There’s no doubt about the fact that dialogue can make or break a story.
There have been times when my brain hasn’t been working properly when reading, and I have found myself subconsciously and inadvertently drifting towards the dialogue, often it being so much more tantalising to read than the meticulous descriptions and atmosphere building. It is the glue in which great stories are built with, as much as we live to read about mystical places and heroic deeds, without character interaction and dialogue, it becomes vapid and empty.
However, creating dialogue is no easy task. It is often a daunting prospect, indeed. There are a variety of check-boxes each written conversation must check, several purposes each and every sentence needs to serve. It can be a lot to remember, especially in the moment.
There are of course, no real right or wrong ways to convey dialogue, but there are some that work better for certain stories, and some that are just more enjoyable for the reader. It’s an incredibly easy thing, then, to read another writer’s story and pick it apart and tell ourselves what it was we didn’t like, but much more difficult to learn ourselves what good dialogue means and how we can implement it personally. However, I will always maintain that your writing is perfect and the more we learn and practise, the more accomplished we will be as individuals.
Below is a list of lateral tips on developing your conversations between characters, utilised from a variety of sources, such as different types of writing classes, collaborations and personal experiments. These are very much belonging to the ideology of “Tools not Rules”, where they should be used to enhance your writing to your full ability, but if something doesn’t work for you, or you can’t remember it on the moment, it’s no of course no problem. This is a guide for experimentation and perhaps looking at dialogue in a different perspective, by utilising a few unusual methods and techniques that you might not have tried before.
However, before looking at lateral tips, first let’s go over some golden practical rules I think will benefit every writer when it comes to dialogue.
Practical tip #1- Dialogue vs conversation
Possibly the most important part of dialogue is consistency, and this is born from the choice every writer must make; will you implement dialogue or conversation? Look at a movie. The grand majority of films and television shows do not convey conversation, but dialogue. Dialogue is razor sharp wit and inspired retorts, thoughtful musings and perfectly timed one-liners. Conversation on the other hand, is awkward and slow. People compensate their speech with “uhh” and “err” pause-fillers, they take time to think about what they are going to say. Things get misheard or confused or need repeating. The only way you’ll ever hear genuine natural conversation sound like dialogue is potentially within a few comedians and improvisers, and even then it will be filled with more friendly insults and errors instead of being something from a Tarrantino film. Dialogue is engaging, often funny and meaningful, but conversation is honest and genuine. Dialogue works perfect for a Marvel film, but it wouldn’t be appropriate in a sombre drama set in Britain. It’s all about figuring out which tone best suits your story, your setting and your characters, and above all, keep it consistent. Yo-yoing from one extreme to the other in a story will be disorientating for your audience, and is just not a sign of good writing.
Practical tip #2- Keep it concise
Another observation about human conversation is just how much we love to waffle on. I, for one, and massively one for beating around the bush. If I tell a story orally it will take three times as long as it should in a vain effort to build intrigue, and my friends will always get bored before the end. More importantly in creative writing is the need for brevity and purpose. Using contractions will shorten your sentences of course, but there is plenty that doesn’t need to be said, and if it does, does it really warrant more than a couple of sentences? If you describe your character running a tap, they don’t need to verbalise that action unless it is absolutely necessary for another character in the scene to hear that information. Every single sentence of dialogue should hold a purpose; perhaps it is important information another character needs to hear, or the audience needs to understand something through surrogate information, or it explains a character’s relationship with another or how they are a person. We can cut out so much unnecessary filler with this rule, and find creative ways to word humour in a way that benefits the character and fulfils their characterisation.
Practical tip #3- Voices
Every person and most animals you know have a unique voice, mannerisms and speech patterns, and so too should your characters. Even if you know a few people who sound similar, they won’t talk in the same way, use the same vernacular or even speak in the same speed. An elderly man from a well-to-do family obviously wouldn’t sound like a teenager from low-income-housing, regardless of whether their personalities are similar, in real life, so they shouldn’t look completely similar on page either. Visualising your character speaking is imperative to good dialogue. If you can’t hear your own characters speaking, how in the ever loving hell is your audience? Every single one of your characters is going to be different in some way, some more subtle than others. Even twins and the closest of friends will have little parts of their personalities that make them speak differently from each-other, and understanding these is what brings characters to life, for when the text is between speech-marks, it should be them talking, not you.
Practical tip #4- Speech synonyms
This is something that I always remember being drilled into my head as a child in a school, and it’s a problem that inexperienced writers indulge in, in a misguided way to make their writing more dynamic and interesting, but honestly, it is just more tiresome. By synonyms, I of course mean using something other that “he/she said”. ‘Exclaimed’, ‘Guffawed’, and the dreaded, ‘Ejaculated’. It actually took me more time to think of those than it almost has writing the rest of this article, and it’s unnecessary, yet I can never forget how eager my English teachers through the years were to encourage us to learn as many of these as possible, although in hindsight, I can only assume it was to increase of vocabularies. Of course, you’re a smart writer, you understand that on the extreme other-side of the spectrum, using just “he/she said” is incredibly boring, and conveys nothing to the audience except who it is who is speaking. Of course, I can’t begrudge certain synonyms in the appropriate times. “Jon shouted” makes much more sense than writing “Jon spoke very loudly”. Adjectives come in to play here most of all though. Adjectives and various descriptions are how we truly convey emotion to the audience, in it’s simplest and most effective form.
Practical tip #5- Subtext
I expect for many writers this is a given, but I feel obligated to put it here anyway, and if you weren’t all that aware of this, allow me to explain as best as I can. Subtext simply refers to the meaning in between words. As in, us humans in everyday conversations are loathe to tell someone as a matter-of-fact how we are feeling. We don’t say “I am angry today.”, for it is often written over our face, how we greet someone or interact with an object. They won’t tell me they are angry, they will probably break something that isn’t working properly and stomp away, and through the magic of context clues, I will come to my own understanding. Humans are surprisingly subtle creatures. Even your most open, loudest friends will still have at least one thing they don’t convey through traditional language, be that fears, hopes, likes or dislikes. We will discover that in the way they talk about said fears/hopes, or the way they interact with likes/dislikes. This saves a lot of boring, unnecessary dialogue, and is overall more entertaining for your audience as they put two-and-two together.
Lateral tip 1) Visualise the conversation
Everyone’s brain works in different ways. It does kind of boggle my mind that there are people out there who can write a story but do not categorise themselves as ‘visually minded’, but they do exist. (And if you’re reading this, I’d love to hear about your techniques!). I have read before about writers who prefer to keep their notes written on paper as a personification, rather than create a mental image. In dialogue however, I don’t see how that is possible. If every character has a single voice, you need to be able to hear them in your head. It’s one of the only middle-sections in the Venn-diagram between visual and written creators, as it is, as you probably have guessed, more audio based. How can you expect to write a conversation between two people if you can’t hear what they are saying? I like to imagine it as a movie scene, complete with my own compositions and camera angles unfolding before me. The more vivid I can imagine the scene and the conversation unfolding naturally as if it was a scene already created that I am experiencing for the first time, the richer the amount of detail I have to convey to the reader. Of course, not everyone finds it quite so enjoyable or easy for that, and fortunately, it is a very personable experience, one you can tailor out in your head. Perhaps you might like the feel of the conversation in the style of your favourite video-game, anime or cartoon, I mean, hey, it’s your mental space, do whatever feels natural. If you can find a comfortable style in your head, you can use it as a vessel for your characters to concisely communicate with each other.
Lateral tip 2) Interview your character and try to hear their voice
Still working on the concept of voice, a concept can also be used on an individual basis, rather than an unfolding scene or group dynamic. Used as an effective exercise for a single character, the interview process is when you set yourself an allotted time, and ask a number of interesting questions to your new character, and see how they respond naturally. I always use this for my physical characters when I’m acting in skits or plays, and I always encourage whoever else is participating to dot he same, and it can be implemented into written form too, although this way, you aren’t depending on the sporicidal nature of other people’s questions. Start of simple with “What is your name?”, “What do you do for fun?” etc, and build more questions from their given answers. This proves effective in my experience, as it divulges into the smaller, intricate aspects of the character. Aspects that don’t matter to the read, such as favourite colours and foods, but it’s the little details that shape their characterisations in our heads. The way they dress, what restaurants they frequent if any, this isn’t information we always directly think of, but if we incite our characters into telling us directly, with their own unique voices, it’s how we learn first-hand. A practical way to experience this would be to write down a few choice questions you deem important, imagine your character answering and jot them down with any other character information, the more you do it, the less you might need to in the future, or perhaps the more refined the questions become, as you discover within your own style what is most necessary for you to know about each of your creations.
Lateral tip 3) Dialogue is about revealing the character’s relationship to other characters and the world, not furthering the plot
This is always the litmus test of good dialogue for me. Especially in films and stories with a lot of world building, I just believe subtlety is the way to go. New writers seem to often have a habit of growing too attached to the world and plot they have thought up, and conveying that as quickly and coherently as possible to the audience takes precedence, but this should never be a priority. Every piece of fiction you love above everything else, and even stories rooted in non-fiction, rely on the relationships between your characters and the wider world. That isn’t always an easy lesson to learn, as we want the audience to be engaged to our story as quickly and effectively as possible, but if the characters aren’t engaged, then our audience can’t be either. If every line of dialogue requires a purpose, then that purpose must always be about identifying someone’s relationship with something. Dialogue exists to reveal the character’s identity, even if that particular sentence is a lie. A lie proves that one character doesn’t trust another’s reaction in the broadest sense. Something mundane as verbalising a dislike proves their relationship with something that exists in your world, and almost always instigates a reaction from another character in the scene. Stories as a whole require action and reaction to be engaging, and for dialogue it is imperative, and opens a lot of opportunities for further engagement. The plot will move as it does, flowing like time, but your characters must move with it, not instigate it. Peppering in bits of exposition will be important and realistic, but a character’s role shouldn’t be ‘exposition-dumper’, as we can commonly find examples of. They should exist in this world and reveal things to the audience in realistic reactions, and implore further reactions from the other players in your story.
Lateral tip 4) Poetry and imagery
Even the most poetic people in the world don’t fill their everyday conversations with imagery and metaphor. Good poetry requires hours, if not days, of rumination to complete, and should succeed in creating a vivid image with vernacular and inspiring a particular emotion from whoever is listening. Of course, this is part of the particular differences between dialogue and conversation. Having your characters speak heavy, foreboding and beautiful lines is always entertaining, but it’s completely uncommon for a realistic setting. We find that this vernacular is often reserved for fantasy and historical settings, to lend a sense of gravitas, which has roots to Shakespearean lines. In an already abstract setting, by lending endearingly quotable and dramatic lines, we find it’s a way of doubling down on the already fantastical. A lot of times, this proves to be the goal. As writers, I think all of us can be guilty at one point or another of writing down something and secretly thinking to ourselves; “This is an amazing line, people are going to be astounded by this”, or that might just be my own ego talking. When used correctly, and utilising the idea of character voices into the positive assumption that this is indeed something our characters would say, we can create ‘epic’ moments that fill our readers with excitement and make their skin prickle up. This can be risky though, if it’s something we actively seek. As with all human nature, something forced and is apparent comes across as dull. Instead, by utilising poetic techniques, we can then implement them subtly into our dialogue. I once had the pleasure of seeing an improvised play where the actors completely made up a Shakespearean story on the spot, limited by the usage of Iambic Pentamers, and the result was a wholly unique, poetic and strangely beautiful play about an audience member’s awkward moment with a Jehovah’s Witness at their door. By learning different poetic techniques, we can sprinkle something beautiful into our conversations, even if it isn’t particularly realistic.
Lateral tip 5) Characters speaking without voices
As an exercise, and building on subtext, is an experiment on an individual conversation. The exercise, is to imagine a conversation or scene, where the characters are restricted in their ability to speak (It doesn’t matter how or why, but it could be tied into the story). How do they communicate about a problem or pressing matter? How do they convey their emotions and reactions to the other’s actions? Through body language, of course. Movement, facial expressions and grunts can all convey a surprising amount of emotion (Once I did an experiment in front of my step-mum where I grunted to my dad to see if he could guess what I meant, and he was correct with a success rate of 100%). This could even be combined with the interview exercise as above; interrogating your characters on the exact same questions, but they can only answer through body-language. Allowing yourself to try these exercises allows you to explore subtext in it’s purest forms, to a point where it almost comes natural. We can bypass the awkwardness of having our characters state the obvious by having them reveal the truth through subtle movements and expressions.
Lateral tip 6) Avoid the obvious at all costs
Speaking of avoiding stating the obvious, but a key point to engagement is never having your characters speak their emotions or even their desires. A fantastic one of the aforementioned ‘tools not rules’ I learned was to avoid at all costs having your characters directly say the exact words on their mind, but still convey it through other means. Another exercise here is to have one character try to tell another character a secret without using the exact words, or swap it out for ambition, emotion, desire or regret. This challenges our brains in a lateral way to circumvent the easy route, which proves engaging for your audience, as they will be siding with the other person in the conversation, trying to guess the problem or secret without being implicitly told. It forces ourselves as writers to be careful in how we present our dialogue to audiences to create intrigue.
Lateral tip 7) Your outside confidence will shine through
This can be conceived more of a general writing tip, but the fact is, writing dialogue is hard, perhaps one of the hardest parts for most people. As with all things in life and love, the appropriate level of confidence will see you through and resonate with your audience. Someone who struggles with dialogue is going to be transparent to the audience, as much as someone who thinks they are amazing at it but fail to fool the audience into believing the same thing. Once again, just like writing in general, anyone who thinks they are perfect at writing and needs no improvement are probably much worse than they delude themselves into thinking. As writers, it’s our job to improve ourselves with every chapter written and to always keep learning no matter what success we accrue, and as such, I fully believe that learning in your own capacity and at your own pace everything about writing will build your confidence in writing dialogue. Learning as much as you can about grammar and punctuation will free you from levels of distress, as when you begin to over-think it, grammar exists simply as guidelines for coherence and understanding. Many authors purposefully or unintentionally stray away from grammar conventions to success, and some don’t. By learning as much as we can about the conventual guidelines in dialogue and writing in general, we can learn which ones to follow vehemently and which ones to bend or ignore, and that completely frees us from the distraction of correctness and incorrectness, and we can begin to only worry about the content in between those margins. By becoming so proficient with the basic rules of writing we can utilise to an almost subconscious level, and that is where true confidence begins, and that in turn, is what your audience will resonate with.
Lateral tip 8) Don’t date your dialogue unnecessarily
Language is constantly evolving and moving. Innocent words now have new meanings as insults, and some swear-words have lost their venom entirely. Language, then, is an important part of bringing your audience into a certain time. We certainly do not speak the same way as our ancestors did two-hundred, or even one-hundred years ago, and in another hundred-years time the language will have moved on again, or perhaps even more rapidly now. Culture and it’s implementations into society have such a massive, profound effect on the way we speak to one another. Now the internet is such an integral part of mainstream life, there is equal chance that language globally will start to be influenced from all corners of life in vastly different ways. ‘Memes’ have now become so commonplace in normal society, that the word is now almost a bastardization of what it originally meant. When considering writing something that takes place in the future, it’s just as important to realise that the language will be different to what it is now, just as if we were writing something in the past. I must admit, I absolutely love the trope of historical and fantasy films speaking in a very formal, dramatic way, but I can’t be sure it will ever be realistic. The English language itself has gone through many iterations, and was much less formal and pronounced before William the Conqueror did his thing, his thing of conquering, and the Normans introduced new aspects to the language that we still use in every day conversations. I’m not saying that we possibly have the ability to predict what future language will sound like, or have to fill ourselves up on knowledge before writing something historical, as if intentional, anachronisms (Utilising something modern like language, accents or music etc in a time before they existed) can prove fun and accessible for an audience. The key here is intention. If you write a story based in the 1980’s, then you can get away with a little bit of flexibility in the language, as the changes are mostly minor. If you set something in an ambiguous timeframe like “Present Day“, then someone who picks up the book twenty years later will be confused about all of the references to “Pepe the Frog” or “Salt Bae“, as (hopefully) they will fade out of the public mind by then. I remember reading Stephen King’s novel Cell, and the bit where I realised I wasn’t enjoying the book very much, was when the teenage girl character was hanging out with the two male leads in what should have been a fun, light bit of character development, but it became quickly apparent to me that this character sounded neither like a teenager nor a girl, and was making some extremely outdated references. Language is evolving, and references are fleeting, even in something like a sitcom. They can be used to great effect when referencing something universally loved as an in-joke, but when shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy try to reference or parody every current fad and viral video under the sun, it all becomes fatiguing and frankly boring, and only more so as the years go on and the source material less and less relevent.
Lateral tip 9) Differences are key
Upon acting on giving each character a voice, each voice has to be unique, to that of the story. A comic book with characters that all look similar is going to be terribly confusing to the reader, so many artists experiment with making characters recognisable by their silhouette, to make them easily recognisable. We don’t have the luxury of visual silhouettes, so the answer to making each character sound and speak different is something we must come up with in a more abstract way. Finding a balance here is important, for if we begin to phonetically type out every character’s accent or introduce dramatic pauses in between the speech, it will be a confusing slog to read. Having a character stand out with one of these unique straits works when contrasting with characters who tend to speak a little more normally, but it can be seen as an extreme. There are subtler ways, including just the use of language, or what questions they might ask, will provide an insight to the inner machinations of their brain. Someone from the streets will use more slang and shorter words than someone raised in a sheltered manor. As always, I would highly recommend experimentation and practise. Try an exercise where only two characters are speaking, and each of them has a slightly different way of speaking, or a story where there is only dialogue, and try to differentiate in a more natural way. Adding slight ways to individualise and differentiate our characters makes the story more coherent, but also the characters more engaging to read.
Lateral tip 10) Catchphrases and quirks
Building off of that last point, is a more extreme version of differentiation. I find that comics and manga have a tendency to over-do this to a massive degree, big titles like Naruto, Bleach, Fairy tail and Soul Eater have a tendency to focus a character’s speech and personality around either one personality trait or quirk. Their entire speech might include a vocal resonance as a suffix of every sentence, or that their speech is more erratic. Once again, this is perfectly fine to contrast a larger-than-life character to a character who acts as more of the ‘straight-man’ in a scene, and record the reactions between the two, as a quirk should be used to high-light a certain trait in a character. Where this becomes a problem, is when we either base a character around the quirk, or saturate our story with so many different quirks that they just become irritating, and distracting from the idea that these should be highlights. Having a character with OCD should be because you firstly want to highlight the dreadful habits of the ‘disorder’, and because it furthers your character and their relationship with the world. You should avoid using like OCD if you think having that would make for a different character to the rest of your ensemble, and then build their personality around it. We can use the same instances for catch-phrases, which work in a scenario like The Simpsons, as the show lacks continuity, so they can play hard and fast with their characters personalities to a degree, as they are prioritised as joke conduits. In the book versions of The Lord of the Rings, many characters have a tendency to be overly-polite and friendly to one another (even their enemies), so when we meet Treebeard, who finishes most sentences with “hoom” and has a common phrase; “Don’t be hasty”, the contrast makes it all the memorable, and somehow, gives life to an ancient tree-man who lives in the forest, but furthering that, they add to his character and his perspective on the world and the events unfolding. The noises he makes signifies a massive and ancient creature, while his ‘catch-phrase’ perfectly tells us exactly all we need to know about him in a single sentence. Quirks and catch-phrases might be perfect for establishing some characters in your story, but they should not be implemented without careful consideration first.
These are just a few techniques and things I’ve experimented with and personally found success with. Are there any off-beat techniques you use to develop your dialogue? Do any of these tips seem interesting enough to try? Let’s talk about it!