Dialogue is a challenging part of the writing process. There are complete books written on good dialogue, and many chapters in writing books center on dialogue. Many writers have a deep-seated fear of dialogue.
It is difficult to bring authentic speech to the page, and everyone can point to examples of dialogue that falls flat. Even in “good” writing, an errant line of dialogue ruins immersion.
There’s a simple solution to this, however: writing boldly.
What is the Purpose of Dialogue?
Before we identify bold dialogue, we need to go over our purpose.
We can divide the central purpose of any part of a story across three ends: exposition, action, and imagery.
Each of these ends has an appropriate and inappropriate means of provision.
Dialogue is primarily a conveyor of exposition.
As artificially crafted speech, dialogue does three things very well:
- Showing a character’s outlook.
- Communicating a key detail.
- Adding flavor to the setting.
Dialogue usually fails when it does none of these three things.
It also fails when it fulfills an already-met need.
We’ll talk about each of these three purposes once I define bold dialogue.
Bold Dialogue, Lame Dialogue
Bold dialogue does something new. It pushes the limits of the past content in the story.
The defining quality here is novelty within the story itself. There is a time and place for simple functional dialogue.
However, bold dialogue can take any form. A long-winded soliloquy becomes interesting because of the thought behind it. Shakespeare’s characters are a prime example of this: Hamlet is interesting because he’s in crisis and working through complicated thoughts.
Again, novelty to the story is key. Dialogue needs to break ground.Bold dialogue does something new. It pushes the limits of the past content in the story. Click To Tweet
Lame dialogue retreads old ground. If readers know a character doesn’t like the Russian mobsters chasing them, taking some time out for an expletive-filled rant is just a delay between the action.
There is an exception here. Very well-written dialogue with characters conveying a humorous element can state the obvious. This wears thin quickly if overused as a trope, and I’m not good enough at it myself to give advice on this front.
However, a quick tip: farce depends on characters running against the grain. Shakespeare’s clowns succeed because they are absurd and witty. Mere absurdity grows tiring. Mere cleverness falls short.
“I hate fish! They taste weird and they’re slimy.”
This shows us something about our character.
“I am upset!”
This might show us something about our character, but only in context.
“That makes me feel bad because…”
This is a character performing impromptu psychoanalysis, telling us something.
You might conceivably use all three methods to inform your reader of a character’s outlook, but only the former two lend themselves to natural dialogue.
The focus is giving the reader a morsel from the character’s mind. Writers need this to be interesting. Don’t put it up on stilts unless it’s emblematic of a character’s thought process. Someone who over-analyzes may be verbose to a fault.
Even then, you’re cutting out things to just what is interesting to the reader. This is where killing your darlings may come in. If your character has a sudden urge to talk about their favorite food, you’d better have a reason it matters. Are they taking their mind off of surviving on a desert island? Are they an enthusiastic child? Were they asked?
These motivations are important to the character, and set a boundary on the conversation.
Writers can merge outlook with adding setting flavor. “That sucks” and “It must have been hard” are equally valid statements coming from different characters in the same context, and diction tells us something about their origin (e.g. Valley kid versus caring parent). “At least it ain’t me” is another option, and is perhaps even more poignant from an outlook perspective.
The important thing here: the dialogue leaves readers with something they didn’t know about the speakers.
This is also the best way to show emotion. Don’t do the third-example method of characters telling us what they think, but do have the characters emphasize important information.
Etiquette and context matters. People comfort each other, intimidate each other, encourage each other, and deceive each other. If the reader catches characters doing that, it reveals their motives the same way a physical action would.
Details in Dialogue
“Fifteen years ago, when you were a small child, we had to flee the Empire. We wound up here.”
This is a decent thing for one character to say to another if the second character doesn’t know this already.
It’s a weird thing for them to say if both of them know it.
It’s a stupid thing if the reader and both characters know it already.
Dialogue that introduces a detail succeeds most often when it’s something that is emotionally significant for a character or new to the reader.
Stating the obvious in dialogue is risky. If it’s not duplicated elsewhere, it may be mistaken for exaggeration or hyperbole. Obvious details don’t belong in dialogue. Consider the briefly infamous “They fly now?” scene from the most recent Star Wars movie, The Rise of Skywalker.
It drew particular ire because it was the characters announcing something all characters knew and something the audience knew. The likely intent was to be humorous, but when it torpedoed the scene for anyone in the audience who didn’t laugh.
Revealing details in dialogue works best when it brings something new to both a character and the reader. Short, snappy reminders can work, but drawn out explanations don’t.
Also, people can be terse or verbose, but even the verbose tend not to give a lot of little technical data. Make sure that anyone who’s giving a lot of facts has a motive to do so. If they’re rambling on about history, firearms, or spaceships, they should have passion. This means no encyclopedia entries!
Dialect and inflection add a lot to how readers perceive a setting.
My general rule here is that the less you intentionally do, the better.
Or: If it’s hard for you to wrap your head around it when writing, it will be hard for your reader.
Characters often talk past each other, saying things that don’t quite match what you’d expect them to say, changing the subject, and things like that. Besides showing outlook or adding a detail, this can make the conversation more interesting to follow as an onlooker.
Also, people talk differently from the standardized language used in writing. Play on this.
Consider two forms in particular that you can use:
- Direct communication, the “vocative” case.
- Slang and fragments.
The first form of dialogue that adds flavor is when a character directly talks to someone else. “Frank, fetch my hammer for me.”
There’s a lot of relationship that can be buried beneath the surface of how two characters address each other. Honorifics like “mister” or “ma’am” can speak volumes.
You also have slang and fragments.
Slang can add a lot to dialogue that you shouldn’t have in your main text unless you’re writing from a perspective with a narrator’s voice interposed on the text.
Each use of slang is idiosyncratic. Beware overwhelming readers with unfamiliar jargon. An example might be military slang, where there are enough terms to overwhelm an uninitiated audience. A small smattering of slang with context clues can give an indication of a character’s background without becoming painful.
Some fragments are natural speaking patterns (“Where were you at all day?” “The park.”) and some of these can be a consequence
Incorporating sound-based accents that alter the text heavily can be problems for readers. A thick accent may not require phonetic spelling, and if you use phonetic spelling you risk confusing your audience.
There’s also a risk of causing offense with caricatures of accents, but fortunately that trope is on the way out.
Sometimes dialogue serves a purpose other than exposition. Here it’s strictly mechanical, reflecting a context.
It is perfectly acceptable to end a conversation with “Goodbye.”
If the object of a conversation is obvious in context, leave it out in the dialogue. “Look!” is active.
“Look at the fireball!” is descriptive.
Because one prepares the audience for action and the other communicates the event, you need to be careful with keeping mechanical dialogue focused on flow.
Whenever a conversation doesn’t convey information to the reader, it should lead neatly into and out of action. There’s a power to someone narrating a scene, but consider how lame this dialogue is compared to narrating the events:
“He’s got a knife!”
“I’ve been stabbed!”
However you present action through dialogue, there will always be induced ambiguity. This may be desirable in rare cases, but between the need for dialogue to conform with conceivable speech and flow with a chain of events direct narration is almost always better.
One caveat: deliberately creating distance can be risky, but can also pay off with the right stylistic approach. I can count good examples of this on my fingers, typically in horror stories where the gory details are left to the reader’s imagination.
Dialogue needs to be novel and achieve a purpose. Typically, it will show something about a character, though it can also provide other forms of exposition.
The number one enemy of good dialogue is unnecessary repetition. The second is having a character say something that doesn’t make sense in context.
Avoiding these is key to convincing your audience that dialogue is good, so writing boldly and covering new ground in your characters’ speech is important.