For some writers dialogue comes easiest. For others, putting words into the mouths of characters is sheer torture. If you are planning on writing fiction, chances are at some point you will have to write dialogue. If you plan on being a playwright or screenwriter, you better be pretty good at it. If instead you plan on being a novelist or short story writer, you can probably get by with dialogue not being your strongest point. If you’re just starting out and aren’t sure if you’re good at it or not, these tips will hopefully be of great use.
First, you have to know exactly why you’re using dialogue in the first place instead of exposition. And, coincidentally, one of the main uses of dialogue is to, well, convey exposition, to tell the reader, through the conversation of characters, what we need to know to make sense of the story. A writer needs to be careful about putting too much exposition into the mouths of a character, however. Dialogue should be interesting and sometimes when a character is telling too much about what is happening or going to happen, the dialogue gets boring. Exposition through dialogue is best done in small amounts, preferably spread throughout the story. And do no underestimate the value of withholding information. That’s not the same thing as cheating, not giving the reader everything he’s entitled to know. Holding information back means that first you give hints, hold out a carrot, capture their imagination and interest. Don’t give away all your cards at once.
Dialogue is also a wonderful, perhaps the best, way to convey character: to show us what kinds of people are in the story. Dialogue can be used to great effect to show how the characters differ from one another. The way people talk is an incredibly effective way to indicate the desires and motives of characters, illustrating what things each character cares about the most.
Conveyance of a sense of place and time can be captured through dialogue: evoking the speech patterns, vocabulary and rhythms of specific kinds of people. People from different parts of the world obviously don’t speak in the same way. For that matter, people from different parts of America don’t speak the same way. Show how they differ through their speaking habits and mannerisms. Don’t have characters in a story taking place today speak in the same way that characters in a story taking place in the Wild West would speak, obviously, but also don’t have a character born and raised in Atlanta talk the same way as a character born and raised in Chicago.
All great drama is conflict and dialogue is invaluable in developing conflict: to show how some people use language to dominate others, or fail to do so. One of the most recent examples of using dialogue to show domination took place in Revenge of the Sith. The best scenes in the movie were arguably the ones in which Palpatine oily manipulates Anakin. Make your dialogue count. Show how the characters relate to one another. Let your reader get a sense of how each character feels about the other characters, but don’t make it obvious. Sometimes people express the exact opposite about how their feelings for others.
If you are a newcomer to the writing game, then before you can jump into the deep waters described above, you need to wade into the equally dangerous waters of grammar. Dialogue can be especially difficult for young writers because there’s so much punctuation involved.
All words spoken by a character must be surrounded by quotation marks. The quotation marks are placed before the character begins speaking and after he has finished speaking. Do not place quotation marks around each sentence in a long passage of dialogue.
A direct quotation begins with a capital letter. If a quotation is interrupted, the second part begins with a lower-case letter.
A direct quotation is set off from the rest of the sentence by commas. If a direct quotation is interrupted, commas are place before and after the interruption. The comma before a direct quotation falls outside the quotation marks. The comma-or any punctuation-after a direct quotation falls inside the quotation marks. Do not place a comma or period before the close quotation mark if you already have an exclamation point or question mark there.
Dialogue is less formal than other kinds of writing. To make your characters sound natural you may use fragments and contractions in dialogue. In fact, to make your characters sound more “real” it may be better to use fragments and contractions.
In a conversation between characters, start a new paragraph each time the speaker changes. If the same speaker begins a new paragraph of dialogue following a paragraph of dialogue, omit the close quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph.
Be careful not to use the word “said” too often. Use illustrative verbs such as “whispered,” “yelled,” “mumbled,” “cried,” or “confessed.” Or, better yet, create dialogue that indicates how the words were spoken so that you don’t have to use a verb describing how the dialogue was said.
Finally, the best way to write good dialogue is ultimately the punch line in the joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice. And, to conclude, I offer just two of very many exercises that you can find on the web to help you out.
Come up with an opinion question that will require some thought on the part of those being asked. Write down their responses and focus on the words they use to describe how they feel. Are they excited about their opinion? Do they express themselves clearly, or do they seem unable to describe exactly how they feel? Do they use examples and analogies or do they just tell you flat out what their opinion is without backing it up?
Write a scene in which two characters from different parts of the country-or different countries altogether-are having a conversation. Be sure to include slang, varying speech patterns and rhythms, dialect or accents, the differences between references to common objects (such as “soda” and “pop” to describe soft drinks), but don’t tell exactly where the characters are from. Give your scene to a fellow student and see if he can guess where your characters are supposed to be from.
Pick your favorite movie. Now rewrite a scene in which you give the characters different backgrounds. For instance, choose the movie Spiderman. Make the character of Peter Parker/Spiderman into an inner city, African-American hip-hop deejay. Turn the character of Mary Jane into a naive farmer’s daughter recently moved from the South. Keep the same relationship between the characters as exists in the movie, but show how their new backgrounds would result in different dialogue between them. Choose a scene from the movie where they talk to each other and rewrite it.
The best advice on writing dialogue is probably just to listen. Listen to the way people talk. Listen to conversations that take place all around you every day. Eventually, through a kind of osmosis, you’ll pick up on the nuances and subtleties and they will begin to pepper your writing without you even being aware of it.