Dialogue. It’s an amazing tool for a writer, and often underappreciated. It’s also one of the most pressing concerns that students raise in my writing classes: how to use it, how to get it right, how to make it sound “natural.”
And it’s probably the most frequent formatting error I see as an editor.
For something that most of us do every day without thinking about it, we sure do seem to panic about the spoken word when it comes time to put it on a page. But, honestly, writing dialogue doesn’t need to be scary. Read on for five tips and tricks that will help you get it working for you and not against you, and then go ahead and make dialogue your best writing friend, as it rightfully ought to be.
1. You have almost certainly forgotten how to punctuate dialogue. (Yes, even you.)
Look, for most of us, English class was… more than a few years ago, and even if you’re still flush with the bloom of youth, chances are that you haven’t had much call to practise the dialogue formatting lessons of yesteryear in the intervening stretch. I’ve been a competition sifter for a few years now and I can’t tell you the agonies I’ve been in over the perfectly good stories that don’t make the cut because the writer’s formatting was all over the place. It’s not always dialogue formatting specifically, but it’s usually dialogue formatting as well. The trouble is, when it comes to rusty skills that don’t get much everyday use, we often don’t know what we don’t know. So do yourself a huge favour and read this blog by Beth Hill. Then print it, bookmark it, and save it as your desktop wallpaper. It is spectacular and you will never again have to speculate on where the comma should go.
2. Yes, it should sound natural. But that means different things on different days.
If you’re of a Radio 4 sort of age, as I am, you might be familiar with The Listening Project. I unabashedly love it for lots of reasons, but one of the reasons I get students to have a listen is to show them how dialogue plays out when it’s allowed to be completely “natural.” It is, quite frankly, all over the place. Stories start at the end, circle back to Plot Point 2, spend a little bit of time belatedly establishing Status Quo, jump abruptly to the end and then back Act 1, before nipping off onto a tangent about something only tangentially related, and then realising they’ve left out an important bit of contextualising information and starting again at the beginning. It’s glorious. If you tried it in a novel, you’d either be hailed as a genius or banned from Open Mic night forever. “Natural” conversation involves a series of necessary but narratively dull handshake protocols (“Hi! How are you?” “Fine, thanks – how are you?” “Oh, yeah, not bad, thanks. Not bad. How’s your mum?”), and a preponderance of “Uh…” and “Um…” that would have a reader trying to claw their own eyes out if you faithfully reproduced every one of them on your page. Your job is, generally speaking, to avoid reminding a reader that they’re reading. So, yes, cliched or outlandish dialogue is definitely going to knock a reader out of the experience – but so, too, is a prioritisation of “natural” over “engaging.” Sometimes you have to just make a character say what you need them to say. If it’s interesting, I (almost) guarantee it won’t ring false to the reader.
3. Reading aloud is still the best way to decide if dialogue is working as it should
And by “aloud” I mean in a normal speaking voice – you can’t hear yourself saying it when you whisper or read it into yourself, which is precisely the point of the exercise. Possibly best done when alone and unobserved, unless you’re actively looking for a second opinion.
4. Dialogue is an economical tool for delivering all kinds of exposition – and is generally more compelling than prose
Dialogue is an action beat. While you will sometimes want – or need – to deliver exposition through prose*, where you can tie exposition to an action beat, you’re more likely to keep your reader’s attention. Simply put, readers are in it for the story, and, though information ancillary to and supportive of the story is all part of the experience, we are primed to invest our interest more deeply in aspects of the writing that engage directly with the unfolding narrative. Action beats are direct, in-world activities that move your characters around the chessboard of the plot, and dialogue is one of those activities. If you thought dialogue was just about having characters exchange words with each other, you’ve seriously underestimated its power as a writing tool. Consider:
5. Dialogue is much easier on the eye than a page of unbroken prose.
Something of an extension of point 4, but worthy, I think, of its own entry, because it’s not always something that’s in the forefront of our minds when we’re writing. I’m not saying it should be: we’ve enough to be getting on with as it is without worrying about the aesthetics of the published page, but making sure that our prose is readable is part of the job of a writer, and huge chunks of text are not very easy to read. Watch yourself reading one some time: you’ll notice that you start to skim after a few lines, because it’s taxing on the eyes trying to hold onto a moving spot in an unchanging sea of letters. Breaking up your text into shorter paragraphs certainly helps, but breaking up the prose altogether with a line or two of dialogue helps even more. Have a look at a few pages which are heavy on dialogue: notice the extra white space on the page. It’s much more appealing to look at; much less dense and much easier to parse. Not every section of every piece of writing suits plenty of dialogue, and I’m not by any means advocating that you shoehorn in a conversation where one does not belong, but if there’s more than one character present, unless there’s a significant reason for their absolute silence, it probably wouldn’t hurt to see what happens if they exchange a few words. Your readers will probably thank you for it.
If you want to get a feel for just how much dialogue can do, you could definitely do worse than to pick up a couple of dialogue-only short stories – here’s one of my favourites to get you started. Notice how the characters words don’t always conform exactly to the way a “natural” conversation might flow, because they’re working overtime, giving us character information, relationship information, plot information, backstory, settings – all the things that prose would normally be doing for us, but I absolutely defy you not to have a keen sense of where these folks are, what’s happened to one of them, and why they’re there (bonus points if you recognise the movie, by the way). Natural schmatural. This is what dialogue can do.
Now go and let it do that for your writing too.
*Yes, “show don’t tell” is generally excellent advice, but only as far as it’s useful; sometimes you risk testing your reader’s patience by using four paragraphs of carefully crafted character reveal where a simple “He was 5’7”, blond, and wearing shoes that cost more than my car” would do the job just as well in a fraction of the time.
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