Oh, dialogue. You are one of the most crucial elements of characterization and pacing and yet you continue to be a slippery little scamp when it comes to crafting engaging non-clunky voices.
There are a few key aspects to keep in mind with dialogue:
– Who is speaking?
– Where are they from?
– What time period is it?
A rule of thumb for writing good dialogue is that it makes sense for the character. That means if you’re used to using filler words such as starting every sentence with “Well,” or adding in a “just” in every other sentence because it feels natural, those are probably the filler words you use in everyday speech.
But do they make sense for your character? Oftentimes, they do not. Filler words are okay in dialogue because they add a more natural flow depending on the character in question, but they (generally) should be different filler words than yours.
Doing this ensures your characters don’t all speak in the same voice. They should have their own unique fillers and quirks.
That’s where those three questions I mentioned come in.
Who is speaking?
Answering this question is more than a name. It means who is speaking. Are they the part of your character who is angry? Hurt? In love? Joyful?
So, it’s more “Character X’s anger is speaking,” than “Character X is speaking.” What part of them is vocalizing right then?
It does not have to be an extreme emotion. Apathy and disconnect, or even a healthy, measured response, is still a specific element within that character.
So, who is speaking? Anger or apathy? Judgment or compassion?
That is where a lot of creativity comes in because not every character’s emotion will speak the same way, even if the emotion is the same.
Where are they from?
This one is more straightforward. With upbringing and background, you not only get the chance to convey core values and beliefs, but you can build connections with other characters through shared dialects.
Two characters from the South will, generally, have much more camaraderie quicker than a character from New York alongside a character from California. This is where it’s fun to play with dynamics. Turn of phrase, shorthand, analogies, etc., all come into the picture here. There’s even the opportunity to have a character who does not use any of those things to give them their own stance, maybe because they grew up isolated, cut off from society, or some other form of separation.
What time period is it?
A more technical, yet essential, step to understanding dialogue relates to the period of the story. You don’t want your period-piece characters talking like modern socialites unless that’s a creative choice you’ve made.
Either way, a woman in the high society of Victorian England saying, “Wow, that’s totally far out, my dude,” will never feel natural.
Taking care with the slang present in character speech—or lack thereof—does as much to set the period as clothing descriptions or social hierarchies.
If you’re writing a fantasy or sci-fi where time periods intermix, then obviously, do what you will. This is simply a general best practice.
Beyond the Dialogue
Beyond the actual dialogue content, we have structure and dialogue tags. What’s happening while they’re speaking?
We’ve all heard the classic “said is dead,” but there’s more to it than that. Not to mention, an overuse of fancy tags can bog down a conversation quicker than anything, so I consider that advice outdated 9 times out of 10. Just as important as the spoken words are the accompanying actions.
“I don’t understand why you have to make everything so complicated,” Rachel said.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Andy said.
“You know exactly what I’m talking about, Andy,” Rachel said.
Pretty darn stale, yes? Let’s do it a different way.
“I don’t understand why you have to make everything so complicated,” Rachel groused.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Andy scoffed.
“You know exactly what I’m talking about, Andy,” Rachel sighed.
A little better, but let’s do it one more time:
Rachel crossed her arms, rolling her neck, “I don’t understand why you have to make everything so complicated.”
Andy scoffed, looking at her like she’d lost her mind, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
She put a hand to her brow, sighing, “You know exactly what I’m talking about, Andy.”
Perfect? Nah. But immensely more interesting than the other two versions.
This example focused on character actions, but you can get even more creative by giving them tasks to do during their conversation or having them in extreme weather of some sort. There are endless ways to create an engaging environment for a conversation with any type of POV, past or present tense.
Of course, there’s a place for sparse descriptors if you’re trying to build momentum and you’ve already established the setting/characters.
If we look at high-emotion scenes in movies—for example, the iconic “It still isn’t over,” scene from The Notebook—without the surrounding elements, it would not be nearly as memorable or impactful.
When we strip that scene bare, we get this:
“Why didn’t you write me? Why?” Allie said, “It wasn’t over for me, I waited for you for seven years. And now it’s too late.”
“I wrote you 365 letters,” Noah said. “I wrote you every day for a year.”
“You wrote me?”
“Yes! It wasn’t over, it still isn’t over.”
Emotional, yes. But also empty. Let’s try it with some pizazz per the actual scene:
Allie stomped down the dock, rain pounding down in sheets, dress plastered to her body. She whirled on Noah as he hauled the rowboat out of the water. “Why didn’t you write me?” She raised her voice above the rain, face creasing in pain, “Why?” She hugged her arms tighter to her body, “It wasn’t over for me. I waited for you for seven years, and now—” she took a shuddering breath, “now it’s too late.”
Noah came closer, a look of incredulous disbelief lining his face. He paid no mind to the rainwater dripping into his eyes. “I wrote you 365 letters,” his voice matched his confusion. “I wrote you every day for a year.”
Allie jolted as if struck. “You wrote me?”
“Yes!” Noah said, eyes darting across her face. “It wasn’t over,” he shook his head, resolve taking over his doubt, “it still isn’t over.” He kissed her the way he used to when they were kids, and it was as if no time had passed.
Again, not perfect, but I know which one I would rather read. Granted, this is an extreme example. But it’s important to remember to paint a whole scene, even when the main focus is just characters talking.
Using the elements, emotional body language, and interesting sentence connectors besides dialogue tags can make a world of difference. From screenplays to novels, every conversation needs a setting just as strong as the words.
Now, that’s not always a rain-soaked confession on a lake, sometimes the strongest setting for a conversation is a kitchen table. It all depends on what story you’re telling.
Again, the only reason to know writing rules is so you can break them—I don’t know if there is a more subjective thing than storytelling, so take everything with a grain of salt. You could probably find a separate, excellent bit of storytelling that breaks each of these rules, respectively.
That said, if you remember the who, where, what formula, you’ll have a great start for all your character convos.