Even the most experienced writers can face difficulties when it comes to writing great dialogue. In fact, understanding the foundations of writing direct dialogue can be one of the factors that separates good from great writers.
It makes no difference whether you are writing an epic novel or a short story; great dialogue is so much more than using dialogue tags correctly or producing interactions that help develop the back story of your main character, though these are critical elements. The long and short of the matter is that writing effective dialogue is the cornerstone of all forms of creative writing.
In this article, you'll discover more about dialogue tags, understand how dialogue is a tool, and delve deeper into the active/reactive elements of good dialogue.
Table of Contents
This article is about how you can write great dialogue, but let’s start with something very simple that trips up a lot of writers.
Attribution, or dialogue tags, is basically showing the reader which of your characters is speaking, an ID. It is how the reader knows who is speaking and when you are writing dialogue.
If we look at the first line of our example, we see the following:
"Hi," said John as he stretched out his hand.
Here the dialogue (in this case HI) is being attributed to John. In other words, John is saying hi. It is that simple. This is attribution.
We can see that 'said john' is an example of the use of a dialogue tag.
So, 'Hi' is the dialogue and 'said John' is the dialogue tag.
In addition to showing the reader who is speaking, dialogue tags also tell the reader how the words are spoken. The most common (and best) form of dialogue tag is said.
Let's take this a little further.
Here's the second line in our example:
"Hello," joked Bill shaking John's hand.
The dialogue (in this case HELLO) is correctly attributed to Bill, but, rather than using SAID, we've used JOKED as a dialogue tag.
If you want a detailed guide to formatting dialogue, this article will help.
Now we have this out of the way, let’s look more deeply at the concepts behind writing good dialogue.
Dialogue is Not conversation
One mistake writers often make is to believe that written dialogue should reflect real life conversation.
This is just not true. In fact, it can be argued that if you were writing dialogue in the same way as it being spoken, it would produce confusing and difficult to read prose.
Just listen to any real-life conversation and you will see it has little resemblance to the dialogue written in novels.
When we converse in real-life situations our sentences are clipped, we talk across each other and most of the time use non-verbal cues for communication.
To understand how we should write dialogue in a novel, we must first consider the role of dialogue.
The aim of dialogue in a novel is to fulfil one of two very distinct goals:
- To provide plot or character information.
- To develop characterization and build the depth of your characters.
In addition, dialogue must be clear, easy to read, and concise
Dialogue is a tool.
The job of dialogue is to tell a story, build plot, develop characters and create the feeling of movement. This means that when writing dialogue, you should be deliberate and intentional with the words you write. Each word and phrase should do a job and it should be justifying its very existence.
Understanding Action and Reaction
Having gained a deeper understanding of the role of dialogue, the next thing to understand is how dialogue is written in novels.
Writing dialogue in novels is not like real life conversation. As we have seen above, dialogue has a distinct purpose. It is also written in a distinct way.
The best way to think of all written dialogue is as action and reaction.
One character will say something, and another will react.
'Hello," John said. [ACTION]
"Nice to meet you," Sally said. [REACTION]
Now, one thing to remember. A character may choose not to react, but the lack of reaction is still a reaction, if that makes sense.
The concept of action and reaction is simple, but power. It is something to hold in your mind as we progress.
Now you understand the structure of dialogue, let look at characterization.
Using Dialogue for Characterization
Wiki defines characterization as: 'the process of conveying information about characters in narrative or dramatic works of art or everyday conversation. Characters may be presented by means of description, through their actions, speech, or thoughts'.
The best way to think about the characterization of your main character is that their external actions are driven by their internal landscape.
In other words, characters will act in a way that directed by their beliefs, or so we would like to think.
Perhaps more importantly, characters will sometimes think they believe one thing, but act differently. Just think of the number of times you have heard someone say one thing, but act in a way that contradicts.
Think of it this way...
Everyone you will ever meet in your life is a paradox, you included. We all have a set of beliefs and understandings; this is the never-ending internal dialogue, the voice in your head, which dictates your thoughts and feelings.
This is the first dimension.
The second dimension is your external dialogue, the words you say.
The final dimension is your reaction to events. How you react to events is a mirror of your internal dialogue and often in contradiction to your external dialogue.
It is this contradiction between internal thoughts, external dialogue, and reactions to events, which creates believable and memorable characters.
- First dimension - internal dialogue.
- Second dimension - external dialogue.
- The third dimension - reaction to events.
This means that all great dialogue writing takes into account all three dimensions. You want to be writing dialogue that is a mixture of all three dimensions.
Example of Internal and External Conflicts
Imagine a situation in a novel...
A father's only son is murdered. At one point in the novel, you have the father say, "I intend to find and kill the man who murdered my son." Later, in the climax of the novel, when the father does indeed come face-to-face with the killer, rather than kill the murderer, he turns him over to the police.
Here you have two things going on: you have the father saying one thing and doing the opposite.
More importantly, when the father says he will kill the man, he believes it. However, later his words and actions don't match.
It turns out that the father's external thoughts and internal dialogue were not aligned - just like real life.
Perhaps the father believed that justice, rather than murder, was the correct moral solution.
Or, that revenge was best served with the killer in prison.
Or, he simply lacked the courage to kill the man.
Thus, the novel sees the father contradicting his own dialogue, and his actions reflecting his internal feeling and moral beliefs.
It is this complexity that makes for a three-dimensional character and good dialogue writing.
How to Write Effective Dialogue with Beats
And so, the complexity continues…
To write effective dialogue you must first understand what Robert McKee calls 'beats'.
He explains that the 'beat' is the smallest unit of construction, used to build scenes and acts. He defines a beat as, 'an exchange of behaviors in action/reaction'.
A simpler way to think of a beat, is the section of description between dialogue.
"Hi," the man said. He smiled and waved. "Nice to see you."
In this example, 'he smiled and waved' is the beat.
A second important aspect of a beat is that it passes a very particular piece of information or documents a change in character.
Dialogue is made up of a string of beats, each with its own distinct direction.
For example, if we return to our fictional novel that sees a child killer on the loose. The following exchange takes place between the father of a murdered child and a police officer. The aim of this exchange is to set up the father as a person who has said they will kill the murderer of his child. It also provides important plot information (private investigator), which would be built on later.
To set the scene, it has been a few days since they discovered the mutilated body, but this is the first time the police officer and the father have met in person. They have chatted on the phone twice, but the conversations were truncated, nothing more than short, unemotional exchanges of information.
"I am sorry for your loss," said the policeman.
"Yeah," said the father, his head in his hands, not looking up as he spoke.
"I have just spoken to my boss, and he is expecting to make an arrest in the next few days," said the officer.
"I hope so," replied the father, looking up. "You are not the only person looking for the killer. I have hired a private detective to follow some of my own theories."
The officer's face failed to show any emotion. "That's regrettable. We don't encourage..." He paused searching for the correct word. "I hope you plan to pass any information you gather to the police."
"No," says the father looking into the officer's eyes. "I intend to find and kill the man who murdered my son."
If we look at this exchange, we can see the action/reaction process:
"I am sorry for your loss," said the policeman. [ACTION]
"Yeah," said the father, his head in his hands, not looking up as he spoke. [REACTION]
Here we see the police officer unable to cope with the deeply emotional situation and reverting to a well-worn, even clichéd comment. The father has been under extreme emotional pressure for days and has spoken to countless police officers. He feels helpless. The authority figure of the police officer is challenging him on many levels. Therefore, his reaction is almost a non-reaction as he tries to maintain some control of the situation.
"I have just spoken to my boss, and he is expecting to make an arrest in the next few days," said the officer. [ACTION]
"I hope so," replied the father, looking up. "You are not the only person looking for the killer. I have hired a private detective to follow some of my own theories." [REACTION]
Unable to express his emotions the police officer tries to engage in conversation by offering 'information' he feels the father will find useful. The father's reaction is one of anger and leaves him feeling more helpless as a father and man. In the exchange, he tries to gain some level of control by telling the police officer about the private detective.
The officer's face failed to show any emotion. "That's regrettable. We don't encourage..." He paused searching for the correct word. "I hope you plan to pass any information you gather to the police." [ACTION]
"No," says the father looking into the officer's eyes. "I intend to find and kill the man who murdered my son." [REACTION]
The police officer suspects the father is not telling the truth about the private detective. His response is to 'toe-the-line' and provide un-emotional information. This further angers the father and he responds with the threat to murder the killer. At that moment, the father believes his words, since they give him some control and increases his feelings of masculinity. Only his later actions will show his true internal voice.
This example shows all of the principles discussed in this article in action.
The Key Points
In order to write effective dialogue, here are the key points to understand:
- A character is made up of three elements: dialogue, internal thoughts/feelings/beliefs and reaction to events. Characterization is the inconsistency of these three elements.
- See dialogue as 'beats'. That is short sections that alter a character and/or pass a specific piece of plot information.
- Dialogue is all about action and reaction.
- You can only write effective dialogue if you understand the internal motivations of your characters.
What to do Now...
Practice! Think up a simple section of dialogue, just one beat with two characters and write it out. Focus on action/reaction. Try to express a character's internal thoughts with external dialogue. Keep it simple and remember the goal (direction) of the beat.
If you wish to learn more about punctuation of dialogue (think commas and quotation marks), then here's a link to an article called How To Format Dialogue In A Story [In Depth Guide].