” replied Jack, glancing over slightly in her direction.
“It just… Could be better—”
“Yeah,” he acknowledged, “But maybe the chef just had an off day.”
Whereas the awkward, start-and-stop nature of real conversations should be avoided in written dialogue, drawing from actual conversations can sometimes be helpful. In particular, listen to the cadence and rhythm of one’s speech, and model the variations.
After reading it out loud, you can be more certain that your dialogue flows as intended.
Vary the Tempo
Nobody speaks in short, one-sentence bursts—nor would anyone drone on for an extended period of time in a conversation. As such, as with creating cadence, it is important to intersperse other actions, emotions, and thoughts within dialogue.
Take a look at Sarah Feng’s “From ‘Sleepswim,’” in Issue Twenty-Six. The speaker is from a talent company and interviewing Eliot, a young, up-and-coming graffiti artist.
“That’s good, thank you,” I say. Elliot bites her lip. “Can you show me some more of your art samples and talk me through them?”
She pushes her tongue into her cheek, now. She’s going to need to slim down her repertoire of idiosyncrasies—she just bit her lip.
“Sure. I have photos of them. I’ll go grab them.” She disappears into her room.
As an interview, this scene naturally carries some tension. However, it is further accentuated by the actions dotting the dialogue. Since we know that dialogue should be akin to another piece of clothing—another form of expression that the character wears—it should match everything else about the character and the scene. In this case, the short, terse sentences amplify the mood of the scene and match the cheek- and lip-biting.
While each tip has its individual uses, always keep the broader picture in mind—with any set of dialogue: The ultimate goal of dialogue is to borrow the vocal cadence from real conversations and amalgamate it with clear, concise speaking that enriches the story.
To see more from The Adroit Journal and view other contemporary works with dialogue, explore our latest issue.