Dialogue (speech), believe it or not, is more complex than you think. It serves several purposes in story-telling including revealing motives, sets the stories mood, adds dynamic to plot, creates tension/suspense with characters, speeds up the pace of the story, reveals both characterization and plot, and breaks up narrative. If it doesn’t serve one of these purposes then it has no point being in the scene.
Dialogue should flow naturally. It should be authentic to the character and not sound forced. You have to ask yourself as you’re writing: Would my character say that? Or sound like that? Speak like that? Would they ever use that terminology or slang? Would they even know what that word means? You have to know your character (characterization). You have to get inside their head. Here’s an example of forced dialogue:
Sam walked alone down an alley and suddenly a man with a knife appeared.
“He has a knife!” Sam shouted. How will I get out of this?
Okay, first ask yourself, who the heck is Sam talking to? The character is alone in an alley, so they can’t warn anyone and we (the reader) already know the man has a knife, so it’s just redundant to have any dialogue like that there. Also, you have to give your character more credit than that too. I’m pretty sure he or she would realize what is happening in the moment and react in a more realistic way. In this case action probably speaks louder than words. Would the first thing Sam does when he sees a stranger with a knife say ‘he has a knife’ or would he run or freeze or try to fight the guy or even talk him down? Sam sees there is a knife and the man knows he’s holding a knife so its likely Sam doesn’t need to state the obvious. Don’t let the character speak directly to the audience, pretend we’re not even here. Be in the moment with your character and react accordingly. Also, just a side note here, use exclamation points sparingly. Think of them as the Grandparent that you love to see on those super rare occasions that way it’s a nice surprise if they actually do pop up.
The next part of that example is the italicized inner-monologue, or thoughts, which in it’s own subtle way is forced because it is asking an obvious question the reader expects to be answered. Italics are used generally for thoughts or an emphasis. For example:
“Well I don’t want to be like that because that would mean being like you.”
Emphasis on the you. This dialogue would probably be found in an argument somewhere.
Another aspect of Dialogue is the use of Dialogue Tags. A dialogue tag lets the reader know who is talking. It’s the he/she/name said at the end of the sentence. Sadly most dialogue tags are skipped over, so instead of using so many fancy tags like he quipped or she bellowed its best to just use standard he/she said/replied. Also, a helpful hint when it comes to writing dialogue is that a general rule of thumb is each time a new character speaks they get a new line/paragraph. Okay, that noted, here’s an example of normal dialogue from My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due:
““You seem…older…” [Jessica] said. “Not that you look it, at least not much. But you act–”
“Like an old fogy?”
“You said it, not me.”
“That comes from being a misanthrope,” [David] said.
“In general, yes. But not tonight.”” (Due 32).
This example jumps back and forth from character to character and since there are only two it’s okay to not use so many dialogue tags. Due uses one every few lines to remind the reader who is saying what. The dialogue continues:
““Dr. Wolde,” she said, “I don’t think I can date one of my professors. It would feel weird.”
“Call me David.”
“David, I can’t date one of my professors.”
“Former professors,” he corrected.
“Former professors,” she repeated, her voice firm.
Dr. Wolde sighed, glancing down from her face to the scratched mock-wood Formica tabletop. He looked genuinely wounded, but also angry at himself. “I think I’ve overstepped some protocol here. I’m no good at this. I thought since you’re no longer my student, we could–” He sighed again, laughing nervously. “I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable. I didn’t mean to. I just enjoy this, being with you, and I thought…” He raised his palm to cover his eye-lids, as though shielding his face from a sudden flash of light. “I’m embarrassed. Ay Dios mío. I’m sorry, Jessica.””(Due 32-33).
I really like this exchange of dialogue because it shows characterization on both parts. It shows Jessica being firm with her response and David almost ignoring her, acting like this is a game to him at first, but then realizes he needs to back away. Through dialogue we learned about their characters. The best part about this example is that the dialogue is evenly balanced with exposition. We get to see the character’s actions, which sometimes speak louder than words themselves. For example, “He looked genuinely wounded, but also angry at himself.” What a curious thing for Jessica to observe, don’t you think? Why would David be mad at himself when she is the one turning him down? Characterization.
One last aspect of dialogue is dialect. Dialect is like an accent. While it’s fun to write a character that has a certain dialect, it can also prove challenging because you have to keep the dialect consistent throughout the whole story. This poem, Sence You Went Away by James Weldon Johnson (from 101 Great American Poems) is a great example of a southern dialect:
Seems lak to me de stars don’t shine so bright,
Seems lak to me de sun done loss his light,
Seems lak to me der’s nothin’ goin’ right,
Sence you went away.
Seems lak to me de sky ain’t half so blue,
Seems lak to me dat ev’ything wants you,
Seems lak to me I dont know what to do,
Sence you went away.
Seems lak to me dat ev’ything is wrong,
Seems lak to me de day’s jes twice es long,
Seems lak to me de bird’s forgot his song,
Sence you went away.
Seems lak to me I jes can’t he’p but sigh,
Seems lak to me ma th’oat keeps gettin’ dry,
Seems lak to me a tear stays in ma eye,
Sence you went away.
This poem is beautiful, in part because of the dialect. In this case it gives the poem a good sound, but for novels it would add to a character’s characterization, which is why it’s important.
Dialogue can be a beautiful aspect to your book, but it’s important to not go overboard with it either. Balance between dialogue and action is key; otherwise the reader may get bored or confused. Hemmingway is arguably the master of dialogue, so check out this link for one of his short stories that is dialogue-driven: http://www.mrbauld.com/hemclean.html.
For more advice on Dialogue check out Write Great Fiction – Dialogue by Gloria Kempton. Also, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (have I convinced you that this book should be apart of your library yet?) is good for dialogue too (it’s good for everything!).
Due, Tananarive. My Soul To Keep. New York: Eos, 1997. Print.
Johnson, James Weldon. 101 Great American Poems. “Sence You Went Away”. Mineola: Dover, 1998. Print.