Fiction needs dialogue.
Dialogue should be seen as a tool to help propel the plot forward, not something to be feared or avoided. It allows your characters to interact and grow with each other as well as themselves and can also assist in building the world your story creates. Just as descriptive prose can elaborate on a scene, so too can dialogue between your characters and their interactions with one another.
So, let’s start with an easy question.
What Is Dialogue?
Dialogue, in its simplest form, is a conversation between two or more people as a feature of a book, play, or movie.
To have a conversation, you need at least two entities– it doesn’t necessarily need to be two people. One can speak to someone else, but they could also be speaking to a spirit, a god, or even their own subconscious. Either way, there needs to be at least two parts in a conversation to make it dialogue.
Now, one can have a dialogue with more than two people, if that’s something you, the writer, are willing to take that on. The more characters you choose to put in a scene, however, the more you need to monitor, like a bunch of unruly teenagers at a late-night party. Every character, whether they’re directly taking part in the dialogue or not, is their own entity, and as such needs to convey their own emotions and characteristics, as well as their own voice. It’s like a dance, and every member needs to know their steps otherwise it can become very confusing very quickly.
See The Scene
While writing, try to imagine each part of your story just like that- act as though you’re watching the scene as if it was a television show or a blockbuster movie, in need of an audience’s perspective. Explaining the setting through telling is easy enough, so when you work on describing your characters in the midst of their conversation, the same goal should remain at the front of your creative mind.
Always consider what are your characters doing while they’re talking? Are they standing still with their hands in their pockets, or flailing them around to emphasize their point? Are they sitting with their arms braced against the edge of a table, or are they lounging, relaxed in a plush armchair?
Your character’s actions during a dialogue can convey their moods and feelings just as much, if not more, than the words they’re saying. And once you yourself can start to picture the scene, it’ll be easier for you to write it, and conveying the emotion and/or plot points you want your conversation to deliver will flow smoother for your audience.
Another hiccup that can jar a reader is grammar, especially within dialogue.
No one expects you to be an expert when it comes to grammar (that’s what an editor is for, right?), but as with many things, after writing enough it comes with practice to know what know what looks right and what does not. And when we’re unsure, plenty of us can admit that we’ll turn to Google to help us figure it out.
But to save you the hassle, here are a few examples:
- “That cat is black,” he said.
“That cat it black.” He said.
- He said, “That cat is black.”
He said, “that cat is black.”
- “That cat is black,” he said. “I hope it’s not bad luck.”
“That cat is black.” He said, “I hope it’s not bad luck.”
- “That cat is black.” He pointed to the corner.
“That cat is black,” he pointed to the corner.
“That cat is black,” He pointed to the corner.
- He pointed to the corner. “That cat is black.”
He pointed to the corner, “That cat is black.”
Dialogue tags + action beats:
- He pointed to the corner and said, “That cat is black.”
- “That cat is black,” he said, pointing to the corner.
A few other things to consider:
- Avoid using cap locks to emphasize screaming.
- Avoid using the interrobang to convey disbelief.
- Avoid using ellipses to signify a character’s thought or idea drifting off.
- Use an em dash when a character’s words are being interrupted by another.
Remember, these are just a handful of the potential dialogue rules and suggestions out there, but still they’re some of the more important ones. However you write it, if you’re unsure, always check your work, otherwise you know the writing community will be more than happy to do it for you.
Make It Count
Lastly, one of the reasons I enjoy dialogue so much is that it gets my word count soaring. Once I get into the middle of a scene where there are two characters verbally going at it, one against the other, either romantically, adversarially, or otherwise, something about the emotion and forward-movement of the storyline I’m telling just makes my fingers dance over that keyboard. Dialogue makes my characters come to life, and I adore every letter, every word I can contribute to that.
In the end, remember your characters have a story to tell as much as you do. Take advantage of the voice you’ve given them, and allow them say something!
M. Dalto is a fiction author of adventurous romantic fantasy and her bestselling debut novel, Two Thousand Years, was a 2016 Watty Award winner on Wattpad.com. She continues to volunteer her time as both a Wattpad Ambassador and a #WriteMentor mentor, where she hopes to engage, assist, and inspire new writers. She spends her days as a full-time residential real estate paralegal, using her evenings to pursue her literary agenda. When she’s not writing, she enjoys reading fantasy novels, playing video games, and drinking coffee. She currently lives in Massachusetts with her husband, their daughter, and their corgi named Loki.