What is dialogue, exactly? The definition from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary was several lines long, so I shall summarize it in a short sentence for the sake of the readers; it’s the writing that illustrates conversations between two or more characters in a story. We read and hear it all around us, but creating it in your own work can be a challenge. However, if you find dialogue an obstacle in your writing, then don’t push the panic button. In this tutorial, you’ll find by analyzing what dialogue can do and how to use it, you can turn your greatest fear into your greatest ally in your story.
What dialogue is
Like I’ve asserted before, dialogue is basically what the characters are saying to each other. It can be found in multiple mediums such as books, movies, comics, video games, etc. We even engage in dialogue daily without even thinking. When you talk to your best friend, a co-worker, or even your dog, you create dialogue. It’s exchanging ideas, thoughts, and opinions with others.
In other words, dialogue is interaction with the world around us or other people, and is therefore an action.
However, writing it takes a slightly different approach than normal writing; it’s a type of action that can reveal a lot about a character in the form of spoken words. What makes it really special is it can vary greatly from character to character. So in order to be able to write believable dialogue, you first must ask yourself who is talking.
Defining a Character
To know what to make your character say, you must know who that character is and what he/she is like. The only way to get answers is to ask questions, so try to think about…
-what adjectives describe the character?
-what is the character’s personality/attitude?
-how do they react to certain subjects and why?
A character’s voice is defined by who they are, and can also be shaped by the current situation they’re in. You have to analyze both their mental and physical qualities to really bring their voice to life.
So you’ve already brainstormed some adjectives to describe your character’s personality. How a character behaves or thinks influences how they speak. Can you imagine a gangster that lives in the alleyways speaking like a nun raised in a church? Probably not. Their vocabulary and word choice would be from completely different worlds-and that’s what makes them distinct from each other.
Vocabulary is a collection of words the character knows and/or uses. Word choice is the diction or what words they choose to use when speaking, depending on their situation. They’re both very similar and work together to shape the phrases a character uses.
Let’s say your character is a librarian, for example. Chances are he/she enjoys reading books, and probably has a larger-than-average vocabulary. Perhaps he/she is a word-geek and use long, sophisticated words without thinking, constantly confusing those around them when they talk. Or maybe he/she is the shy type who answers in few words-not because they don’t know any other words, but because of their reserved personality.
The same thought process is applicable to other types of characters as well. Is your character a short tempered mob boss? They’d probably use swear words every five seconds. Do you have a software engineer whose sole passion in life is code? They might use computer jargon whenever they nerd over technology. Got a high school hipster who loves hanging around his/her peers? They’d probably use teenage slang quite a bit.
These are cases of word choice being dependent on vocabulary and influenced by personality. Note that I used ‘probably’ in my explanations; characters are flexible subjects, and there can be exceptions depending on the character.
You may be asking, “Huh? Physical characteristics? What the heck does that have to do with how my character talks?” Although it may not be as prominent as mental attributes, a character’s physical, current state can affect a character’s voice, too.
A character may have a habitual, physical element to them that influences their voice. Maybe he/she stutters when they’re nervous, or was born with a speech impairment, or maybe has a strong accent (although this can be tricky, so be careful).
Another thing to consider is your character’s current situation in the story. Did his/her best friend just dump them into a freezing cold swimming pool as a prank? Their teeth would be chattering like crazy. So when they yell back, “That wasn’t funny!!” it comes out as, “Th-th-that wasn’t-t-t f-f-funny!!”.
The great thing about taking in the current situation or physical state your character is it reinforces the detail of what’s happening in the story’s world. Some other examples include…
-is he/she drunk?
-sick with a sore throat?
-eating and talking at the same time?
-missing a front tooth? (This may apply to habitual element as well)
How do these things alter one’s voice? How do they distort a character’s word choice? By including these elements in a character’s words, it reminds the reader what’s going on and makes the dialogue that much more real.
A character’s voice may also change to where instead of words it has onomatopoeias-a word representing a sound. Usually an onomatopoeia refers to a sound like a ‘POP!’, ‘BOOM!’, or ‘SNAP!’, but the onomatopoeia’s I’m referring to are human cries that don’t exactly pertain to words, such as…
Understanding how they’re used with and without words can make a character’s voice more human (unless the character is a robot or some other exception). Let’s say one character is trying to wake up another character still in bed;
“Hey, time to wake up!”
“C’mon, rise and shine!”
“Mmn…Five more minutes…”
“Are you going to sleep in all day, or what?”
“Jus’ wanna sleep…zzz…”
As we can clearly see-or read-the sleepy character is obviously, well, sleepy. I also utilized ellipsis, or those moments of three periods, to show how his/her voice trails off. There are multiple ways to capture different shifts of tone in voice. Let’s take the phrase, “Oh, really?” and see what we can do to spice it up a bit.
Each one uses the exact same words, but is structured differently, giving them unique effects. Even though we have no idea what triggered the phrase or who’s talking, we can still understand the mood in the current situation.
How to Use Dialogue
Okay, we now have a strong, established understanding of how to create dialogue. Now we have another, more practical issue to tackle; to insert it into the story, especially in a written medium. One of the issues we run into is one of the most dreaded problems writers writing dialogue face; the ‘said-is-dead’ challenge.
Remember that example with one character trying to wake up another character? Let’s try to clarify who’s talking;
“Hey, time to wake up!” Ruby said.
“Mmf…” Red said.
“C’mon, rise and shine!” She said.
“Mmn…Five more minutes…” He said.
She said, “Are you going to sleep in all day, or what?”
He said, “Jus’ wanna sleep…zzz…”
Well, that’ll become a best seller...NOT. Get’s old and stale pretty fast, doesn’t it? To make your writing stronger, we need to replace and rearrange. Generally, the fewer ‘said’s in your work, the better. A reader may forgive you if you use it every now and then, but if you can avoid it, then avoid it. But the question is, how?
Back to our example with our characters Ruby and Red, notice how our two characters are speaking, or their tone. ‘Said’ is a generic verb describing speech, but there are dozens, if not hundreds, of synonyms for it that can be used to specify how someone is speaking.
Say we have a character saying the corniest line in the history of all things corny; “I love you.” If we wrote that with ‘said’, then it’d sound even cornier. However, if we replace ‘said’ with a better, more specific verb, then we can make it less corny.
“I love you,” He said. (Original)
“I love you,” He whispered. (romantic version)
“I love you,” He croaked. (dramatic moment after he’s beat up and dying sappy version)
“I love you!” He shouted. (loud version?)
See what a difference it makes? Let’s try to rewrite our little conversation again with this ‘anti-said’ idea in mind;
“Hey, time to wake up!” Ruby yelled.
“Mmf…” Red mumbled.
“C’mon, rise and shine!” She barked.
“Mmn…Five more minutes…” He muttered.
She huffed, “Are you going to sleep in all day, or what?”
He grumbled, “Jus’ wanna sleep…zzz…”
That’s definitely much better, but we can play with it even more. For starters, we don’t have to strictly say ‘he/she/name (insert said synonym)’. We can tell the reader who’s talking by referring to the speaker’s actions or elaborating on what the speaker is doing as he/she is talking.
“Hey, time to wake up!” Ruby yelled into Red’s ear.
“Mmf…” He pulled the plush quilt over his head.
“C’mon, rise and shine!” The girl vigorously shook him by the shoulder.
“Mmn…Five more minutes…” Red muttered.
“Are you going to sleep in all day, or what?” She huffed with a pout.
Curling up into a ball under the covers, he grumbled, “Jus’ wanna sleep…zzz…”
By adding details to what Red and Ruby are doing while they speak, we add variation to describing their dialogue, and create a much more vivid description to our story.
Also, if it is clear that it’s just two people talking to each other, then we don’t need to say who’s talking on every single line. The reader can connect the dots.
“Hey, Jenna,” Rachel called from the doorway. “Have you seen my sweater?”
“Which one?” She raised her head from her book. “You’ve got enough to supply an army.”
“Ha ha. It’s the blue one. You know, with the white stripes around the cuffs.”
“You mean that one Mom gave you for your birthday last year?”
“Nope, haven’t seen it.” The redhead buried her nose back into her novel. “Did you search the laundry?”
The rule is every time someone new is speaking, then you turn that line of dialogue into a separate paragraph. Even if it’s just a one word response, you separate it into its own paragraph so it’s clear to the reader someone else is talking. Otherwise, to the readers, it will look like a confusing death wall/chunk of text, like below;
“Oi, head’s up, Hugh!” “Huh-OW!” “Whoa! Hugh, you okay?” “No…Ow, my head…”
It’s hard for the readers to distinguish who’s talking when we don’t separate the lines, even with the quotation marks. However, if we put each new line of dialogue in a new paragraph, then it becomes much, much easier-and more enjoyable- to read.
“Oi, head’s up, Hugh!”
“Whoa! Hugh, you okay?”
“No…Ow, my head…”
This is one of the basic rules of proper English grammar. Along with this rule, when you write, follow the other rules of grammar as well, like capitalization, spelling, punctuation, etc.
Dialogue isn't just writing what two people are saying; it can reveal a character’s personality and the current situation. A character’s voice can bring a story to life and enhance a reader’s understanding of them. Analyze who’s talking, in what situation, and why, and then you’ll be able form their distinct voice.
I hope this tutorial is helpful!