Writing Dialogue -The Ultimate Guide

giraffes having a dialog, illustration for writing dialog article

Introduction

Writing dialogue can be very frustrating. We spend our lives listening to people talk, so new writers often assume that dialogue should be the easiest thing to write. Not so! Writing dialogue that feels natural and motivated is a real skill that takes time to develop. The first step is understanding this simple secret: If your characters sound like they have no personality, it’s because you haven’t given them one!

Strong dialogue requires well-defined characters. Imagine a comic strip where all the characters were stick figures. It would be pretty hard to tell who’s who! Dialogue works the same way. If you want your readers to be able to connect with your characters, they can’t have “stick figure” personalities. They have to have well-defined, individual features. This includes well-defined character flaws, backgrounds, and personal details.

Character Backgrounds Shape Dialogue

One thing you can do to improve your dialogue is have imaginary conversations. Pretend you’re talking to a friend or family member. How would they respond to jokes, or insults, or love poems? Imagine the same conversation with a different person. How would their reactions differ? Their word choice?

Mulling over your real conversations can be useful as well. Pick a topic to discuss with different people. As soon as you get a chance, take notes about the conversation. Why did your sister say one thing and your friend Bob say another? What is it about their personalities, their backgrounds, or their educational levels that made them react so differently?

Creating Character Biographies

If you’re having trouble writing dialogue for a particular character, you might find it helpful to write his biography. This doesn’t have to be his complete life story, but it should be detailed enough to allow you to really get to know him.

First, write down your character’s physical characteristics: age, gender, height, what the birthmark on their ass is shaped like, etc. Your character’s appearance affects what the other people in the story think about him and how they interact with him. Also, your character’s personality is affected by what he sees in the mirror and how he thinks about himself.

Write down a little about the character’s childhood. Was she happy or did she come from an abusive family? Was her family rich or did her parents work two jobs? A character’s childhood influences how her personality and views develop and how she thinks about the world.

Write about your character’s world. Where does she work? Who are her friends? (Those that don’t appear in the story.) Where does she live? What kinds of things does she own? What does she keep in her pockets or purse?

Another helpful thing is writing your character’s backstory. What was your character doing before the “real” story began? What does she plan to do after the story ends?  Imagine that you are writing a story about two guys working in a video rental store, who plan on working there for a few months until they go back to college. They will have very different thoughts about their job and their lives than someone who planned on working there forever, and have very different conversations.

Character Relationships

Another important thing is how your characters feel about the other people in the story. A character will say very different things to her boyfriend than to her boss. She will speak differently to her boyfriend if she is deeply in love than if she is secretly unhappy and cheating.

Characters might change how they speak if they are talking to someone of a different age, or someone of a different educational level, or a different economic class. Your characters should have strong, individual personalities. These personalities include opinions about the other characters.

Once you are familiar with your characters and how they relate to one another, you can better understand their motivations. Just like their actions, your characters words should be strongly motivated. They should have a reason for everything they say, even if they aren’t consciously aware of it themselves. Characters with strong personalities will almost automatically form opinions about each other. These opinions guide their relationships and how they interact. After enough time and writing practice, your characters will interact in ways that will surprise even you.

Dialogue Tips and Tricks

Nonverbal Communication

“I’ve got a present for you,” he said, drawing his gun.

A big part about communication is nonverbal. Action can add layers of meaning to your character’s words. Describing gestures, facial expressions, and posture can show the relationship between two characters, indicate irony or sarcasm, and add subtle nuances to otherwise drab dialogue. If your characters don’t really mean what they’re saying, you can show us through a visual.

David handed Rick a photo of his new girlfriend. Rick’s face puckered like he was sucking on a lemon. “Oh, she’s really sexy!” he said.

Action can also show us the relationship between characters. For example: Rachel’s mother dies, and two people try to comfort her. The first puts his arm around her, and the second mumbles and stares at the floor. Why? The first character is her brother, and the second is a friend, embarrassed at seeing her in the shower the previous day.

He Said, She Said

“My dialogue is terrible,” he grumbled ungraciously.

Said, said, said, said, said! When you write a long story, you type “said” dozens, even hundreds of times.  If you’re like me, after a while you just get sick of writing the word. If you hate the word so much, your readers must hate it, too, right? Not necessarily. Most people barely notice it. To your reader, it’s almost like punctuation.

Alternatives to “said” are fine, within limits. At most, you should use three to a page. Any more than that, and they can become distracting. The more creative your alternatives, the more distracting they can become. Words like “yelled,” “whispered,” and “called” can be used much more often than “groused,” “breathed,” or “chanted.”

The same thing goes for dialogue describers, those words that tell you how a line was delivered. “Softly,” “sadly,” “shyly,” and so on. Used sparingly, they can be a great addition to your dialogue. But too much, and they become a crutch. You shouldn’t rely on dialogue describers to carry a scene. You’re not writing a play. You want your readers to be able to see the scene, not just hear it. I’ll show you what I mean.

Hear the scene:

David walked in to the living room. “Sarah,” he said sadly, “I’ve lost my job.”

“Oh, god!” Sarah gasped, horrified. “What are we going to do for food? How will we pay the rent?”

See the scene:

David shuffled slowly into the living room, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. His green eyes, usually sparkling with vitality, seemed as damp as a lawn covered in morning dew. Sarah was sprawled on the couch, reading a novel. She gazed up at him and smiled. Swallowing his pain, he said, “Sarah, I’ve lost my job.”

Sarah gasped, dropping her book on the floor. “Oh, god!” She had to grab the couch cushion to stop her hands from shaking.  What are we going to do for food? How will we pay the rent?”

The second version creates a vivid image in the reader’s mind. I don’t have to tell you what these characters are feeling, or how they sounded when they spoke. You can fill that in for yourself.

Too Much Talk, Not Enough Action

The action in your scenes should do more than just communicate emotions. It’s important enough just to give your characters something to do. While your characters are talking, they can light cigarettes, eat, pace, or take off a bra, just about anything to keep them moving. The action should give the reader a visual, and also communicate something about the characters. One character smokes because she is trying to lose weight, another character paces because talking about the wedding makes him nervous.

A dialogue-heavy scene is a good time to mention a character’s personal possessions. A piece of jewelry, a wrinkled tee shirt, or an engraved lighter can help your reader get a better impression of a character’s personality. Props can be used as a kind of shorthand, just like physical characteristics. If you want to say “this is the villain,” you can use a three-day beard and a nasty scar, or you could use a rusty knife and a bottle of whiskey.

Another reason props are important is that it helps the reader remember just who is speaking. If you have a few paragraphs of “he said, she said,” mentioning the character’s Clash tee shirt makes sure your reader knows it’s Jack speaking, not his brother Ricardo. If your story has a large cast of characters, a visual helps us remember someone better than just a name.

Idiolects

“A reader may perhaps come to decide that I converse far too cleverly to be credible, bearing in mind that I am a mere four years of age,” said Billy.     

Every person has a unique way of speaking, which linguists call an “idiolect.” This individual variation is determined by several important factors:

  • Gender – Word choice varies a great deal across gender lines. Women are less likely to use profanity than men, and when women do curse, they are less likely to swear directly at someone.  Women use more “tag questions,” questions added on to the end of declarative sentences. (“You put gas in the car, didn’t you?”)
  • Age – Again, variation in word choice. Every generation invents its own slang, in an attempt to separate itself from the previous generation. Younger people are more likely to use sarcasm. Age differences are also related to education level.
  • Education level – Education level affects things like word choice, sentence structure, use of slang and profanity, and more.

Idiolect is also affected by socioeconomic status, region, occupation, and other factors. All of these things should influence how you write dialogue for each of your characters. The more you know about a character, the more realistic and individualized their dialogue will become.

A good trick to help your characters’ dialogue sound more unique is to give each one a word or two that only they will use. Make their private words something that informs the reader about that character. You might have an ex-priest who still uses religious terminology in his everyday speech, or a southern child who refers to adults as “Mr. Mike” or “Miss Amy.”

Other Points to Remember

  • When two people are talking, they almost never use another person’s name in the middle of a conversation. If you are talking to a friend, he knows that you’re talking to him, and there is no need for names. Names are generally reserved for greetings and goodbyes. (Of course, in a group, you have to use names so people know to whom you are speaking.)
  • If your characters are excited or upset, they should interrupt each other. It is very unrealistic for all of your characters to be patient and let each other finish all the time!
  • Obviously, you can indicate a pause in dialogue with ellipsis. If you tend to overuse ellipsis like I do, it is good to have an alternative.  Another way to show a pause in a line is attribution.  (“Bill said.”)

“I never thought you would do this… especially not to me,” Amy said.

“I never thought you would do this,” Amy said, “especially not to me.”

  • When writing dialogue for a character who speaks another language, it is tempting to throw in a non-English word or two. However, most bilingual people will only resort to switching languages when they run into a roadblock: they don’t know the English word for something and have to use a word in their native tongue, or there is no proper English word for something, like a foreign food.

Science Fiction Dialogue Tips

Genre literature can create some special challenges for writers. For those interested in writing science fiction stories, here are some tips for writing great sci-fi dialog.

Writing Dialogue for Robots

First, you should almost never have dialogue between two robots. Why? If you have a group of robot soldiers or security guards, they would not talk to each other out loud. Just like real soldiers and security guards, they would need to be able to communicate at a distance. They would communicate silently via radio waves, Wi-Fi, or other ways. If a group of robots can do that, there would be no need to use a speech synthesizer.

How do you show that two robots are communicating without words? The same way you might discuss a remote control “talking” to a television. Avoid the temptation to anthropomorphize robots, and just use general description.

The robot prison guard signaled to the control room that it found a gun on the floor of the mess hall. Dozens of other guards rolled into view. Exchanging prisoner location data, they positioned themselves in a ring around the gun, keeping humans away until the weapon could be retrieved.

However, a robot might speak out loud to another robot if they had vastly different programming, incompatible wireless hardware, came from different planets, and so on. Spoken words would be a kind of “international language” for robots, like their own Esperanto.

When your robots are speaking out loud, your first concern should be this: what is the robot’s function?  While it would be an advantage for any machine to be able to learn, most robots would be on the level of “smart appliances.” Only a few specific functions would warrant highly advanced, human-like intelligence.

“But my story is set far in the distant future; all the robots are just like people!”

Then your story is fantasy, not science fiction. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)  Think about it! Digital clocks are incredibly cheap. Why isn’t there a clock in your stapler? The manufacturers could have added one without adding much to the price, so why didn’t they? Because it’s a stapler. It doesn’t need to tell time.

No one would want to have in-depth conversations with a robot janitor, so they would not be designed with any level of real intelligence, even if the technology was inexpensive and readily available. A robot’s intelligence level would be determined by two factors: how often does it interact with humans, and how complex is its job?

Here are some possible types of robots, listed roughly according to intelligence and conversational skills, starting at the best conversationalists and moving down:

  1. Robot Companion – A robotic friend for children, the elderly, and so forth
  2. Sex Robot – A robotic “friend” for adults
  3. Human Handlers – Robotic receptionists, museum guides, translators, etc.
  4. Medical Robots – Robotic doctors, surgery robots, and so on
  5. Emergency Robots – Robotic fire fighters, police, and others
  6. Retail / Service Industry Robots – Robotic waiters, bellboys, etc.
  7. Robotic Repairmen – Robot auto mechanics, spaceship repair robots, and so on
  8. Toys – Any interactive children’s toys, especially the educational variety
  9. Robot Janitors – Robot vacuum cleaners, carpet shampooers, and the like
  10. Industrial robots – Robots on construction sites or in factories

Even relatively intelligent robots would have a specific list of things they were programmed to know, and thus would have limited conversational abilities. A robot doctor would have to be extremely intelligent, but it wouldn’t be able to discuss, say, philosophy or politics. (At least, not without searching the internet for more information!)

When you’re writing dialogue between a human and a “lower” robot, you should portray the machine as having little intelligence. What knowledge the robot does have would be very narrow and specific, and the robot would have trouble understanding anything outside of its function. If the robot is low enough on the list, a real conversation would be impossible. It would be like trying to have a chat with your toaster. Even if it could talk, it wouldn’t be able to say much more than “your toast is ready!”

Writing Dialogue for Time Travelers

Let’s assume that you are in the United States. You’re out walking, and you run into a man in a very cliché-looking silver jumpsuit. At first, you think he’s a human-looking alien. And then you notice the book:  Gray’s Sports Almanac – Complete Sports Statistics 2000-2050. And you think, “Ah, a time traveler!”

Gambling aside, most time travelers want to avoid changing history. Any changes your time traveler makes in the past could change the future in completely unpredictable ways. A major change might mean he was never born at all. So, the time traveler would want to be quiet and anonymous. You’d be lucky if you could get him to speak to you at all.

But let’s suppose you do get him to speak.  Assuming your time traveler is also from the United States, how would you expect him to sound? Could you understand him at all?

Languages change a lot over time. As I mentioned in Writing Realistic Aliens, one of the biggest influences on a language is other languages. When two groups who speak different languages meet, the result depends upon the length of the meeting and how often it happens, and the status of the two groups. Two equal groups will interact in a different way than if one culture is more advanced or has a stronger economy or military.

When two equal cultures meet, they might become bilingual, speaking both languages. Or the businessmen and traders might use a separate language as a means of communication, rather like the way English is used today.

If two unequal cultures meet, the people in the less advanced culture might learn a simplified version of the other’s language, called a “pidgin.” The less advanced culture might lose their language entirely, completely switching to the other’s language. Or they might become bilingual, with a “high” and a “low” language. The high language might be used for business and the low only spoken at home.

So, what does this mean for your time traveler?  According to statistical projections at Census.gov, by 2050, Hispanics will make up twenty-five percent of the population of the United States. Therefore, some sociologists say the U.S. will eventually become bilingual nation. (If the entire country doesn’t become bilingual, then parts of the country may. The situation would be similar to the English and French-speaking areas of Canada.)

On the other hand, there might be a certain degree of language convergence, which is when two languages “smoosh” together. One language takes words, grammar, and slang from another, the two languages becoming more and more alike over time. A century from now, we might see a kind of Spanish-English creole (combination of both languages) becoming the dominant language in the United States.

Of course, you are writing a science fiction story. You are free to make your time traveler’s future society whatever you want it to be. Perhaps the United States has been conquered by China, or a future president has conquered half the Middle East. Or the walls between countries have dissolved, leading to an epic amount of culture-mixing. Whatever future you decide to write, keep the process of language change in mind.

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