Writing Dialogue

Ilsa: “But what about us?”
Rick: “We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.”
I: “When I said I would never leave you.”
R: “And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”

Excerpted from The 20 Best Dialogue Scenes in Cinema History, by Juan Orellana June 3, 2016, Taste of Cinema – Movie Reviews and Classic Movie Lists

The prospect of writing believable dialogue was one of the most intimidating things for me when I began writing the first novel of my trilogy during my very first NaNoWriMo two and a half years ago. As a passionate reader, I’d seen lots of great samples of dialogue over many, many novels, and really wondered if I had it in me to do the same.

Tied in with that, of course, was the ability to create believable characters, who each had their own personalities and nuances. Every day, unless you’re a hermit, you see all of those facets when you talk to people you know or run into. How many times have you run into a chatty cashier at a grocery store (happens to me a lot), or cringed when your grumpy aunt/uncle/grandparent went on the same tirade they’ve nurtured for the past twenty years?

All of those conversations, even the ones you watched without participating yourself – they’re what help you write convincing dialogue.

Think about who your character reminds you of; what would they say in the same/similar situation that you’re writing about? Even if you’re writing genre fiction and placing your characters in situations that no actual person would face, like deciding how to kill a dragon or stop the world’s nastiest supervillain, the details may vary but the way the conversation plays out will follow certain speech patterns.

Now, I’m not even a published author yet, but I can tell you that all my beta readers for Novel 1 loved my dialogue and thought it was very believable (whew!). I felt really good about all the dialogue I’d written, which frankly surprised the hell out of me. But I’ll share with you what helped me write it:

When I write, I essentially live out every scene. I’m in the room, or the restaurant, or the forest, with my characters as they interact. I’m in the body of my protagonist, of course, but I’m also in the heads of the other creatures in the same scene. If the villain is in it, I think as they do, manipulating (or trying to) events to their own end. I envision how my protagonist would react to the other characters – is she amused, dismayed, angry, heartbroken, stunned, fed up… Much like an actor, but to a greater extent, you as the writer need to be in the head spaces of every person/creature that shows up in your novel.

I’ve read a fair bit of advice on how to write dialogue, and here are points I agree or disagree with.

  • Recommended: Don’t address other people by their names, as it doesn’t happen much in real life. I disagree – depending on the situation. If your protagonist is in a meeting or a group, for example, she might address someone by name to get their attention, or mention their name if she’s referring to something they said. In real life, the protagonist might just look at someone in the group to start talking to them, and if possible you could write that into the scene: Mary looked at Stuart. “How can you say such a thing?” In the dialogue sample above, from the final scene of the great classic movie Casablanca, Rick addresses Ilsa by name at one point for emphasis. So I wouldn’t discount using character names within a piece of dialogue if it suits the situation.
  • Recommended: Don’t overuse speech-type descriptives because they’ll interrupt the flow of the dialogue for you reader. Use ‘he/she/they said’ if needed, but preferably build it into the scene so that it’s obvious who’s speaking.

I agree that the word ‘said’ is the most unobtrusive way to specify who’s speaking if you need to. When the conversation is between only two people, you can just alternate lines of dialogue without needing to clarify who’s saying which, as long as you’re careful to use characteristic speech patterns and make the dialogue changes clear logically. I have come across a number of passages in different books where I had to reread the scene several times to make sure I understood who was saying what, and that does become annoying. (This is where editing comes in after you’ve written your first draft.)

However, I do think that descriptive verbs can really build nuance into a conversation. There would be a big difference in meaning between these two pieces of dialogue:

“I hate you!” she joked.

“I hate you!” she snarled.

You could make the lines even more powerful by adding the character’s movements:

“I hate you!” she joked, throwing a wadded ball of paper at him.

“I hate you!” she snarled, clenching her fists in rage.

When I read this type of dialogue, for me the adjectives flesh out my impression of what’s happening. But as a writer I would vary this technique with other dialogue where the character’s actions make the speaker or their mood obvious, such as:

She got up and hugged him. “You’re the best!”

The alternatives for the second sentence with description would be “I hate you!” she said, clenching her fists in rage, which doesn’t work because her actions don’t fit the verb said, or “I hate you!” She clenched her fists in rage, which would work just as well or possibly better, depending on what else is going on.

Too much of anything becomes boring, and that goes as much for writing a scene as for eating an entire meal composed of meat (although, yes, I know many guys who’d argue with that, including my hubby 😉)

  • Avoid redundancy, as in “No,” she disagreed. It’s obvious that the speaker is disagreeing because she said ‘No’. I haven’t seen this kind of thing much in published books, but it’s certainly a trap I hear a lot when people are speaking, and it’s something to be mindful of when you’re editing your novel – unless it’s a pattern of speech that your character uses frequently and annoyingly.

Some of my own pointers

  • If you haven’t done much of this already, study how people of different types, personalities, walks of life all speak. Make notes if you have to – writers do it all the time.
  • Do learn your grammar! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cringed/snarled when a writer gets something really basic wrong. Examples:
    • It’s – this is a contraction meaning ‘It is’. It is NOT the possessive form of ‘It’ – the correct word for that would be ‘its’, just as hers is the possessive form of she, his is the possessive form of he. Do you see any apostrophes in ‘hers’ or ‘his’? No. I read this type of misuse online every single day! But just because a lot of other people are doing it doesn’t mean it’s correct. Please, for the future of writing as a thoughtful artistic medium, learn how to write precisely.
    • ‘Should of’ or ‘would of’ or ‘could of’. No, no, no! People don’t say ‘I should of’ done something. They say ‘I should have’, or in its contracted form, ‘should’ve’. (Also notice that I didn’t put an apostrophe in ‘its’ there.)
    • Learn the correct word and its implications for what you need. We once heard a golf announcer say that a player’s golf ball ‘dissipated’ over the hill instead of ‘disappeared’. When people are speaking in real life in a hurry, they may choose the wrong word, but, a) as a speaking professional that announcer should have known better, and b) as a writer you have the time and research to choose the right one. There are plenty of online dictionaries and thesauruses to help you.

I hope all of this helps you in some way. Read and make note of pieces of dialogue that you like. Study people speaking in real life and pay attention to the flow of conversations and how each participant brings their own flavour. If you hear something brilliantly funny or poignant or persuasive or nasty, write it down and use it in your novel!

You might also want to take a look at this article by one of my favourite writer resources, Reedsy: Dialogue Examples: 15 Great Passages of Dialogue, Analyzed.

Good luck 😊

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