Write Good Dialogue

[Index]

A character's dialogue should seem authentic

Each character should speak uniquely

All dialogue should either develop character or advance plot

Dialogue should be carefully formatted for ease-of-reading

On Dialogue Tags

Dialogue Formatting in Play and Film Scripts

 

In this lecture, when I refer to "stories," I'm also referring to scripts. The same general principles apply to both stories and play and film scripts.

Good stories are held together by good scenes, and good scenes are held together by action, dialogue and description, not exposition. Scenes in writing are just like scenes in a movie: they are “seen” and heard rather than explained. Thus dialogue, being the sound in writing, is a critical element of scene writing. It’s another form of description.

What is terrific about good dialogue to both the storyteller and reader is that is provides a direct link between the reader and a character without the writer getting in the way. Instead of, for example, a writer explaining that a particular character (we’ll call him Sparky) is funny, it’s usually more effective to “show” the characteristic of “funny” through description or dialogue.

     “Knock knock,” said Sparky.

     “Who’s there?” I said.

     “Orange.”

     “Orange who?” I said.

     “Orange you glad I didn't say 'orange' again?” Sparky said. And then he laughed until his eyes got wet.

Maybe that’s not the best example of the character being funny, but it does reveal something about the character, that he thinks he’s funny. And this is shown rather than explained. The reader understands perfectly.

Dialogue is critical. Here are four key points about making it effective:

     1.   A character’s dialogue should seem authentic, not contrived.

     2.
   Each character should speak uniquely, even if the differences are subtle; you don’t want all characters to sound the same.
 
     3.
   All dialogue should either develop character or advance plot. Any dialogue that doesn’t accomplish either should be cut.
 
     4.
   Dialogue should be carefully formatted for ease-of-reading.

 

A character’s dialogue should seem realistic


Don’t fluff up a character’s speech to make him or her seem more intelligent. Say, for example, if a writer re-creates the speech of a father who happens to be a wheat farmer with a fifth grade education, and the father speaks like a news anchorperson, with perfect grammar, who’s going to buy it? This is not in any way a comment on the farmer’s lack of education; instead, it’s about integrity to truth, to what “is”. Example: “You need to stay on the farm, Bill,” said my father as he pulled the bill of his John Deere cap down over his grease-smeared forehead. “I need to pass along what my father has passed on to me. This is the cycle of existence, Bill. Do not break it.”

My first reaction to this passage of dialogue would be, “I don’t buy it.” My advice to the writer would be: Trying to hide bad grammar in the speech of a character is not being true to that character. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer had awkward grammar, but no one cared about that; it didn’t diminish their worth as intelligent humans beings; in fact, Tom Sawyer, though his grammar isn’t great, is one of the wisest characters ever presented in a story. Make the dialogue true to the character; though your writing needs to be grammatically sound, the speech of your characters does not. So, some technical things you can do to make people’s speech authentic:

·  Have characters use contractions. Instead of a character saying, “I do not want to go to school today,” have the character say, “I don’t want to go to school today.” People rarely speak formally unless they’re giving a lecture or something.

·  Use occasional slang to reflect the culture or age of a particular character. Instead of a character saying, “I don’t want to go to school today,” have the character, if a little kid, say, “I don’t wanna to go to school today.”

·  Don’t overdo the use of slang. Too much becomes unbelievable and contrived.
 

·  To best learn how to write authentic dialogue, you need to listen to the way people speak and be able to mimic them. More on this here:
 

Each character should speak uniquely

This is probably the hardest part of writing dialogue for even the most professional writers. In reality, many people who live in the same places and have the same backgrounds seem to speak the same way. If you’re writing about working class guys from Brainerd, for example, the fellow might stereotypically talk like characters from the movie Fargo, with constricted vowels (instead of saying “boat,” they say “boot”), and they also speak in Northern Minnesota cliches, “Well, that’s different,” or “that can really get a guy mad”).

Though stereotypes are often arise from reality – it’s true that stereotypes are true – if they become over-exaggerated, just like anything in writing, they become unbelievable.

Also, by making these “similar characters from the same place and with the same backgrounds” talk exactly alike, we’re saying that they are alike, and that really hurts the character development, where the task is to bring out the individual character of the individual character.

With all this said, these characters “do” talk the same, unless you listen more closely. When you listen closely, you’ll begin to hear differences. You’ll begin to hear the differences, and though they might be subtle, these are the differences you need to move into your writing.

So what I’m saying here is that to write convincing dialogue in a way that makes each character seem unique, you need to train your ear in real-life to not only listen carefully to the way people speak, but to analyze and even mimic the way they speak. For this reason, the “Overheard Speech” exercise from “Trigger Exercises” is my favorite exercise. It’s quite useful and needs to be practiced informally all the time.

Example: Listen to a good comedian who does good impersonations. Chances are, that comic will tell you that he or she developed those impressions over time by studying real people. Jonathan Winters, one of the greatest voice and character impersonators evener, used to hide behind the living room couch when he was little and just listen to his family members talk. Then he mimicked them and they were amazed. He literally absorbed their speech and cadences. Writers can do the same thing, and do. They can literally mimic, in writing, the speech patterns of others by analyzing and studying real people. They train their ears to “listen,” and this way, dialogue becomes natural to the characters rather than the writers trying to forcefully craft the speech in their own image. This is a real mistake; you’ll know you’re forcing uniqueness on characters when all the characters start sounding more like you, the writer, than who they are.

Example: When Jonathan Winters impersonated his characters, he almost literally become those characters. There was no more Jonathan Winters. I don’t mean to get mystical, but a writer should be able to lose him or herself to the mercy of the characters. It’s the characters who should speak, not the writer. The writer is just a channel, in a way, for the voices of the characters, because with enough study and training, all those voices are within the writer. I’m not kidding.

 

All dialogue should either develop character or advance plot


Dialogue should never exist just to exist; it must have a purpose to the story. And neither should there be too much dialogue. Don’t have characters talk endlessly. Even small interjections of dialogue into scenes can be effective. Sometimes, the less said, the better, so long as at least one of the main narrative purposes is delivered: developing character or advancing plot.

I’ll give you an example of a short exchange of dialogue that reveals character. It’s from one of my own stories called “Storage.” I’m not using it as an example to boast, but because it illustrates my point and I don’t have to worry about copyright issues. This small bit of dialogue takes place at the end of the first scene in the story, which shows a middle-aged suburban guy in his kitchen trying to match lids to plastic storage containers and getting frustrated. He’s home because he took time off work to bury his father. The story is told from his POV. Here’s the exchange:

“Hey, Dad,” says my other son Alan, walking into the kitchen. “I’m going over to Kimmy’s to play XBox.”

“Who’s Kimmy?” I say.

“Jimmy,” he says.

“I swear to God you said Kimmy.”

That’s all there is. I had a comment from one reader that this was really “funny” because it was so “random.” I liked the “funny” comment, but not the “random” comment, because the sequence isn’t random. The narrator’s nine words are there for a purpose, to show his distraction. His mind is somewhere else. He’s full of emotions he can’t figure out because of the death of his father, strain with his kids and wife, etc. He’s heading into a crisis, and this little but of dialogue shows that he’s beginning to make the plunge into something meaningful. Thus, the small exchange serves the two purposes of dialogue: it develops character and establishes the main tension of the story, which is an element of advancing the plot.

 

Formatting Dialogue Correctly for Stories and Scripts

It’s not only important to be artistically sound in writing dialogue, but it’s equally important to be technically correct. Great dialogue can be ruined by sloppy formatting.

The following basic rules of formatting dialogue for stories (short fiction and novels) are for the purposes of clarity, to make it easy for the reader to follow the stream of a conversation. When characters speak, their exact language should be in quotes, and the reader should know who’s speaking, thus these rules:

 

1.  Each speaker gets his or her own paragraph; a return and indent. This mimics real conversation, indicating pauses and so forth. You don’t want to run multiple speakers’ speech together in one paragraph. It’s hard to read.
 

2.  Attributions (“He said, “She said” and variations) should be used, but not too much; they can be used at the start of quotes, in the middle, or at the end. When attributions are overused, they get in the way; the key is that the reader should always know who’s speaking. Sometimes when two characters are speaking, once you establish who is speaking, you can omit tags entirely in some cases (see example below).
 

3.   Always use a comma after attribution (She said,) when introducing a quote.
 

4.   Write concise, accurate attributions (“he said,” “she said”) and punctuate them correctly.

 

Example of a correctly formatted passage:

              When I was eight, my father dragged me into my bedroom after I lit a folded pile of his shirts on fire. I sat on the edge of the bed, not looking up, my hands folded mannerly in my lap.

            “What’s wrong with you?” he asked.

            “Nothing,” I said.

            “You lit my shirts on fire, boy? Where’d you learn that?”

            “Daycare.”

            “What? Daycare?” He said. “You learned how to light shirts on fire at daycare?”

            I froze and looked up the ceiling, trying to backtrack. I actually learned how to light matches by watching him light his pipe, but I couldn’t tell him that.

            “A kid brought matches one day. I told him matches were bad.”

            “I’m calling your daycare.”

            “No,” I said. Okay, I screamed it, and he scowled at me.

            “Tell me the truth, lad.”

            I took a deep breath and let it out: “I hate your shirts, Dad. They remind me of those guys on TV who golf.”

 

On Dialogue Tags

Attributions are what I called “dialogue tags,” the little markers than tell the reader who is speaking: He said, She said, Bob said.

It is important to keep dialogue tags clear and simple. Do not overwrite them by adding unneeded adverbs (words that usually end in –ly) or verbs. This is a common error of beginning writers. Example:

“I hate cats,” Mary said angrily.

There’s no need to use the adverb “angrily” is the speech itself show anger. You always want to the words themselves to deliver the particular emotion, so choose the dialogue carefully. In this case, the writer is not trusting him or herself that the dialogue effectively reveals the character’s anger, and so adds the adverb “just to make sure.” No need, though, in this case, however: the word “hate” effectively shows anger.

Or instead of writing the verb “said,” some writers will instead throw in a verb that explains emotion rather than the fact that the person spoke. Example:

“I hate cats,” Mary raged.

The word "raged" is not only unnecessary, but it’s inaccurate. Mary did not “rage.” She “spoke.” With the dialogue tag, just say she “said.” And then in the next line, write the “description” of the rage.

“I hate cats,” Mary said. Then she pounded her fist on the table and made the forks flip onto their backs.

If you use too many different kinds of dialogue tags and try to cram too much information into them, they become distracting to the readers. They interrupt the progress of the narrative. Make the dialogue and description do the work of scene-building and then you won’t have to load up the dialogue tags with heavy adverbs and verbs.

 

Stories with Good Dialogue

Hills Like White Elephants, Ernest Hemingway

Hunters in the Snow, Tobias Wolff

 

Dialogue Formatting in Scripts

Plays

See: How to Format a Stage Play. Refer to this video on play script formatting.

Films

See: Formatting Film Scripts in MS WORD (the best resource for formatting) MS WORD Script Format Template (with text boxes; not "easier" than manually formatting your script. I don't like using this, but some others do).

© 2012, Scott Wrobel