Dialogue in its purest form is a means of communication, whether written or spoken. In literature, it’s the technique that depicts two or more characters engaged in a conversation. We use Dialogue in writing, the same way we use speech in real life, to show ourselves or characters. Telling a story without dialogue would be like trying to have a conversation with a stranger who doesn’t understand your language but also cannot speak themselves.
However, writing dialogue is quite difficult for a new writer. Most fall into the trap of writing out entire conversations as though they’re happening in real life. They do this because they want to add a sense of reality to their writing. The problem is, it’s boring and often monotonous. To quote Alfred Hitchcock, “Drama is life with all the boring parts cut out.” But to write great dialogue, we must understand why we use it the way we do.
Why do we use Dialogue?
We use dialogue for a variety of reasons, but the primary purpose is to advance the plot. If the conversation doesn’t advance the plot, it needs to show personality or motivation. At least, that’s the short version. Great dialogue should add something to a narrative, imagine your favourite film or tv show without conversation. Talking is a very human thing to do.
Dialogue is so important that even Tom Hanks needed the proxy to talk to in the film Castaway. Hanks plays a castaway from a plane crash in which the only survivor in which he draws a face on a football and fills his time talking with the inanimate object. Even in a book set on a farm with farmyard animals, as in George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm, you can find dialogue. Dialogue helps humanise characters with voice and makes them relatable to the reader. Perhaps, that’s why villains don’t speak as much.
How to Use Dialogue in Writing
There’s no correct way to format dialogue in writing, as long as it’s clear. The reader needs to understand who’s speaking and what they’re saying, but other than that, the rules are quite vague. The standard accepted format is to enclose a line of dialogue in quotation marks and start a new paragraph every time a new person speaks. This is a generally accepted rule of writing dialogue, but it’s more of a guideline.
For example, including an entire conversation within one paragraph as has been done in many literary novels to recap and tell the vital backstory. It might involve a lot of he said, she said sentences, but the main principle of anything is comprehension. If it makes sense, then it works. However, for new writers without experience, it might be best to stick to the “correct” way of writing dialogue.
Some authors, notably Marlon James in his man booker winning novel from 2016 A Brief History of Seven Killings, decided against the traditional method of enclosed quotation marks adopted instead for a dash. The narrative contained several strong voices, which made it relatively easy to determine who was talking in the absence of dialogue tags. But that’s one of the critical components of dialogue; a loud definite voice.
Good vs Bad Dialogue
Bad dialogue also includes exposition that should belong to the part of the narrative that shares its name; exposition. Nobody needs the full story. In fact, the art of storytelling is in leaving enough of the story to the reader’s imagination. Bad dialogue will tell the complete picture and leave little to the reader’s imagination. Good dialogue will show emotion, personality and leave enough to the reader’s imagination to construct a full image. There are plenty of great examples around the web and in video form that show bad dialogue at its finest. This is my favourite from WatchMojo.
Dialogue, like any other part of the story, should never tell the reader but show and build a picture. Good dialogue should sound real and humane. It should never be used to tell the story, but to advance it. If you need dialogue to state vital information, something may be wrong with your narrative.
There are plenty of blogs out there with examples of bad dialogue, and how to make them better. But a general rule I follow is if it sounds like a real person said it, it works but if it sounds like any character said it, then I’ll rewrite it. And skip the introductions, no one likes small talk. Leave it out.
What’s the Deal with Dialogue Tags?
Dialogue tags are those bits of writing attached to the end of a traditional enclosed quotation. Their primary purpose is to show who’s talking, most often with the word said. The second most common is asked when the dialogue presents a question. We use tags to pin a quote to a specific character and are best kept for the times when who’s talking may cause confusion. Another way is to break up a longer quote and add tension to a piece of speech. This is best used in the middle of a quote and broken up with commas.
There’s a lot of infographics with synonyms for said, in which characters say things in a specific way. Often titled “said is dead.” But said is alive and well, my friends. Of course, you can use other words. Instead of saying he said, you can suggest how he said it. For example, he could have exclaimed, shouted, whispered, hollered, spat, answered, suggested, approved, or the whole list of things.
These words though, often tell or repeat what was just expressed in dialogue. The speaker could only answer if he was asked a question, so why does the reader need this distinction? Any proffering of a solution to a problem is a suggestion. And a person can only say something approvingly if they’re in agreement in which case the words in the dialogue would already have distinguished this. As for anything that suggests tone such as shouted or whispered, Stephen King suggests the mood of a conversation should have already been set with the exposition so why show this difference, unless your writing hasn’t done its job correctly.
The reason said is the only word you need when writing is simple. It’s not meant to do anything but tell the reader who’s speaking. The term is so common that our brains skip over it without drawing us from the conversation. However, when we use a synonym, our minds pause to register the word, possibly visualise the way described, and we’re drawn from the conversation and the story. For the sake of the reader, please just use said.
Remember, dialogue is used to humanise characters and take them off the page and into the hearts of the reader. They need to do things while talking, or they’ll sound robotic. They don’t need to do something with every piece of dialogue, but they should be doing something while engaged in conversation. Just a mention of the setting, or environment could be enough to give the character’s energy.
Characters don’t have to be likeable or even endearing. They don’t even need to be human as in The Bees. But they do need to be relatable or at least understood. If the reader doesn’t believe your character as a real entity, there’s a good chance it’ll ruin your entire story. Perfect your story and master dialogue.