He Said, She Said: The Process of Writing Dialogue

Unless you are working on an exceptionally strange and complicated novel, there will be some point in your writing process where your characters will have to actually open their mouths and say something. This is the magical world of dialogue, yet another thing that can either make or break your story depending on how well it is written.

Dialogue is a tricky thing to pull off successfully, often because writers and readers alike have multiple notions of what good dialogue is supposed to be. We are praised for dialogue that is “natural” and criticized when our dialogue is “too stiff.” Don’t ever use the word “said,” except when you’re supposed to use it all the time. If you’re writing something set in the past, don’t you dare make your characters sound too modern! That’ll take your readers right out of the story! Repeat ad nauseum.

Opinions and tips like this are why I’m going to begin with one simple tip about dialogue. This is something I learned from one of my professors in college, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Here it is: there is no such thing as authentically natural dialogue. By default, narrative dialogue exists in a heightened reality.

Think about the way you talk, or the way you’ve heard friends or family talk. It’s a mess! We backtrack, we mix up words, we space out and lose our train of thought. That’s just how our brains work; it’s the human experience. But if you tried faithfully replicating that in a book, your story would have trouble getting anywhere. You’d most likely have a disaster on your hands.

But in stories, every word and sentence of dialogue has a purpose. That purpose isn’t always just making the plot go forward. It works to flesh out characters and build a comprehensive image of your setting. It’s as different from casual conversation as a casual conversation is to a prepared speech. One takes its time to meander, branch out and find a way around an idea. The other is more structured and goal-oriented, meaning you know where you must go and how to get there. The big difference is that with narrative dialogue, your job as a writer is to fool the brain into reading the unnatural as natural. That’s the real secret to good dialogue.

But how, you ask, is a writer supposed to take something that’s inherently unreal and make it sound convincing? By donning a clever disguise, of course.

Developing Voices

Before you can write down what your characters say, you should figure out how they’re going to say it. Voice is something that relies on a variety of factors related to your characters: age, upbringing, social class, personality, et cetera. It’s your job as a writer to figure out how these different factors come together to influence the way your characters talk and the words they use.

Remember those character-building prompts I mentioned in my last writing article? Let’s return to those tools and use them a bit more. This time, try writing in first-person perspective from the POV of your character, or whatever POV they use to refer to themselves. The POV in which you’re actually writing the book doesn’t matter for this exercise. We’re only focused on how the character you’re working on views and interprets the world. This is one way for you to start identifying and modifying the ways in which your characters speak. Think of it as a test run for writing dialogue within your story. You might even be able to recycle the material from these exercises for further use!

Yeah, I Said It

Some people don’t know what to make of the word “said.” On one level, it’s a practical and neat little word that should be part of every writer’s toolbox. On another level, it can be a boring word that makes its presence obvious with repetition. So you may hear some writing advice that tells you to get rid of “said” in favor of some more variety or flavor for your prose. After all, we have plenty of words to describe the way in which someone speaks. The problem is that if you embrace them, your writing could end up looking a little something like this:

“It’s cold outside!” she whined.

“Then shut the door,” he growled.

“But I’m waiting for the dog to come back in,” she explained.

A rather basic example, but you get the idea. A different word for “said” each time draws your attention away from the words being said and makes the writing clunky. But if we just replaced those three verbs in the above paragraphs with “said,” that wouldn’t make the dialogue any easier to read. It would become too stiff and too repetitive. So what’s a better solution?

The one which I’ve found is to sometimes forego the use of dialogue markers altogether. Here’s an example of what I mean, using the same setup as the dialogue above:

“It’s cold outside!” she said, shivering.

He rolled his eyes and went back to his work. “Then shut the door.”

“I’m waiting for the dog to come back in.” She took a step outside and looked out over the mounds of snow, searching for the little white fuzzball.

Notice how the word “said” only appeared in that exchange once. The other two times, I didn’t need to use it. I indicated that a new person was speaking through quotation marks and paragraph breaks, and I used body language to give a sense of the characters’ emotions. You can’t tell, can’t you, that the second speaker is somewhat annoyed with the first speaker? And I didn’t have to use a word marker like “growled” or “snapped” to convey it.

That’s not to imply that “said” is the only dialogue marker you should ever use. You can use as many as you want, although I would recommend staying away from the more ridiculous ones like “queried” or “expostulated.” One that I use a lot is “asked,” which works just as well as “said.” Another frequent one is “yelled” or “shouted,” which I sometimes use, but I prefer the use of a simple exclamation point to denote raising one’s voice. As with all options for writing, it’s your choice.

What’s My Motivation?

Dialogue gets easier to write if you know where each character in a scene is coming from. Not in a physical sense, but in terms of what their goals and plans are.

Stories are built on conflict. A larger conflict serves as the backbone of a whole narrative, but each scene contains a miniature conflict within itself. A two-person scene has a basic setup. One character has a goal: to learn a secret, or reach an agreement, or persuade someone else to their point of view. On the other side of that equation is someone who has goals of their own, usually opposite of what the other person wants. Dialogue is how the two characters fight to carry out their respective goals. The same principle applies no matter how many characters are in the scene.

One way to help you get into this mindset is to identify each character’s goals for a scene before you begin writing it. You can also identify the intended outcome of the scene if you want, but that’s not always necessary. If you know how to begin, you can start writing and let the characters’ actions and words themselves lead you to whatever conclusion feels right.

There Is No Stupid Line

I think that in a story, every line of dialogue should have a purpose. What that doesn’t mean is that everything your characters say needs to be in the service of advancing the overall narrative. That might get you to the end of your story quicker, but you wouldn’t end up with a very memorable story, setting or cast of characters. What I mean is that dialogue which isn’t directly about your plot should contribute to the other aspects of your story: the development of characters, fleshing out the world, creating an appropriate mood. Dialogue that seemingly lacks a point is often what helps us get to know the characters better. It helps their world and lives seem full and authentic. It can be illuminating.

For example, let’s say you have two characters sitting in a restaurant talking about that day’s news. Maybe the news in question is a major plot point of your story, maybe it isn’t. But the event itself isn’t what we’re really focused on here: we’re focused on the characters revealing facets of their personalities through this conversation. What they say, how they react, the directions in which they might try to steer the conversation? Those all help your readers learn more about them than they ever would in an exposition-heavy scene. You may not feel like you’ve moved the story forward with that scene, but you’ve given it more depth, and that’s just as important.

Further Reading/Viewing/Listening

Reading all kinds of books is great research for authors, but when it comes to dialogue, you have more options than you might be aware of. Novels and short stories are great, but for the most part, they don’t rely entirely on the characters’ words to get their points across. Something that I like to do when studying dialogue is look not only at books, but at films, television, plays and radio or podcasts. These forms of media, especially plays and audio, are different from regular books in that dialogue is one of the only ways they are able to convey their plots and ideas. The nature of their format constrains them in this way, which is what makes them ideal examples for dialogue study.

Something else which sets these other forms of media apart from books as research resources is that you’re required to see and hear them. Perhaps this is my years of acting experience talking, but I’ve found that dialogue is best studied when you actually listen to it. You get more of the words’ cadence and flow that way. This is also why some writers will recommend that you speak your dialogue out loud or get some software to read it for you. Hearing your dialogue is a different experience from just reading it back over, and it can help you identify spots for improvement that you may not have noticed otherwise.

So find some good scripts to read, but if you have the means, try and actually see a play or find a film/recording of one. And the next time you pop in a movie or an episode of your favorite show, pay more attention to what everyone is saying. Single out a conversation or line that you’re particularly fond of and explain why it works for you. Follow the thread of a scene from point A to point B. It will help you appreciate the writing even more, and you’ll learn something as well.

Coming soon: I discuss an awesome new streaming service and attempt to launch a new frequent content series for the blog. Thanks for reading, and see you later!

— Dana

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