How to Write Dialogue

Three Ways to Write Dialogue

Novel: Little Green by Walter Mosley, excerpted at NPR

There are two easy ways to get characters talking past one another. The first is to give them different ends they want to achieve in the scene. The other is to provide the characters with different levels or forms of information or knowledge. (Of course, a third method is to give the characters vastly different personalities.) All of these methods are on display in these two lines from Little Green.

How to Use Dialogue to Create Conflict

Story: “Lost Days” by Rene S. Perez II, published in The Acentos Review

In life, people generally say what they feel. It’s hard to maintain a true shellac over our inner selves. In fiction, you can use this tendency to create plot by having characters say what they think (in their unique voices) to the people most vulnerable to those opinions.

How to Convey Essential Narrative Information with Dialogue

Novel: The Dead We Know by T. J. Danko, excerpted at Amazon

This is a zombie novel, after all. It might be tempting, as a writer, to “reinvent” the genre, but the best genre novels stick to conventions. The writer’s skill is in making those conventions seem fresh and new. One way to do this is to avoid giving the reader information directly. Instead, focus on the characters, the ways their personalities clash. Give the characters lives that exist prior to the zombies. In other words, give the characters something to talk about, and then let the story intrude.

How to Write Away from Consensus in Dialogue

Story: “I Won’t Get Lost” by Mary Miller, published at New World Writing

In real-life conversations, we almost always seek common ground and compromise. Like the advice for married couples, we try not to go to bed angry. We want to leave a conversation having agreed upon something or with some shared understanding. But fiction is not like real life. In stories and novels, dialogue between characters who are seeking mutual understanding is boring. It kills, rather than heightens, tension. This means that good dialogue in fiction is actually the opposite of a good real-life conversation. It must veer away from consensus and not toward it.

How to Make Dialogue Move Faster

Story: “Paper Tiger” by Liz Warren-Peterson, published in Fiddleblack

Most dialogue is written with paragraph breaks every time the speaker changes. The result is clarity, but the downside is that even a short back-and-forth can fill up half a page. What if you want capture the speed of the conversation? One way to make dialogue move faster is to write it in chunks that appear in a single paragraph. If you’re writing in first-person, you may find that this technique sends a jolt of electricity into the voice of your narrator.

How to Attribute and Describe Dialogue

Essay: “Cold Water in Texas” by Kerry Howley, published by Fightland

Here is my claim for the most difficult thing to do in writing: attribute and describe dialogue. The problem of who said what can seem impossible to solve. How often do you attribute a line of dialogue? Every line? Every other line? What words do you use? Only saidScreamed? How do the characters speak their lines? With dancing eyes? (Definitely not.) While looking intently or patiently at someone? (Preferably not.) And, what if the dialogue includes more than two people? What do you do then?

How to Write Dialogue When No One Is Listening

Novel: The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami, published by Pantheon

At some point, every writer will hear this: Why don’t you write nice stories about happy people? Such stories are not impossible, but since all fiction requires conflict, and conflict often requires that at least one character behave badly, nice is difficult to achieve. The need for conflict is perhaps clearest in dialogue. Unlike in real life, where we strive for understanding, fictional conflict often works best when characters speak as if they don’t hear one another.

How to Add Physical Description to Dialogue

Feature Article: “A Survivor’s Life” by Eli Saslow, published in The Washington Post

A key difference between beginning and experienced writers is the ability to handle the attributions and descriptions within dialogue. As we improve our craft, we work from “he said with glittering eyes” to “he guffawed” to “he said” to “he said, looking hard at her” to, finally, something better. Well-written dialogue uses carefully chosen physical details to push forward or expand the dramatic moment and the reader’s understanding of it.

How to Create Depth of Time in Dialogue

Memoir: My Unsentimental Education by Debra Monroe, published by University of Georgia Press

Good prose isn’t tied to any moment, scene, or place. A passage may be set in a bar on Friday, but the prose can move to a park on Thursday if it wants. It’s this ability to hover and jump that makes a the language of a story or essay seem dynamic. If, at any moment, the writer can take us by the hand and leap, like Dickens’ Christmas ghosts, into another place and time, then we always quiver with just a bit of expectation: what will the writer do next? We’re used to this quality in narration, but skillful writers can achieve the same effect in dialogue.

How to Write Riveting, Mundane Dialogue

Novel: Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce, published by Anchor

One of the drawbacks of the “raise the stakes” and “put a gun on the wall” comments in workshop is that writers begin to make every moment in a story or novel the equivalent of a gunshot. This is especially true of dialogue. It’s either needlessly mundane (“Hi,” I said. “Hey,” she replied) or it’s trying too hard to advance the plot with a forced argument. The sweet spot for dialogue has a foot in both camps: mundane and realistic and intense.

How to Set Up Dialogue with Declarative Statements

Story: “The House on Bony Lake” by Robert Boswell

The best writers have a way of making their prose seem light and effortless. It’s the effect we’re all seeking because in our minds, the story races along, but on the page, it too often plods along, one thing after another. The place where that slow, predictable, stuck feeling tends to reveal itself the clearest in our drafts is in dialogue. Conversely, in a great piece of writing, the dialogue snaps.

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