Learning how to write dialogue in a story is crucial. Writing gripping conversations that include conflict and disagreement and further your story will help to ensure readers want to read on. Here are 7 steps to writing better character conversations:
1: Understand how to format dialogue
2: Learn how to write dialogue in a story by imitating great examples
3: Cut filler
4: Ensure your dialogue sometimes contains conflict
5: Ask ‘How does this conversation further the story?’
6: Use questions, evasions, desires and motivations
7: Use setting to deepen the tone and mood of your characters’ conversations
Let’s expand these points further:
Understand how to format dialogue
a) Every time there is a change in speaker, start a new, indented line
Follow this convention because it’s all too easy to lose track of who’s saying what in dialogue. An example of good format:
“What were you thinking?” Sarah frowned.
“I wasn’t. Thinking, I mean,” Tom admitted.
b) Always enclose dialogue in speech marks
If you write in US English, it’s standard to use double quotation marks for dialogue. In UK English, single quotation marks suffice.
c) Place all punctuation for spoken lines inside speech marks
In the above example, the question mark in Sarah’s dialogue comes before the closing speech marks, not after. If the end of a line of dialogue is also the end of the sentence, the period or full stop comes before the closing speech marks because it’s part of the rhythm of the speech:
“That’s your problem,” Sarah chided, “you only ever rely on your gut.”
The best policy when formatting dialogue is to check published books and compare multiple dialogue extracts. Investigate what the most common practice is when you come across a punctuation or formatting conundrum.
Learn how to write dialogue in a story by imitating great examples
To write great dialogue, read great dialogue. Make this your own masterclass. The Baroque composer J.S. Bach learned by copying out the scores of his predecessors. The equivalent in writing is one of the best dialogue exercises. When you copy out dialogue from your favourite authors, you see how the cogs fit together and turn.
Here is an example of excellent dialogue from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations:
‘It began the moment we sat down to dinner. Mr Wopsle said grace with theatrical declamation … and ended with the very proper aspiration that we might be truly grateful. Upon which my sister fixed me with her eye, and said, in a low reproachful voice, “Do you hear that? Be grateful.”
“Especially,” said Mr. Pumblechook, “be grateful, boy, to them which brought you up by hand.”
Mrs. Hubble shook her head, and contemplating me with a mournful presentiment that I should come to no good, asked, “Why is it that the young are never grateful?” This moral mystery seemed too much for the company until Mr. Hubble tersely solved it by saying, “Naterally wicious.”
Dickens mixes speech with his young protagonist/narrator Pip’s observations about the pompous and condescending elders for humorous effect.
There are multiple reasons why this dialogue is effective. Firstly, there is opposition between characters that creates interesting tension. The dialogue also illustrates one of the novel’s primary overarching themes: The pessimism and bigotry that can come with age versus the relative innocence and openness of youth.
This theme is illustrated further in the novel. The character Miss Havisham purposefully trains her young ward Estella to treat would-be suitors unkindly because she herself was jilted in her youth. The dialogue thus, on one level, establishes a key fact: Age does not necessarily bring compassion or the ability to provide good guidance.
In strong dialogue, there is no filler. If characters speak on the phone, there are no ‘may I speak to’s’ or ‘Please hold’s’. Cut all filler from your dialogue. Launch straight into any phone conversation:
The voice on the other end of the line was doubtful; suspicious.
Sometimes, filler material such as an introduction between characters is necessary and natural. Yet take the opportunity to weave in colourful character description because it immerses the reader in the scene. For example, here is an introduction in Great Expectations that is full of character:
‘…Joe was smoking his pipe in company with Mr. Wopsle and a stranger. Joe greeted me as usual with “Halloa, Pip, old chap!” and the moment he said that, the stranger turned his head and looked at me.
He was a secret-looking man whom I had never seen before. His head was all on one side, and one of his eyes was half shut up, as if he were taking aim at something with an invisible gun.’
Note that Joe’s greeting is just four words – there is no lengthy back and forth. The bulk of the introduction is reserved for detailed character description. This helps readers imagine characters already familiar from the preceding story as well as newcomers.
Ensure your dialogue sometimes contains conflict
Knowing how to write dialogue in a story requires thinking about characters’ individual motivations and personalities. How do they combine and sometimes spark friction?
If everyone in your novel gets on swimmingly with everyone else, this could result in dull dialogue. Sometimes when characters speak, they are simply exchanging information that is key to the plot. Yet sometimes conversations should also arise out of opposing or contrasting wants and needs because this is realistically how people sometimes interact.
To illustrate, even though Estella is Pip’s love interest in Great Expectations, she torments and tests him, trained by Miss Havisham to treat boys with contempt equal to what Havisham received from the man she loved. This interference by Havisham plays out in Pip and Estella’s interactions when he is invited to Havisham’s house:
“Well, miss?” I answered, almost falling over her and checking myself.
“Am I pretty?”
“Yes; I think you are very pretty.”
“Am I insulting?”
“Not so much so as you were last time,” said I.
“Not so much so?”
She fired when she asked the last question, and she slapped my face with such force as she had, when I answered it.
“Now?” said she. “You little coarse monster, what do you think of me now?”
“I shall not tell you.”
“Because you are going to tell upstairs. Is that it?”
“No,” said I, “that’s not it.”
“Why don’t you cry again, you little wretch?”
“Because I’ll never cry for you again,” said I. Which was, I suppose, as false a declaration as ever was made; for I was inwardly crying for her then, and I know what I know of the pain she cost me afterwards.
Ask ‘How does this conversation further the story?’
Great dialogue works at multiple levels.
On one hand, it offers immediate entertainment. Characters are spiteful or funny, guarded or garrulous. The dialogue adds to the interest and intrigue of the immediate scene.
On the other hand, dialogue reveals plot details and characters and in so doing deepens our understanding of the broader story. The examples from Dickens’ classic novel above illustrate this. The scene around the supper table shows the hypocrisy of the adults in Pip’s world. They dismiss the youth as collectively ‘wicious’, yet show great viciousness of their own in how they treat them (even deliberately fostering viciousness, as Havisham does in Estella). Throughout the novel, Dickens underscores the problem with treating ‘respect your elders’ as a blanket rule – respect should be reciprocal.
As you write dialogue, think about how your characters’ words relate to your broader story. Because writing means weaving a web of connections, try make each segment of dialogue a piece that clarifies part of the whole picture.
Use questions, evasions, desires and motivations
To write effective dialogue in a story, use the full arsenal of tools and techniques at your disposal. Characters don’t always need to be honest, upfront, and easy to understand. They can be cryptic and misguiding. They can trip each other up with questions and evasive responses.
Like an unreliable narrator, an unreliable character in conversation could feed your protagonist false information, out of their own motivation. This leads to motivation: In every dialogue, keep in mind what motivates each character. Think about causality: How will a character motivated by a desire for harmony react in a conflict situation, for example?
Before you start writing an important section of dialogue, ask yourself:
- What expectations, fears or desires does each character bring to the conversation?
- What will the reader understand better about the characters and/or plot at the end of this conversation?
Use setting to deepen the tone and mood of your characters’ conversations
Dialogue is more than the sum of your characters’ words and corresponding actions and gestures in a scene. Where their conversation takes place can deepen the effect of their words. In Great Expectations, Pip’s early conversations with Miss Havisham and Estella take place in Miss Havisham’s dilapidated, Gothic, candle-lit home. This lends intensity that is fitting for the characters and their backstory (the story of Havisham’s retreat into melancholic scheming and obsessing, for example).
When you write dialogue, think about how your characters’ surrounds play into their conversation. Two characters who speak low on a train might go through the occasional tunnel so that they have to lean in closer. Small details of setting that interact with your dialogue will help bring it to life.
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