Imagine two people are sitting across from each other in a coffee shop. It's the first time they're meeting face-to-face. What are they saying? What type of body language do they have? What mood encompasses their demeanor? And more importantly, how do you as a writer bring this scene to life? As writers we typically have a knack for sensing how dialogue is supposed to happen. We can visualize the conversation and the way that things are said. However, translating that onto paper can sometimes leave much to be desired. While we have the imaginations, we don't always have the tools we need in order to bridge the gap when things go wrong. In this article we will address this by providing 7 tips for writing dialogue when it doesn't come naturally.
1. Let It Flow
Free writing can do wonders for dialogue. When you first decide on the scene you want to write, write it. Don't plan anything, see where it takes you. It doesn't have to be pretty. Think of this as the raw potential zone, where you write it all down and see what you have to work with. The polishing will come later once you know what you have.
A neat trick is to write the dialogue for your scene before anything else. Ignore the setting and the details. Forget about addressing who says what. Use the words that come to mind and pretty soon you'll have a strand or two of dialogue to get you started. Once you have these on the page, you'll be able to tell more about what your scene is truly about. If it looks nothing like what you imagined, that's perfectly fine. Now you can go back and fill in all the other narrative details.
2. Act It Out
Improvisation is the mother of all creative invention. Since dialogue is meant to be spoken, sometimes the best way for it to manifest is to be said aloud. If you can't afford to take an actual acting class, a more cheaper alternative is to "run lines" with a friend or family member, or you can put on a one person show and do it all yourself.
Imagine a scene where two characters are in conflict. Then begin the argument. Change positions depending on which character is speaking, allowing for pauses while you think of the next set of lines. You can use this silence to also quickly jot down what you come up with so you don't lose it. This can tell you a lot about your characters including the way they stand, walk, and nonverbal cues they might use (such as eye contact). Use different voices, attitudes, mannerisms- anything that you would attribute to the characters you're pretending to be.
As a warm-up, choose two well-known actors or actresses to pretend to be first. Run a few rounds. Pit Lucille Ball against Brad Pitt, James Dean against Marilyn Monroe. Let yourself sink into the moment and forget about how silly you may feel. This will help break the ice when it's time to role play your own characters.
3. Step Away From The Obvious
Just like we get tired of small talk in person, the same goes for reading it. Don't write about the weather, how someone's grandma is (unless it's directly relevant to your story), or about the old high school classmate who now works at the local grocery store. You should also avoid dialogue that reads as a simple back-and-forth exchange. Also be wary of "echo" dialogue, where one person mimics back the first.
With this type of dialogue there is no room for surprises...or anything interesting for that matter. It's dry and gives very little insight into the true nature of the situation or the feelings the characters have about the circumstances.
While we may still be in the dark about what the "news" refers to, we begin to see a more defined opinion on both sides. Clearly Mary is concerned, but also looking to gossip about what has happened. Charles on the other hand seems impatient, almost irritated by her attempt at conversation. He also seems to have a strong opinion about the events that have occurred, though we don't know what has taken place yet.
Here the tone changes because of Charles's final remark. While Mary remains the same, here Charles seems much more willing to talk about what has happened. He also seems like more of a co-conspirator looking to work together to solve a common problem.
Play around with your dialogue. If you find that it is too dry or obvious, extract it from your story and change the wording around. Give it some intensity or underlying meaning. Change it again with a question and see how that changes the overall meaning and tone. Within this you should be inspired to not only continue the conversation, but to find out what it means.
4. Tap Into The Power of Silence
Looking for a more impactful way to amp up your dialogue? Cousin to the sidestep, silence is a powerful tool that packs a lot of punch. One of the best examples of this in literature is in Hemingway's short story Hills Like White Elephants. Observe the excerpt below:
Here the man and the girl are discussing an abortion, a word that never appears anywhere in the story. The girl's silence is not only indicative of her disagreement, but it also conveys how uncomfortable she is overall, the loss of her innocence, and the loss of her perception of how their relationship was going to turn out. By using the power of sidestep, silence, and action, Hemingway is able to convey paragraphs of explanation in only a few simple lines of dialogue.
When you are using this technique, be intentional. Really think about where silence might benefit your dialogue and what you can use it to express. Identify what your characters are feeling while they are speaking. Also identify what tiny background elements you can use to help emphasize your point alongside the silence. Hemingway also does this brilliantly in his the exchange between mother and son in Soldier's Home.
In this excerpt Hemingway punctuates Krebs silence with bacon fat, showing that Krebs stayed quiet for a long time, stewing in is own emotions. Whatever these emotions are, we know they are colored by anger, maybe even hatred of his mother, who thinks that he is weak and that religion will save him.
5. Revise and Polish
Have you ever been in an argument where later after it was over you came up with the perfect comeback? You wish that you could turn back time so you could use it, but alas, you couldn't. Luckily your characters don't share this innately human problem. Their dialogue is perfected, polished, and reworked until it is flawless. They always say the right thing at the right time because we, as the writer, can return to it when we think of something better.
A great way to make sure your dialogue is where it needs to be is the one gem per quarter rule: You divide your novel into fourths, then take each section and search for that hidden gem. When you find it in your dialogue, take the time to polish it until you have something special that stands out. This is done through revision and persistence. You simply work on your chosen sentence until it is perfect. One thing to keep in mind with the perfect comeback is to use them sparingly. Making every sentence spectacular gets boring, so mind how many you choose to use. Imperfect dialogue also serves to keep the story realistic; the counter-balance to the occasional stroke of genius.
6. Use Your Dialogue to Give Key Details
Most writers struggle to find the balance between showing and telling. Background information proves to be particularly challenging because while we want to tell our readers everything, we know that they don't need to know every single detail we come up with. Despite this sometimes we find ourselves information dumping, which slows down the pacing of our story and overwhelms our readers. But when all that information is vital, how do we tell our readers what they need to know without making them feel like we're force-feeding them?
Dialogue can help solve this problem. Using your characters to help convey this information is a great way to present essential information, but in a way that doesn't feel as though you're purposefully doing so. Verbal confrontation is an excellent way to go about this. If you have a tension-filled scene where one character is confronting another, what you get is a charged scene filled with information your reader actually wants to learn. Below is an example so you can see the difference between information dumping and using confrontation.
And so the conversation continues. Here we have all the information we stated in our telling version, but now it helps elevate the tension within the scene, continues the pacing of the story, and it presents the newest conflict in the story. Instead of wondering why we're being told all this background, now we want to know how Janet is going to convince Valerie that she's not who she thinks she is.
7. Less Is More
You can never go wrong when it comes to using less words. When you start chopping down your dialogue it forces you to choose words that mean more, keeps your sentences concise, and makes their impact all the more powerful. Once you're done writing, comb through your dialogue and see where you can remove or revise a sentence or two without changing the overall meaning of the conversation.
You want to use this technique deliberately and sparingly. Varying the length of your dialogue mimics the conversations we have in real life and helps with pacing. We don't always speak in short, clipped tones, but there are times when this fits the mood and feel of our story or of a certain character. At the end of the day, it's all about what you do with it, so go with whatever your gut tells you is best.
Dialogue makes up the majority of our stories, yet can be so difficult to write well. With these 7 tips for how to write dialogue, you'll be able to troubleshoot any problems you come across with much less hassle.