Saturday, July 5, 2014

How to write dialogue

I was talking to my friend yesterday, the wonderful author I told you about in last weeks post. She was giving advice to another one of her friend about writing dialogue and I thought that I would do the same here.

The purpose of dialogue is not simply for characters to talk. They can't talk about the weather, unless it just so happens that imminent rain is plot relevant.

Conversations that your characters should:

1. Tell something about the characters talking
2. Convey information about the plot (The trick is to also do this without the characters sounding like

I'm sure there's more a conversation could accomplish, but let's focus on just these two.

Ways that you can use dialogue to convey information about characters talking is by the way they speak. Human beings have vast variety of vocabulary and they often have ungrammatical ways of stringing sentences together. When we talk we often just start talking without much thought to sentence structure.

We also say lots of ums and include lots of pauses. We're also incapable of spontaneously launching into a speech riddled with meaning. Though in fiction launching into a perfectly prepared speech is acceptable and saying um and pausing doesn't convey normalcy in fiction, it conveys hesitation.

Read these two sentences.

"I, um, went to the park with... Sarah and uh, Jay." Jane said.

"I went to the park with Sarah and Jay." Jane said.

In reality, the first sentence sounds like Jane is thinking. However, in fiction it sounds like Jane is making things up.

Take a look at these three other sentences.

"If you ever come near my sister again, I will kill you." Jay said.

"If I catch you sniffing around my sister again, I'll be the last thing you ever see." Jane said.

"If you're ever in the same proximity as my sister again, you will cease to the exist by my doing." Sarah said.

They're three different people saying exactly the same thing in three different ways. The way that Jay is speaking is more direct and blunt, while Jane speaks with more colorful language. Sarah is simply verbose.

The way a character talks can convey information about them, such as educational background and we're they're from if they speak with an accent or regional dialect.

Now onto the second part of how to use dialogue. To convey information about the plot and advance the plot. Here's how not to have a conversation about what's going on.

"Now, Jay, as you know someone's been stalking our baby sister." Jane says.

"Yeah, that Stan guy. You know we need to prepare our plan to kill him." Jay says.

"Of course."

Alright, that was really bad and everybody knows better than to write like that, but I hope you get the point. Jay should know that Stan is stalking his baby sister already, there's no reason for Jane to mention it to him.

An easy way to avoid this is to ask yourself why is this conversation happening? If the answer is to explain information to the audience than a red flag should go up in your head. Conversations like this are usually forced and unnatural.

A good way to get around this is to have the characters not all know this information so that when one character launches into an explanation about why time travel is possible, not only will she be explaining this to the audience she'll also be explaining this to her uninformed friend. The audience gets their information and there was no forced conversation.

Of course, this isn't always possible. What if your core group of characters are all time travelers? Ideally, you'd like to tell your audience how time travel works and the fact that all the time travelers know how it works means they won't really talk about it.

If you've ever watched a game of football with people you're going to talk about football, because it's something that you all have an interest in and understand. So that's what your time travelers would do, in a perfectly natural way.

I hope that you found this to be helpful and not confusion. If you have any questions or comments, you can leave one below in the comment section or send me an e-mail at

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