Despite how easy it is to have a conversation with another person in real life, it doesn’t translate to text. If we were to transcribe our real life conversations, we’d be bored writing it and the reader wouldn’t stand a chance. While there are many nuances to writing dialogue and different philosophies on what makes good description, the basics will always remain.
Do you really need to be able to write dialogue if you write in prose?
That’s like asking a handyman to go to a job without a hammer. Will he need it for every job? No. But he better have it on him in case he does, and he better know how to use it. Dialogue is an important tool in story telling. It does two things: 1. It puts the reader in the action as it’s happening (yes, dialogue is action) and 2. It tells us about the characters as it moves the plot along.
How do you know what a character says?
The simple answer is to know your character. If you have trouble with this, it might be good practice to write up character sheets. Where a character is from can determine their beliefs and motivations. They may have an accent. A character’s hobbies and interests help round out a character making them more into a person than a piece of fiction. While a description of your character may not show up in dialogue, it is still a good idea to have some idea of how they look. For example, a small, lanky kid might have a nickname “Shorty.” A buff character with a large build might intimidate another speaker, and you can show that in their hesitance to address that character.
Motivation is a fundamental component of dialogue. Why is the character speaking? While it may be easy to overlook, the motivation of a character drives the story and the dialogue. If a character is angry at another character, they will be on the offensive, and it will show in how they speak and what they say. Maybe a character is trying to find out information, so they may act sweetly or slyly. If it’s simply two characters letting off steam after work, it may have subtle undertones of them talking about mundane topics, but the weariness of everyday life shines through.
What are dialogue tags and how do you use them?
Dialogue tags are used to identify the speaker. In the most basic form it’s “he/she said.” There are two conflicting schools of thought about dialogue tags. The first is the writer or editor who believes each line should use strong verbs and descriptive language. For example, “Don’t go,” Alyssa begged while pulling down the fabric of his shirt. The second believes a simple “Don’t go,” Alyssa cried, accomplishes what you needed to do, identify who was speaking. I fall in between those two schools of thought.
I think we can all agree that the first example is stronger than the second, so then why would you ever want to use “he/she said?” Pacing. The first tag slows down the conversation. If the two characters are shooting words at each other, as can happen in a verbal fight, you need to move the dialogue along quickly as well.
Here is the fun part. It’s where the art of writing dialogue comes into play. Dialogue tags are necessary, but sometimes you don’t even need them. Using them can slow down a conversation, and a skilled enough writer with distinct characters can write only the conversation. To accomplish that, there are a few tricks. Like stated previously, motivation plays a key role in dialogue. If you have two characters with conflicting motivations, for example, a teenager desperately trying to get permission to go to a party, and the overprotective parent who wants his teenage daughter within his sights, you have a setup where the reader can identify the speaker solely through the conflicting views.
An accent or foreign language can be used. Be careful not to use it in excess as this can be a distraction. It’s best utilized by a light accent or with a minor character, i.e. use it on occasion.
A conversation should have a certain flow to it. That flow represents the mood. For example, if anxious, a character may drone on and repeat his or herself. If a character is in a bad mood, you may want to write quick one line quips and write out more descriptive body language.
The prose in a conversation has a lot of impact on pacing. You should use it to your advantage. If a character is speaking and takes a pause in between thoughts, insert your prose right in the middle of the thought. It will interrupt the flow, and the reader will experience the pause in addition to reading about it.
The prose in a conversation is most often body language. Body language can have more impact than the spoken word. Actors use it to express emotions, so if you have trouble imagining a character’s position, watch an emotive movie or TV show and make some notes. It’s not just what you say but how you say it.
While some actions may overlap with more than one emotion, it’s necessary to describe it to reinforce the dialogue and help build the scene in the reader’s mind. Guilt may be shown by avoiding eye contact. Anger may be shown with balled up fists or banging a character’s hands down on a table. Enjoyment may have a character a bouncing in his seat. Body language is the other half of the conversation. It can even show conflict between what the character says and how they feel.
Writing dialogue takes practice. The good news is inspiration is all around you every day. You can learn from observing interactions in the world and apply it to your writing. Read other writers who use dialogue and see what works and what doesn’t work.