Writing dialogue in a novel requires more than knowing how to write a conversation. Good dialogue intrigues, informs, moves a story along. Read 7 dialogue examples and the insights they give us into crafting effective character conversations:
Written dialogue (as opposed to spoken conversation) is challenging in part because the reader does not have auditory clues for understanding tone. The subtle shades of spoken conversation have to be shaded in using descriptive language.
‘Dialogue’ as a noun means ‘a conversation between two or more people as a feature of a book, play or film’ (OED). But it’s useful to remember the definition of dialogue as a verb: To ‘take part in a conversation or discussion to resolve a problem’. In storytelling, great dialogue often follows the verbal definition. It solves the story’s problems, sketches in clues, builds anticipation, suspense and more.
So how do you write dialogue that carries this purposeful sense of the word?
1. Make your written dialogue cut to the chase
In spoken conversations, we often change subjects, ramble, or use filler words like ‘um’ and ‘like’. Make your written dialogue cut to the chase. We often begin phone calls with pleasantries, for example, such as ‘Hi, how are you?’ Yet effective dialogue skips over the boring bits.
For example, here is a phone conversation from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History:
‘My voice was slurred and the operator wouldn’t give me the number of a taxi company. ‘You have to give me the name of a specific taxi service,’ she said. ‘We’re not allowed to-‘Donna Tartt, The Secret History (1992), pp. 142-143.
‘I don’t know the name of a specific taxi service,’ I said thickly.’There’s not a phone book here.’
‘I’m sorry, sir, but we’re not allowed to-‘
‘Red Top?’ I said desperately, trying to guess at names, make them up, anything. ‘Yellow Top? Town Taxi? Checker?’
Finally I guess I got one right, or maybe she just felt sorry for me.’
Tartt’s narrator Richard is staying in desperately cold quarters in winter, and the dialogue reflects the urgency of his situation. Note how Tartt uses concise narration to precede the call. Tartt cuts to the reason for Richard’s phone call right away, and also includes interruption. This reinforces the sense of urgency.
Tartt also slips back into narration rather than have a pointless outro where Richard and the operator say goodbye. Similarly, lead directly into the crux of dialogue and minimize filler.
2. Blend dialogue with descriptive narration well
Often when we write dialogue, we forget to keep the backdrop and surrounds in focus. The effect is similar to the backdrop of a theatre being hauled away whenever the actors start to speak.
To keep an active sense of place, slip in narration that adds setting details. For example, here Tartt describes Richard’s encounter with a girl in his dorm’s bathrooms:
‘I was in no mood for talk and I was unpleasantly surprised to find Judy Poovey brushing her teeth at the sink. […]Tartt, The Secret History, pp. 51-52.
‘Hi, Richard,’ she said, and spit out a mouthful of toothpaste. She was wearing cut-off jeans that had bizarre, frantic designs drawn on them in Magic Marker and a spandex top which revealed her intensely aerobicized midriff.
‘Hello,’ I said, setting to work on my tie.
‘You look cute today.’
‘Got a date?’
I looked away from the mirror, at her. ‘What?’
‘Where you going?’
By now I was used to her interrogations.’
In this dialogue example, Tartt drops in details from the bathroom setting (Judy spitting out toothpaste, Richard adjusting his tie and looking away from the mirror). These small details are enough to create a consistent backdrop. Note too that even though Judy and Richard start with pleasantries, the dialogue quickly passes on to anticipatory details about Richard’s plans (signalled to Judy by his tie).
Tartt also does not use dialogue tags, because it’s unnecessary to say ‘he said’ or ‘she said’. There are only two speakers present and line breaks and indentation distinguish them. The surrounding text adds an element of scenery and realism to their exchange.
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3. Use dialogue to reveal key character information
In offering editing services for novels, we often encounter dialogue that lacks sufficient character revelation.
Dialogue is an excellent vehicle for character-building. A character’s voice, from their style of speech to the subjects they frequent, builds our understanding of story characters.
For example, early dialogue in a story set in a school could show a bully belittling another pupil. When a new kid who speaks their mind and doesn’t take abuse joins the class, the memory of the preceding dialogue creates anticipation. We know before the bully and the new kid even meet that any dialogue between them could prove explosive.
In The Secret History, Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran is the narrator’s fellow student. Bunny is opinionated and bigoted, and wheedles his friends into giving him money. Tartt creates unlikable character traits in Bunny that explain crumbling relationships within Bunny’s friend group. Much of this she does through dialogue that shows Bunny’s tactless, bolshy and judgmental nature:
‘By the way, love that jacket, old man,’ Bunny said to me as we were getting out of the taxi. ‘Silk, isn’t it?’Tartt, The Secret History, pp. 54-55.
‘Yes. It was my grandfather’s.’
Bunny pinched a piece of the rich, yellowly cloth near the cuff and rubbed it back and forth between his fingers.
‘Lovely piece,’ he said importantly. ‘Not quite the thing for this time of year, though.’
‘No?’ I said.
‘Naw. This is the East Coast, boy. I know they’re pretty laissez-faire about dress in your neck of the woods, but back here they don’t let you run around in your bathing suit all year long.’
This dialogue example illustrates the overbearing aspects of Bunny that gather and grow, testing the limits of the others’ patience. The dialogue is thus oriented towards building resentments between characters that explain later character choices.
4. Learn how to write dialogue that drives plot
There are several ways good dialogue drives plot. As outlined above, it can help develop character traits and motivations. The context of dialogue – the circumstances in which characters speak or overhear others speaking – is also useful for plot.
The overheard conversation is a hallmark device in suspense writing, for example. Eavesdropping can supply a character with handy information. For example, a villainous or malevolent character might overhear a conversation that plays into their hands. The criminal wanted in a murder investigation overhears friends of the detective discussing the detective’s daily routine, for example.
Dialogue can also drive plot and suspense via interruption. If two characters’ urgent conversation is cut off by a third’s arrival, the reader must wait until the characters may resume talking.
Tartt crafts suspense finely in a scene where her protagonist overhears snatches of conversation between his new acquaintance Henry and their lecturer, Julian:
It was Julian and Henry. Neither of them had heard me come up the stairs. Henry was leaving; Julian was standing in the open door. His brow was furrowed and he looked very somber, as if he were saying something of the gravest importance […].
Julian finish speaking. He looked away for a moment, then bit his lower lip and looked up at Henry.
Then Henry spoke. His words were low but deliberate and distinct. ‘Should I do what is necessary?’Tartt, The Secret History, p. 81.
To my surprise, Julian took both Henry’s hands in his own. ‘You should only, ever, do what is necessary,’ he said.
Using dialogue overheard by a third party, Tartt creates suspense that ripples out from this brief exchange. The brief scene creates anticipation of a secret agreement between Henry and Julian coming to light. This colours our reading of future interactions between these three characters.
5. Avoid unnecessary, distracting or absurd dialogue tags
Dialogue tags – words such as ‘she said’ and ‘he grumbled’ – help to show who in a conversation between two or more characters is speaking. Sometimes (when alternate words for ‘said’, such as ‘grumbled’) are used, they also show the emotional state of the speaker. Yet using unnecessary tags has a clunky effect. For example:
‘Hello,’ I said.
‘Is it really you? I can’t believe it’s been so long,’ she said.
‘Sorry I’ve been such a hermit’, I said, smiling.
The placement and repetition of ‘said’ here has a deadening, unnatural effect. Compare:
She gave a start, surprised. ‘Is is really you? I can’t believe it’s been so long!’
‘Sorry I’ve been such a hermit,’ I said, smiling.
The second allows us to focus our attention more on the content of what characters say (and less on the fact that we’re reading dialogue).
Alternative words for said (such as ‘shrieked’, ‘whispered’, ‘spat’ and so forth) are like seasoning. Don’t burn the reader’s palate with too many. It’s widely considered good style for dialogue tags to be as invisible as possible. Heavy tag use is like an invisibility cloak cut too short – you can see the author’s clumsy feet sticking out.
6. Use specific dialogue to illustrate general relationships and situations
Besides using dialogue as a character development aid or to further plot, you can use dialogue as a narrative device to illustrate a general situation. For example, In The Secret History, Tartt uses a typical conversation between Bunny’s girlfriend Marion and Richard, the protagonist, to reveal the nature of Bunny and Marion’s relationship.
‘Lemme in, old man, you gotta help me, Marion’s on the warpath…’ Minutes later, there would be a neat report of sharp knocks at the door: rat-a-tat-tat. It would be Marion, her little mouth tight, looking like a small, angry doll.Tartt, The Secret History, p. 101.
‘Is Bunny there?’ she would say, stretching up on tiptoe and craning to look past me into the room.
‘He’s not here.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘He’s not here Marion.’
‘Bunny!’ she would call out ominously.
And then, to my acute embarrassment, Bunny would emerge sheepishly in the doorway.’
Tartt uses the modal verb ‘would’ to show a typical conversation, an exchange that is an example of many like it. You can use dialogue this way to show a conversation that is often repeated, perhaps with different wording but the same underlying effect. For example:
‘Tidy your room,’ mom’s always saying. ‘What am I, The Dalai Lama?’
‘Yeah, and if you were, she’d be like ‘Wear your best robes. Iron out those creases.’
This is how Jim and I would banter all summer, trading the injustices of being teenagers in a world that had its priorities dead wrong.
Here, an example conversation shows how two boys on a summer camp became friends.
7. Start writing dialogue examples and good advice down
Whenever you come across examples of dialogue you love, or an insightful quote on writing dialogue, copy it out. It’s an effective way to improve your ear for written speech. In addition, read the dialogue you write aloud. Rope someone else in to read the other character’s part if possible. The ear seldom lies about the difference between dialogue that works and character conversations that fall flat.
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