How to Write Dialogue
What is dialogue?Dialogue is a conversation between characters, although that conversation can take a variety forms.
What is the purpose of dialogue?Dialogue serves one of three purposes:
What are some of the qualities of "good dialogue?"
Rules of Dialogue
Graeme sighed. "Well, Uncle Haywood always says, 'Never spit at a rattlesnake'."or:
Graeme sighed. "Well, Uncle Haywood always says, 'Never spit at a rattlesnake.'"
Graeme sighed. 'Well, Uncle Haywood always says, "Never spit at a rattlesnake."'
Graeme sighed. "Well, Uncle Haywood always says, 'Never spit at a rattlesnake'." Piper giggled. "That never made no sense to me until just now. Why would you spit at a rattlesnake?"
Graeme sighed. "Well, Uncle Haywood always says..." and Piper chimed in, "'Never spit at a rattlesnake'."
"Are we there yet?" hollered the unwashed little ones from the back seat of the jalopy.
What is a dialogue tag?
"I am cold," Judy shuddered. — this makes no logical sense. There should be a period after "cold" because "shuddered" isn't producing the sounds, "I am cold."
What do you do to avoid using dialogue tags?
"You notice that chill?" Graeme asked, looking around for the source. Aquilla shuddered. "Yeah, I noticed." "Think our friend is about to pay us a visit?" "I think he ain't our friend."
A Note About AdverbsAdverbs are the words that describe a verb. They often end with "ly" - ie. slowly, quietly, roughly, etc.
What do you do to avoid using adverbs in dialogue tags?
Graeme spoke into Piper's ear. "We need to get up to that ledge over there."
PacingPacing, put roughly, is about how quickly the action and story moves along at a particular point. This can shift and change through the course of the story; and indeed, it should.
Graeme asked the elf boy, “She didn’t tell you to do anything about the curtains, did she?” He smiled and shook his head. “Then give it about thirty seconds, and pull both curtains open at once.” Now? “Now.” The boy saluted him. Good luck to us all, Slinger. He disappeared back into the dining car. Graeme cocked the hammers of his pistols. “Ready, Sandy?” Sandy whimpered and scratched at the carpet. The curtain flew open.
"Fine." Coppelius blinked. It was his voice that came out, not sand! He stared at the stranger. "How?" "<You're asleep>." "What?" "<Well, it's only a little nap, and you're having a daydream>." "I'm dreaming." Coppelius slumped in his chair. "<You really need to read your tome>." "I can't. I've tried." "<You have tried to read it as Coppelius. You need to read it as Morpheus. It will teach you all you need to know.>" "I don't want to stop being me!"
After a few moments, they dropped their paws to the ground and let out a raucous cry of mourning. The eerie sound disturbed the silence of the forest. A silence Eldrick hadn't noticed until now. A few glanced from Eldrick to the form of Victor. Eldrick, following their gaze once again, saw the corpse of his master's murderer. "I don't care what happens to that," he spat, pointing at the dead body.
Graeme nodded again. "Right. Sometimes if you mention somethin' like that, you get its attention." She nodded and he smiled. “But that right there is a lot of help already. I got the Whistler library here… might be I can find some references. If not, I can ask my local Elders, see if they know.” He seemed to look her up and down, then nodded to her seriously. “All right, I’ll come. Soon as I can. I think I can leave tomorrow… if we meet again, maybe we can talk more.” He tipped his hat again to her. “You let Elder Perez and Dame Esther know we’re comin’. I’m Graeme Walsh; my sister’s name is Piper. Dame Esther may’ve heard of our father, Colin Walsh. That way they know this is for real and not just a dream. I doubt your Elder would think so, but best make sure.” She nodded. If he was going to tell her his name... “I’m Aquilla Levan. If’n anybody outside of the valley here knows about the Windwalker, they’ll know my last name. I’ll tell folk you’re comin’. Thank you, Sir Graeme.” She clutched her hands together and bowed again, grateful beyond measure. She almost wanted to cry, she was so relieved. He grinned. “Thank you for bein’ brave, Miss Levan. We’ll see you soon.”
Aquilla and the other townsfolk advanced on the shambling child, each holding a palm frond. Aquilla stepped up to them uncertainly and shoved them lightly back with the palm frond. The child stumbled back half a step and grinned. "Are you thinking you can take me, seer-child?" the shambling child hissed. Aquilla could see blood on their teeth. She tried not to recoil and pressed forward to shove the child again. "I ain't thinkin' nothin'," she said calmly. "Nothin' 'cept that you ain't welcome here, Shadow Man, no matter who you're hidin' in." The shambling child laughed. "I'm older than you! I'm older than your precious Windwalker! I tempted them in the desert and found them... obstinate. Don't tell me you think you can stop me!" She shook her head and shoved forward again. "I ain't tryin' to stop you from shakin' the ground, Shadow Man. You can shake all you like. But you can't have them. Get out, or we'll set to makin' you get out."
Things to Avoid
"As you know, Bob..."This is when you use dialogue like an infodump. One character speaks at length about something they and the other characters they are speaking to already know, so that the reader is informed. This usually comes across as stilted, awkward, and disingenuous. Remember the rule that characters should speak like people actually do.
SpeechesDon't have one character talk for extended periods without interruption or interaction, unless you have a specific reason for it. People don't just sit and listen to a single person without asking questions, disagreeing, or outright arguing in real life, even if they are only making nods, hums, or grunts of disapproval. In this example, one character is a teacher, the other is a student, and the student still interrupts:
“So, where do we start?” —We start at the beginning, as all things must,— he said quietly in my mind. —In the beginning, there was nothing, only a darkness deeper than the blackest of nights, and the Powers That Be.— “Are you telling me a story?” I asked, aghast. —Do not interrupt your teacher,— he chided gently. —From that darkness, the Powers That Be made the first light, and that first light became all that is, all that was, and all that ever will be. Time passed, and the Powers That Be became bored of playing with the light and the elements it bore. They created the first worlds of the living and the first worlds of the dead.— “Worlds of the living?” I asked. “I thought there was just the one world of the living.” Cain shook his head. —Outside, if there were no clouds, and it was not raining, what would you see?— I shrugged, not understanding the point of the question. “Stars, I guess? Maybe the moon?”
Overblown Dialogue Tags
Body Language, Subtext, and Non-Verbal CharactersMuch of our communication does not use words. We also communicate information through our actions, our mannerisms, and by subconscious gestures and body language. These are effective tools that as writer, you should not ignore.
The Widow Brinks tapped her foot impatiently as she waited for her contact. He was late. She could feel frustration simmering in her belly, but tried not to pay it any heed. She couldn’t afford it. It would colour her negotiations with the antiques fence, and she needed to be as charming as possible to assure the best deal. He finally arrived at two-thirty. It was all Janice could do not to bark at him in a rage. “Mr. Dunn. How do you do?” she said instead, and simpered. The squat little man, who perhaps had dwarf or gnome blood, took her offered hand and lingered over it longer than was proper. “Delighted to meet you at last, Mrs. Brinks. Please forgive my tardiness. It couldn’t be avoided.” “I understand,” she said graciously. They took seats at a cozy reading nook that Lawrence kept for his customers in the front room. Lawrence served them tea and vanished with all the timely and discrete grace of a professional manservant. Dunn splashed three sugar cubes into his tea and filled it near to the brim with cream. “I understand you have some things that I may be interested in purchasing,” he said as he stirred it carefully with a silver spoon. It was too full to avoid slopping over the side of his cup anyway. She pretended not to notice. “I have acquired several antiques that I find myself in need of liquidating."
Zaza hadn't said much, just a quiet, mumbled, "Seatbelt," when Chara had strapped her in. "So, what kind of music do you like, Zaza?" she asked gently. Zaza's answer was to flick at her Fixation Gyration again, her mouth slightly ajar as she stared at it spinning in her hands. She was listing a little bit closer to the door, but didn't seem agitated or like she wanted out. Her gaze was still engrossed in the nearly endless whirling. Chara waited to see if she would answer a moment or two later, but Zaza said nothing. Well, Zachariah had said Zaza was mostly non-verbal... So that made sense. "Do you mind if I turn some on?" she tried again. No answer. Chara sighed. "I guess not..." She fumbled for a moment with a CD, popping it into the player. It wasn't her usual fare, but it was soothing and jingly. Good entrance and exit music if she was going on or off stage... She hit play. Zaza immediately screeched and clapped her hands over her ears, moaning. Chara waited a moment, but Zaza started to kick the dashboard. She quickly slapped the stop button and Zaza stopped. She rocked in the passenger seat for a long moment, then picked up her Fixation Gyration and sent it spinning as though nothing had happened. "Right," Chara said, a little shaken. "No music, then." "Right, no music," Zaza mumbled, as though in agreement.
Instead he busied himself by checking Lightning’s hooves for stones. One had wedged itself under a shoe. As he worked to pry it loose, he chattered at his friend. “Think they were mutants or kelpies?” he asked the horse rhetorically. “I’m thinkin’ they looked like fey, but I suppose you never can tell.” The stallion snorted. Sometimes it was challenging to read his friend’s reactions, but it sounded like disgust to him. “You’re right, I reckon it don’t really matter much,” he agreed, though of course he couldn’t be certain that was what he’d meant. “Darned shame, all the same. Guess we should put up some warnin’ signs along the route.” The stone popped loose. “There, that’s got ‘er. You want a good brushin’? You deserve it!” The horse looked at him and offered an unmistakeable nod. Graeme chuckled and got out the curry combs and set to work. Lightning folded his ears back and closed his eyes. He made a wuffling noise of obvious enjoyment. The brushes whisked away the last of the sweat and a whole lot of loose hair. He set to mane and tail next, cursing under his breath at the tangles and the ubiquitous grass seeds that managed to work their way into the heart of the knots. “How you manage this, I can’t imagine,” Graeme fretted as he worked. The horse declined to comment. Suddenly Lightning’s eyes popped open and his ears twitched. “What?” Graeme asked him, but then he heard it too. A snippet of distant voices on the wind. He tilted his head to try to listen to it, but it didn’t help because it was blended into the sound of the wind itself. Perhaps it was coming from a long way off, and they were only catching it when the wind was blowing just the right way. “I doubt that’s from around here,” he said to Lightning, but it was halfway a question. Lightning raised his head to the wind and his nostrils flared. Then he snorted and lowered his head to graze. Clearly nothing to worry about then.
Exclusively Non-Verbal CommunicationSometimes you can have a conversation that involves only gestures, facial expressions, and body language:
Shaundar looked around at the group and made a fist to indicate that they should form up. Since Lana was the quietest, he pointed at her and then made a stabbing V gesture at his eyes. She nodded, flattened out and began to make a slow, crawling crab-like advance through the foliage to get a closer look at their enemies.... Lana came shuffling back. Shaundar looked at her expectantly. She held up four fingers. No more than they had heard, then. That was good. She drew a glyph in the mud at their feet. It was a thin arrow shape on a stick; the rune of the Doomspear clan. Shaundar tried to remember what he been told about them. He thought they’d been described as solid ground pounders. Not known for their creativity, however. But they were indeed Balorians, not common orcs, and therefore could not be underestimated. Shaundar was torn. They must be looking for a larger group. Smelling for smoke and looking for lights suggested a sizeable encampment to him. Were their enemies amassing here? It was possible that Madrimlian had known—Shaundar would not put it past him to arrange something like this—but he didn’t think so. Unless those Balorians were more advanced Permafrost trainees, he didn’t believe that Madrimlian would risk his whole project on such an encounter. More likely, the Navy really didn’t know they were here. Shaundar indicated for his team to fall back, and then he wrote some coordinates in the mud with his finger and promptly wiped a leaf over it and camouflaged the spot. He was bringing them back to a berry bush near the river they had followed from the marsh pool their ship had made planetfall in.
TelepathySometimes, especially in science fiction and fantasy, there is direct communication that has the qualities of verbal communication, but it is not spoken. These are telepathic conversations, or perhaps conversations in text, or with an artificial intelligence. The convention is to write these in similar ways to a verbal dialogue, but to punctuate it differently.
Graeme asked the elf boy, “She didn’t tell you to do anything about the curtains, did she?” He smiled and shook his head. “Then give it about thirty seconds, and pull both curtains open at once.” Now? “Now.” The boy saluted him. Good luck to us all, Slinger. He disappeared back into the dining car.
"Fine." Coppelius blinked. It was his voice that came out, not sand! He stared at the stranger. "How?" "<You're asleep>." "What?" "<Well, it's only a little nap, and you're having a daydream>."
“So, where do we start?” —We start at the beginning, as all things must,— he said quietly in my mind. —In the beginning, there was nothing, only a darkness deeper than the blackest of nights, and the Powers That Be.— “Are you telling me a story?” I asked, aghast.
So, where are we meeting again?Dani's Diner. It's just down the street from the uni.West or east?I dunno; what direction do the avenues run in again? It's on 30th Ave
Internal DialogueIn internal dialogue, a character is having a conversation with themself. They are usually working something out in their own heads, and this is usually used to either figure something out, or to process something emotionally.
But sitting there crying about how everything was different was not getting me back to Sky City. It wasn’t getting me back to Andrew, who was my father in every way but blood. He was still alive, and he probably thought I was dead. I needed to get back. I wiped away my tears and stood. I walked to the door and looked around once more before closing the door behind me. I didn’t look back. There was nothing there for me anymore. I hadn’t even wanted the cider press, not really. It was something Andrew would have liked, maybe, but the traditions I’d had with Da, I left behind when I had left Dansville at fourteen. I felt kind of sad; I had been thinking about that house as my home for four years. But it was just an empty building. There wasn’t anything there for me anymore. The one thing that had made it home was gone. My Da wasn’t there anymore. It was Da that had made the house a home. It was Da who had always been there. That question I hadn’t been able to ask Casey...it didn’t matter. My Da, the one I had always known and loved, he had died that day, whether Casey had buried him or not. Lenore had died that day too. I was a different person now than that scared kid Cain had trapped in that house for three days. He couldn’t do that to me now if he tried.
Recommended Reading:Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction Patrick Rothfuss, The Slow Regard of Silent Things - for internal dialogue, POV, and non-verbal communication
This article is a work in progress, and may be subject to changes.
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