Writing Dialogue

Being an active reader allowed me to pick out the things that I liked about different authors and their writing styles. One thing that I found extremely important in a novel (especially those labelled under the Young Adult fiction category) was how well the dialogue was written.

I would make note of what the author did throughout the areas of speech. Some authors used an accent to indicate where a character was from. Another thing I picked out was the use of diction. For example, if the person speaking simply “said” a phrase or if they “mumbled” it. I also kept a close eye on how quickly the dialogue helped move the story along as well as how it pulled on the heartstrings of the reader, making them sympathise with a specific character.

The first thing to keep in mind about dialogue is the length. Dialogue should not drag on for twelve pages non-stop. It should especially not go on and on as one character tells their entire backstory to the reader in one big phrase. In reality people wouldn’t speak like this. If we did, we would constantly be drifting off onto different topics, which would take away from the point we were trying to make in the first place. This is why the length of the dialogue is extremely important.

Here is an example:

  1. Bad Dialogue: “Frankie never hurt anyone. He was so kind to others. He had this sort of demeanour that drew people to him. He was such a good boy.” she sobbed.
  2. Good Dialogue: “Frankie was a good little boy,” she whispered. Her voice caught in her throat.

Notice how in the first example the character speaks on and on about Frankie? Even though this does help to move the story along, having all of that information packed into one big clump of speech is not only a pain to read but it also gives away too much information to the reader at once. This is why the second example is better. This example is short and simple. It allows the writer to feed the dialogue to the reader in smaller bits as the story progresses.

The next thing to remember about dialogue is that it helps bring life to a character. Using the same example as before where the female character speaks about the boy, Frankie, you can assume that she,

a)      Knew him well.

b)      Cared for him.

c)      Is upset by whatever happened to him.

This information was pulled out of one simple phrase said by this character. You can now try and determine who the speaker is to Frankie. It could be his girlfriend, his mother, his teacher, his babysitter, etc. Whichever you choose can add even more emotion to the phrase as well as contribute to forming a three dimensional character.

The first two points are why the dialogue must have purpose.

Why is the female character telling someone about Frankie? Is she being interviewed by a reporter about the death of her child, or is she standing up for him because he got into a fight with another boy in his class?

The reason behind each phrase said by a character must be significant to the story itself. If the character were in a fast food restaurant, serving hamburgers to costumers and randomly telling them, “Frankie was a good boy,” they would think she was a lunatic.

Now let’s make this female character more three dimensional by giving her a quick description through some dialogue.

“Frankie was a good little boy,” she whisper. Her voice caught in her throat.

“Who is she?” Questioned the detective

“Eloise Johnson,” Muttered Carlton. “The kid’s mother.”

From this short bit of dialogue we can gather up basic information about the character that is not only important but it helps contribute to the story.

We know now that the female character is named Eloise Johnson and that she is Frankie’s mother. We also know that her son may have been involved in a crime due to the other characters that are present. All of those things we learned from a few simple but significant phrases.

Now let’s say that the character Carlton has an accent. Instead of simply writing, “Eloise Johnson,” Muttered Carlton with an Irish accent. “The kid’s mother,” his accent should be shown to the reader.

Writing, “Eloise Johnson,” muttered Carlton. “The kid’s mither,” is much more effective. Why? Because from this way the reader is able to see that Carlton may not be from the same place as our other two characters, Eloise Johnson and the detective. Even though mither isn’t exactly a word, it adds depth to Carlton’s character. It also shows the reader that Carlton has a specific way of speaking. This is important because now the reader is able to link the accent back to the character for future references.

Though adding a dialect is good, please remember that using too much could confuse the reader. Keep the dialect to a minimum!

Now that we have covered some of the important things to keep in mind while creating dialogue, there is one last thing that I feel is I need to share with you in order to help you improve your dialogue: read it aloud.

I know that sometimes it can be a little strange to go around talking to yourself but it you don’t have to actually act out the scenes. We don’t want any of your family members to become concerned about your well-being, however just taking the time to read over your dialogue (quietly) after you have written it can help you to determine whether or not it is indeed good dialogue.

There have been times where I was writing dialogue for a character in their teens and the way that they were speaking made them sound like an elderly man. If I hadn’t read my dialogue out loud, versus in my head I wouldn’t have realized how strange it sounded.

So remember:

  • Dialogue should be simple but significant: do not go on and on and on in one big phrase. Especially if it has nothing to do with the story.
  • Show Don’t Tell!
  • Read it aloud: seriously this make a huge difference.