Dialogue, it can make or break a film, novel or play. So when it comes to dialogue how can you master some techniques to making creative, unique and fascinating dialogue that suspends disbelief, rather than creates disbelief? Here are a few tips and ideas to improve your dialogue writing:
Understand Your Characters
Characters are connected to dialogue intrinsically. Dialogue helps to understand the inner thoughts of a character, where what they say is as important as what remains implicit. Otherwise, without dialogue, the reader is relying upon the narrator to show them about the character with adjectives and description alone.
There are multiple types of characters, and the notion of characters will be a point of discussion for a future Let’s Get Technical post. However, with regards to dialogue it is important to understand the nature of the person speaking. Take the following archetype wheel for example which highlights some of the possible archetypes:
If you create a character who fits the archetypical idea of a clown or jester for example, you must ensure the dialogue matches their identity. It would make little sense for a character who exists as a source of comedy to produce dialogue that holds more in common with the main antagonist for example.
The main exception of course, is where you as a writer are mixing together multiple archetypes into the one complex and multilayered character. However, the key point being made here about characters and dialogue is that appropriate dialogue must connect back authentically to the character’s nature: their role and purpose within the narrative. Remember, characters are the creation of you as an author – but they are made up of words and dialogue is an extension of their character.
Understand Your Setting
Settings, as much as characters, are created out of words and descriptions. However, where dialogue is essential to conveying the essential being of a character, it may not be so essential to express a setting. What becomes important with regards to the connection between dialogue and setting is to ensure that any dialogue is appropriate to the setting.
Say for example you are writing a Victorian London-era piece. It would be appropriate to use elegant and flowery dialogue that suits the tone and style of the era. This same style of dialogue may not, however, be appropriate for a 21st Century piece set in the boroughs of New York. Similarly, for any imaginative piece of fantasy or science fiction writing, the dialogue must make sense in the particular setting and not feel contrary to the tone and feel of the place. If the world is a gristly Medieval fantasy world then featuring a variety of characters speaking in entirely hopeful tones and with airy mannerisms would be out of place, and that only leads to poor dialogue.
Let Your Dialogue Flow
Dialogue needs to, like any form of writing, maintain a rhythm and flow. When writing dialogue imagine that you are having a conversation in the role of each of the characters and write from those two perspectives. Let the dialogue flow, because as every author has said – the key to writing is to write and write as much as possible. Once you have a flow of dialogue, then and only then can you go back and edit if it feels clunky or awkward.
Avoid Obvious Statements
Poorly written dialogue tends to fall into the routine of being exceptionally obvious in nature. For instance, if you were describing characters at a wedding and featured dialogue like the following: ‘We are in love.’ Or, if you were describing a battle scene when someone has just been shot and state: ‘He is dead.’
Not only do obvious statements lead the writer into telling rather than showing but it leads to poor dialogue. If you were there as one of the characters you would not need to make such obvious statements. So naturally, dialogue should reflect this. There is no point in using dialogue like a wet fish and slapping readers across the face with your dialogue – it lacks the true power of authentic dialogue.
Now, there may be times of course where you need to write obvious statements in your dialogue. Do not misunderstand – there may be times a character is repeating an obvious truth due to being stunned by reality. The importance in writing dialogue that avoids obvious statements is to ask the question: does my dialogue suit the character and situation?
Ask Important Questions of Your Dialogue
When you write dialogue you should interrogate that dialogue in the same way you would interrogate your characters when writing scenes involving them. You should ask what dialogue would suit a situation – you should ask whether it is appropriate to involve any dialogue at all.
The presence and absence of dialogue should always be dictated by the questions you constantly ask as a writer: what would my character do here? What would my character say here? How would my character respond in this situation? Does my character need to say anything at all?
Asking questions of your dialogue will help with the editing stage of your writing. It will ensure that you have carefully considered each piece of dialogue, understanding how the character would respond in any given situation. Editing will always be necessary – as there may be some words which later, given the flow of dialogue in earlier stages, may seem inappropriate. However, dialogue written in answer to the questions asked of characters – dialogue written in response to, or evoking, conflict – will prove to need less editing later on.
Editing is as crucial to perfecting the technique of writing dialogue as it is to any form of writing. Once you have written your dialogue you can then edit it by asking the important questions, removing obvious statements, promoting the flow and rhythm of the dialogue, and ensuring any dialogue suits the setting and characters.
Now as part of editing you may be tempted to add … or ‘ to show particular pauses, dialects and inflections of your characters. However, most authors rarely write in dialect due to the fact that it can often prove distracting to readers. And while the style in which a novel is written is up to the author themselves, a skilled writer can convey dialect without using stylistic tricks.