Dialogue: How to Write Interesting Conversations

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People like reading dialogue. Most readers tend to not actually read every word that’s on each page of a story; they skip over sections of description, picking up a sentence here or there so that they can get the gist of it. But, by and large, every word of dialogue that’s written is usually read. Something about the sight of quotation marks catches our eye, and commands our attention. That means that your dialogue is usually the most heavily scrutinized portion of your stories.

So it had better be good.

Dialogue opens up huge swaths of storytelling tools in the hands of a good writer. It is, after all, one of the fastest ways to tell your reader about your character. Does your lead protagonist have a sordid past? Reveal some of it in a conversation! Is he or she a sarcastic jerk? The quickest way to show that is by having them say a lot of sarcastic things.

More than that, however, is the voice of the character who is doing the speaking. Some people speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences that are riddled with SAT words, and they seem smarter for it. Others speak in short, terse sentences, often appearing standoffish.

Here is where we approach the First Rule of Good Dialogue: 

Every Character Should Have a Unique Voice. People are different. My old boss, a Pakistani ex-pat who went to college in Canada for Computer Science speaks completely unlike my coworker, who was a med student that grew up on Long Island. People have different dialects, different vocabularies, different mannerisms, and it is important for you, as a writer, to understand and recognize those separations of character background and personal history. A construction worker with a GED will speak in one way, while a lawyer will speak in another. Just as the sound of their voices will be dissimilar, so too will their diction.

This is where word choice can come into play.

I’m not a big believer in overly descriptive prose or using words that are as complicated as possible when a shorter, simpler word will do the job just as well. You can probably tell from my articles and short stories that my actual prose is fairly spartan. That is because I believe that the story is the most important thing, not the setting or proving to anyone that I can use sesquipedalian language. That’s a word that I’m not going to define. Look it up. Because if I were to use it in a story, I would be asking my readers to do the same, and that isn’t very fair to them, is it? I’ll likely write another post about expository diction, but this point is relevant here. Too often I read stories in which the writer was so obsessed with word choice that they got in the way of the story rather than helped it, so use caution when busting out your thesaurus.

The words you use for your prose should be appropriate, but they shouldn’t require agonizing consideration. Put the phrase simply, then move on. Where you should be careful with the words is when you choose what is coming directly out of your characters’ mouths.

I constantly see characters devolve into little beyond an Author Avatar, sort of a literary mouthpiece where the author can speak directly to the reader. I mean, that can be fine. But when all of your characters speak the same way you do, then they aren’t really characters, are they?

Each one should be unique, to a reasonable degree. I mean, if you have a a group of Nobel Laureates talking about a food crisis in Algeria, sure, they’ll talk similarly. But if you have a cast of reasonable diversity (pretty much every group of college students or low-level office workers) then their dialogue should be equally diverse. Change it up, man. Pick different words, with different mannerisms. Chuck is a writer by trade, so he speaks differently than Andrew, a youth pastor. Alex is funnier than Chuck is, so he is typically more sarcastic or apt to make witty remarks than Chuck.

Just like your characters’ behavior and physical actions, their dialogue should reflect them as an individual.

Also, there’s no better way to demonstrate hidden intelligence than having one of your characters suddenly bust out a ludicrously polysyllabic vocabulary.

The point is that your characters aren’t you (unless they are, in which case this is a whole different conversation). They can’t really become their own separate entity unless they are separate. How different you choose to make them is up to you, but please, for the love of God, make them different.

The Second Rule of Good Dialogue is:

Be Natural, But Don’t Go Overboard

This rule is like walking a knife-edge.

The fact of the matter is that people like it when characters speak like actual people. They don’t come up to new people and say “Hello, I am a twenty-something Bohemian artiste searching for meaning in this humdrum monotony that all of you sheeple call ‘work.'”

They hide their intentions. They mask their real meaning with passive-aggressive asides. They mutter under their breath. They make Freudian slips. They talk about mundane crap like the weather or their day at work. They make pop culture references and have inside jokes. They have phrases with the people they’re closest to that are utterly meaningless to others, but have deep meanings to them.

For example, my best friend Greek can come up to me at any time in our lives and say “Aruba Jam” and I’ll know exactly what he means.

People also are capable of having multiple conversations at once. One of my favorite dialogue-heavy scenes I’ve ever written is the second chapter of CatalyaIn it, the main character, Chuck, is talking to his two best friends, Alex and Andrew. They’re having four conversations simultaneously; one is about Chuck’s recent breakup, one is about plans for the future, one is about the books they’re looking at, and the last is about the title character, Catalya. They weave through all of these, replying, responding, making remarks and valid points, and the result is an interesting multiple-page conversation that provides backstory and characterization while commenting on some of my favorite (and least favorite) authors and books, while still remaining entertaining to read. The pace is fast, the amount of information supplied in the dialogue is significant, but it never feels like you’re reading an info-dump. You can see pieces of that style in the opening scene of my latest short story, The Fall of Fort Couragebut it’s reined in somewhat.

The point is that people talk to each other for a wide array of reasons, ranging from a desire to fill dead silence to pumping someone for information about the murder of their uncle, but rarely do they come at any of those conversations head on. People dissemble, lie, stretch the truth, use colloquialisms, reference old movies, repeat themselves, ask for clarification, pretend they know more than they do, boast, and self-deprecate.

Some of Tarantino’s brilliance is burying the kernel of plot-relevant information in ten minutes of discussion about random events. For instance, Vince Vega and Jules spend a crazy amount of time arguing over whether a foot massage is as bad as cunnilingus– while they’re on their way to kill someone.

This said, do not go overboard. People naturally say “um,” and “uh,” and “you know,” and “like” and make a dozen other filler sounds. You do not need to transcribe these for the sake of realism, except where necessary to build tension. It’s jarring, off-putting, and annoying to read.

That means it’s okay to stretch reality a little bit. Just don’t take it too far.

That brings me to the Third Rule of Good Dialogue:

Dialogue Does Not Exist in a Vacuum

First, talking takes time. If your characters are having a twenty-page discussion about how to attack the Big Bad, well, stuff is still happening around them. Despite what the TVTropes entry says, talking is not a free action. The plot cannot wait for the characters to reminisce about their childhood memories of the French Riviera.

If your characters are talking about the physics of a bomb going off while it’s going off and they don’t end up extra crispy, then you’re doing it wrong. Expository paragraphs can explain it, because the narrative exists outside of time and space as an artifact of storytelling, but dialogue had better not be used as an exposition tool when time is of the essence and lives are on the line.

Jim Butcher loves reminding the reader (and antagonists) that you don’t get to monologue for free. In the first book, the main villain tries to deliver a great speech about how stupid Dresden is to his face, while there is a fire raging right below them. Spoiler alert: Dresden shoots him. Then, when the villain tries to resume his monologue, Dresden shoots him again. And again.

So don’t forget that your characters’ speech doesn’t halt events around them.

Also remember that people remember what other people say. If your main protagonist calls the villain a jackass, they will remember that.

Mainly, dialogue shouldn’t be present without reason. If plot-relevant details are revealed, then that conversation should damn well be referenced later.

The final piece that falls under this rule is that you should remember who is present during conversations and what is saidIf Tim and John come to the conclusion that Sam is a traitor, then Jimmy shouldn’t know that until he is told (unless he had already figured it out or something). Furthermore, Tim or John shouldn’t have to be told about this. This is more into continuity than anything else, but too often I see this kind of error. Revealing information shouldn’t have to be revealed twice to the same characters, unless we’re talking about amnesia plots, in which case, you know, go nuts.

The Fourth Rule of Good Dialogue is

No. Freaking. Monologues. 

Do you know who speaks in half-hour increments without stopping? Politicians who are filibustering, people in show business, professors delivering a lecture, and nobody else.

Unless one of your characters is telling a story, they shouldn’t be the only ones talking for several pages. Think about your reaction if one of your friends just started speaking, and didn’t stop for ten minutes. You’d get pissed, and inevitably interrupt them.

Monologues can work in your story, but only in very specific circumstances. If your villain is delivering a speech meant to break the will of the heroes, that’s one thing. As long as it’s relatively short, or broken up into increments with other exchanges of dialogue in-between, it can be just fine.

Probably the best example in recent memory is the speech delivered by Barlow in Stephen King’s vampire masterpiece Salem’s Lot. (That book should be read by everyone who can appreciate horror as a genre). Barlow isn’t even present when he monologues at the protagonists; he left behind a recording. It is a perfect vehicle for presenting a lengthy speech by a single character that lasts several pages, because it provides an in-universe reason for there to be no interaction by the other characters.

That’s the real crux of the issue: people want to interact when someone else is speaking. They interrupt, cut in, mutter things under their breath, add salient points, and cry their disapproval or support. It’s totally unrealistic for one character to go off on a five-page rant.

Unless, of course, it winds up being totally realistic because you’ve justified it within your story.

The worst example of a monologue gone wrong is in Atlas ShruggedJohn Galt, the mysterious man hinted at and mentioned in oblique ways throughout the famously long novel, begins speaking. And keeps going. For sixty pages straight. He delivers a speech that, according to the text of the novel, takes three hours. A search on YouTube yields this recording, which takes only a little longer than that to read aloud. This was likely done in several takes, however; I doubt any one of us could read it in a single shot without taking a minimum of four hours.

I get why it’s there, but good God do I wish I had skipped it. In fact, a lot of people do skip John Galt’s speech, if the Internet is to be believed. Part of that has to do with the fact that Galt’s legendary monologue is little more than Ayn Rand speaking directly to readers in an attempt to tell them exactly what she believes.

Monologues, man. You need to be careful with them. I usually recommend that beginning authors avoid them altogether until you have some solid practice under your belt.

The Fifth Rule of Good Dialogue is:

Avoid Avoiding “Said.”

I see this all the time. Writers have a tendency to not want to reuse words. If I write that someone was “annoying” in one sense, I change it up the next time by referring to them as “irritating” or something similar. This is usually a good policy, because readers do notice when you recycle the same vocabulary. (See that? I said “reuse” earlier, so I switched it up with “recycle” in that last sentence).

The same should not necessarily be applied to the word “said.” It is simple. It works. It does not always need to be applied with a different word, like “emasculated.” Here is an example of what not to do, pulled directly from J.K. Rowling’s wonderful Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

“We’re not going to use magic?” Ron ejaculated loudly.

Ron technically did ejaculate, in a very old usage of the word that is really no longer in our modern lexicon (“exclaim” is a synonym for it when using it in this sense). That said, come on. Not only was it out of place, it adds nothing to his statement.

The actual dialogue should be enough to carry its intent through either direct statement (“Jerry is the murderer!”) or subtext (“Where was Jerry when Kim was killed?”). Both of them leave the reader assuming that Jerry is the killer, and that the speaker is accusing him. We do not need any further clarification of this; you don’t need to write:

“Jerry is the murderer!” Simon accused.

For us to understand that Simon thinks Jerry is guilty.

The use of the word “said” is designed to tell us who is talkingAnything beyond that can fall into purple prose.

Some basic words like “asked,” “replied,” “wondered,” or “whispered” are fine, because they indicate the rhythm of speech and the intent behind them. When someone whispers, they’re avoiding detection. When someone wonders, they’re thinking out loud. “Ask” is necessary, because you can’t say that someone said a question. It sounds weird, even if it is technically correct. “Replied” is a gray area, but is generally benign.

Words like “exclaim” are pretty much redundant. It’s called an exclamation point. Assuming that you put one in there, then it has already been indicated that the speaker was exclaiming– ditto “shouted” and “yelled.”

You can get away with some of these, as long as they add something to the dialogue– and are physically possible. (You cannot sigh or laugh a sentence, but you can sing one).

This type of writing was in vogue a while back. I remember in sixth grade we all had to take a writing lab course, all about creative writing. We were given an assignment to list all of the words that could be used instead of “said.” While my teacher was a very kind woman who I still have fond memories of, this screwed me up for a long time afterward. I attempted to write several books in middle school and high school, and I avoided the word “said” like the plague. While I never got very far with any of them (though one did eventually turn into Catalya years later), they were also written poorly, and I couldn’t use any of the text because of it. A lot of it had to do with my reticence to simply use “said.”

You’re allowed to change it up a little, of course. When you write long fiction, you get tired of putting “said” on paper ten times a page, so go ahead and spice it a bit. Just don’t go crazy, because soon your characters will be “cooing” and “trilling” and “schmoozing” without you realizing it.

Also falling under this rule is the Bane of Good Writing: ADVERBS. 

Adverbs are reviled in the creative writing field. You know why? Because they modify words that should contain the modification within their definition. Specific to this post is the use of adverbs to modify replacement words for “said.” For instance:

“I don’t know what to do!” Steve sobbed piteously.

Steve is sobbing. We know that it is pitiful. You don’t need to tell us that.

Sometimes, writers skate around the replacement word by adding a description of what’s taking place. This is a good way to avoid “ejaculating.” For instance, instead of having Ron ejaculate as above, Rowling could have written:

“We’re not going to use magic?” Ron asked, his voice raised. 

That would have been fine. Instead, she delivered a double-whammy of an antiquated definition of a hilarious word in a different context, combined with an adverb:

“We’re not going to use magic?” Ron ejaculated loudly.

I mean, come on. If we aren’t distracted by the use of the word “ejaculated” and its other meaning, then we know that it means that Ron is talking loudly. (J.K. Rowling is forgiven this quirk of hers, because she was literally a billionaire from writing books and has written a series that will be the bridge over the generation gap Star Wars used to be).

The point is that if you are going to lower yourself to using words to replace “said,” then they had better be self-contained and not need additional modification.

To avoid the humdrum of just using “said,” only use the word when it becomes necessary to indicate who exactly is doing the speaking. You do not need to tag every line of dialogue by identifying the speaker; that is usually easy to follow without it after the first. Instead, devote your efforts to describing what is taking place around the speaker, or what they are doing as they speak. For instance:

“We’re not going to use magic?” Ron asked. He stared at Umbridge, incredulous. Murmurs of agreement began spreading throughout the room, the students surprised at the news. 

That’s just fine; it paints Ron’s outburst in the light it was supposed to be received without resorting to adverbs– though I did use an adverbial clause, which is more acceptable, but still not really considered great writing.

If I continue on this rule, I’ll just be repeating myself, so let me repeat myself one final time: it is okay to just use the word “said.” Don’t panic if you can’t come up with a suitable synonym. And don’t dump adverbs into your writing to make up for the recycling.

The Sixth and Final Rule of Good Dialogue is:

Flow, Baby, Flow.

Your dialogue should read almost like a miniature narrative. When people talk, they describe things, they reveal plot information, and they show pieces of themselves and their character. It needs to be interesting, especially when you have long conversations.

Aaron Sorkin represents everything I dislike about modern American media. I disagree with him fundamentally on virtually every level. I don’t like his politics, I don’t like his hamfisted method of social discourse through thinly-veiled Aesops groaning under the weight of well-intentioned parables that are barely applicable to the situation being portrayed. He turned Mark Zuckerberg’s meteoric rise into a story about a boy who lost a girl he liked, a massive oversimplification of a complex path. He creates extremist straw men on shows like The Newsroom and The West Wing, almost always republicans, thereby leaving the viewer with the implication that everyone with an (R) next to their name is a homophobic maniac who wants to take away women’s birth control. Then he has the main cast, universally highly educated Democrats (yes, even Jeff Daniels on The Newsroom is a democrat, despite the fact that he calls himself a republican– the test for that is trying to find one single issue he agrees with any Republican on), destroy the straw man argument and ride onward to noble victory. He uses the same stories over and over (every one of his television shows– Sports Night, The West Wing, The Newsroom, and the short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip have several episodes dedicated to a central character deciding to visit a psychiatrist to work out their daddy issues, half of them have drug subplots, and The West Wing even directly reuses his line from The American President  “What is the virtue of a proportional response?” in the first couple of episodes). He is everything I do not like about storytellers.

But you know what he does better than anyone else in television?

He writes the shit out of dialogue.

I hate his stories, because most of them are uninteresting. But I have watched everything the man has written in the past twenty years because I cannot get enough of the dialogue. Watch The West Wing. Better yet, watch Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and listen to the exchanges between the two lead characters, Matt and Danny. They talk about nothing, but they talk about everything, and they banter, and they bicker, and they find that they’re agreeing on things, and they argue, and it’s freaking awesome.

The back-and-forth is mesmerizing, and it’s the only reason why Sorkin is still collecting a paycheck. The exchanges that take place are brilliantly crafted, and I can’t adequately describe them to you without illegally reproducing them in their entirety. Memorable moments include the “Who’s on First?” type interaction that take place between Josh Lyman, wearing hip waders after ruining his suit, and Joey Lucas, a deaf woman who bursts into his office unexpectedly. It’s hilarious, outlandish, confusingly endearing, and totally out of place within the context of the episode, “Take This Sabbath Day,” which dealt with the death penalty.

Aaron Sorkin has mastered the flow of dialogue. He can craft conversations that will keep you interested for the entirety of the duration. The rapid pacing pulls you in and won’t let you go.

The point is this: dialogue isn’t just about the destination. The reveal that is provided by the dialogue’s terminus doesn’t have to be the only thing of substance within a given conversation. It’s a chance to add some serious color. The path of a conversation can be winding, providing hints and clues at things that aren’t stated outright until the end (or not at all), and can cover dozens of topics before getting to the point.

And all of it should be entertaining. Each of the lines of dialogue can be setups for jokes, or profound sentiments, or terrifying implications.

It comes down to the fact that I would rather listen to Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborn (The West Wing) talk about the various properties of bananas than listen to Edward and Bella talk about vampires. This means that the way the dialogue is written is just as important, if not more, than the topic of conversation.

 

Follow these rules, and you’ll have some passable dialogue. If you’re ever in doubt, have two or three friends take the roles of the characters and read it aloud. That should tell you, one way or another.

If you need any help, let me know in a comment or an email.

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