So you want to write dialogue? Of course you do. Dialogue is an essential tool for most storytelling genres. It is one of the most important ways to establish and develop your characters. It also lets you convey information to your audience in a manner that makes you invisible. Having a condescending Know It All express their distaste for the people they must explain the plot to, while the Deadpan Snarker points out that everyone already knew that is much more fun than an infodump from the narrator.
First things first: you need characters. They are the ones that will make your dialogue happen. Their backgrounds, personalities, and archetypes will all influence how and with whom they communicate. The more you understand your characters, the better you will understand how they speak. Check out the Develop Character Personality page to get started.
Got characters? Great! Now you need to give them something to say and someone to say it to.
The Technical Stuff
Dialogue is about more than giving your characters good stuff to say. You also have to communicate it so that whoever reads what you wrote understands what's going on. This section will deal with how to format your dialogue for clarity.
'And she was all, "I don't get it!", and I just wanted to smack her!'
'And she was all, 'I don't get it!', and I just wanted to smack her!'
Any time more than one character is speaking, you can only have one person talking in each paragraph. That's how your audience expects it to be formatted, and if you don't follow it, they'll have a harder time following your story. Take this, for example:
That's confusing. This makes more sense:
"What do you mean?" said Alice.
If the last sentence in your character's dialogue ends with a period, and you have something to add after that, replace it with a comma. For example:
If that last sentence ends with something other than a period, leave it be:
"I don't know?" said Bob.
Notice how "said" isn't capitalized in any of those examples? Don't capitalize the first word after a line of dialogue if it doesn't start a new sentence.
Speaking of "said", when to use it and when not to:
- It's okay to say "said". It's not a bad word. The tag "said" just acts as a label to explain which character spoke which line, like the tail of a Speech Bubble. It will be all but invisible to the audience. Meanwhile, words like orated, expressed, communicated, and ejaculated will only draw attention to themselves and make the audience think, "Why didn't they just write 'said'?"
- "Asked" works just like "said", except you can only tag questions with it.
- Use words other than "said" - like shouted, cried, whispered, or hissed - when they add something that wasn't already obvious from the spoken line. These two lines say different things:
"I don't know!" Bob snapped.
"I don't know!" Bob whined.
- Adverbs will bog down your "said" tags if you use them too often. Avoid "said loudly" when "shouted" will do. Like the words that replace "said", adverbs are generally good when they add something new, and not good if they don't.
- This works just fine:
"I don't know!" Bob said anxiously.
- This is redundant:
"I don't know!" Bob whispered softly.
- And this is also redundant:
"I don't know!" Bob said confusedly.
- This works just fine:
- You can use body language cues or actions instead of speech tags. For example:
"What are you talking about?" Alice crossed her arms.
"That's okay," he put a hand on my arm to stop me.
- In this setup, always keep the punctuation of the dialogue sentence as is and capitalize the next word. This example is not correct:
"Get to the point," Alice crossed her arms.
- Nor are these:
"I already told you, my name's Alice." she crossed her arms.
"That's okay." He put a hand on my arm to stop me.
- They should be:
"Get to the point." Alice crossed her arms.
"I already told you, my name's Alice." She crossed her arms.
- Finally, you won't always need speech tags. If you only have two characters talking, your audience should be able to keep track for themselves. Just make sure you remind them so they don't have to stop reading and count back to the last speech tag.
Bob stepped inside to find Alice pacing in an agitated circle.
"What's wrong?" he said.
"Wrong!" Alice growled. "I don't know, Bob. Why don't you tell me!"
Bob gulped. "I, uh... I don't know?" he said lamely.
"Tch. I should've known."
"Well, what is it?"
"Here's a hint: your dog ruined Christmas!"
While it's by no means obligatory, some authors, especially in English-language works, use italics to represent a person emphasizing a word or a sentence.
If you want to show that the character is shouting or otherwise agitated, it's better not to use CAPITAL LETTERS. It looks like you're screaming at the reader. If you really want to emphasize the character being angry, you might want to use italics.
In general, it's a good idea to match your character's speaking pattern with their archetype. Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness would work well for a Brainy Brunette, while an Idiot Hero is more likely to engage in Buffy Speak. A Genius Ditz might wind up doing both at once. A businessman would be unlikely to talk like a pirate, unless he happens to be a pirate.
Think about who your character is and how their traits would translate to how they talk:
- How well does your character understand the language they are speaking? Is it new to them? Do they relentlessly correct other people's grammar?
- What does your character find interesting? What do they find boring? They're much more likely to discuss the former than the latter.
- How often does your character talk, anyway? Do they talk at all?
- Are they honest? Even to an off-putting extent? Are they really bad at lying or outright incapable of it? Or perhaps they're really good at it?
- How do they talk when they're angry?
- What are your character's verbal tics? Do they have a Catch-Phrase?
Where your characters come from, and where they are, will also have an impact. For example:
- What about slang? Does your character use it? Are you writing a scifi/fantasy story with future slang?
- On that note, pay attention to cultural differences between your characters. One word might mean very different things to them. Idioms might be lost on one character, while another uses them all the time.
- Also pay attention to cultural similarities. People are more likely to hang out with people they get along with and that's easier to do the more they have in common. Cliques tend to form for that reason.
How do they react to other characters?
- How do they address people they don't know? Do they at all?
- How do they treat their friends? Family? Their love interest?
- What about little kids? Do they treat them like adults? Boss them around? Coddle them? Avoid them?
- What about their enemies? Are they defensive? Do they avoid them? Do they snark at them until they're left alone? Are they aggressive or antagonistic?
- How do they handle awkward situations? Do they talk differently when they're uncomfortable? How so? If they put their foot in their mouth, do they stop talking or make it worse?
Remember to have fun with it!
A very fast way to make your audience lose interest is to have poor dialogue. Here's how to avoid that:
- Read your dialogue out loud. Always, always read it out loud. If it doesn't sound natural to you, it probably won't sound natural to your character. Of course, there are exceptions.
- On the flip side, don't make your dialogue resemble your narration, unless you want to Make the Narrator a Character. No two people speak exactly the same way, and your character's voices need to be distinct from your own. When your character talks, it has to sound like something they would actually say.
- Be aware of the local in-universe setting. Most people would not have a loud, intimate conversation during a staff meeting. Maybe your characters would. Where they are and who they are talking to will have an impact on what they're willing to say and how they are going to say it. Your audience will pay attention to that. You should, too.
- Take caution when writing a Character Filibuster. For one thing, it's not easy to sell as in-character. For another, most of your audience will suspect that you're the one doing the preaching. If you really are, they will definitely notice. Avoid. Avoid. Avoid.
- One use for dialogue is avoiding infodumps. Don't make dialogue an infodump unless your character actually talks like that.
- Having your character's voice fit their archetype is not bad. Having their voice fit their stereotype is bad. Don't assume that all black men talk like Chris Tucker, or that all computer nerds use 733T 5P34K.
- It's okay to have your characters use poor grammar... to an extent. If it's difficult to read and understand, then rewrite it.
- Along those lines, if your character has an accent or dialect, that's fine. Bet ah dun lahk reedin' dis mass, an' needer well yer awdiance. Less is more. A lot less.
In general, just make sure that what your characters say is consistent with who they are and what they do - in other words, it's gotta be in character. The Emotionless Girl will speak differently from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Bob's Love Interest, Alice, will see a different side to him from his overbearing mother, Jan. Do not confuse your audience - at least, not on accident. If confusion is your intent, then go ahead - but find a way that doesn't disengage them from a story.
And while we're at it:
As mentioned above, you can't write dialogue the same way you write narration. If you want to drop Expospeak, hide it under emotions and personality of the character delivering it.
Remember, you don't have to give your reader all the details - and especially not in dialogue.
Keep in mind that most people don't rehearse their dialogue before they say it. People will often pause, sometimes in the middle of a sentence, to recall a fact or think of a good word to use - or simply because they forgot what they wanted to say. Likewise, they will use "placeholder words", such as "um", "like", "ah", "hm" and so on, to give themselves time to think. They will also pepper their speech with various phrases, along the lines of the aforementioned "like" or "I think", "I believe", "maybe" and so on if they aren't sure of what they've seen or heard. Sometimes they'll remember a detail halfway through the sentence and throw it in quickly. Some people will pepper their speech with curses, or have a verbal tick, or a stutter. Additionally, a person who's surprised, or just past a traumatic event, will likely stutter and/or have trouble forming a coherent sentence.
When talking about sizes, people will rarely be precise (unless they're scientists, for example, discussing something technical). Rather than "The beast was two hundred metres tall", they're more likely to say "The beast was the size of a skyscraper". Most people don't have measuring tape in their eyes.
When it comes to realistic dialogue, remember that both sides should acknowledge the other side speaking. There is a difference between a dialogue and two characters taking turns talking.
Bob: Someone has been there recently.
Bob: Maybe, but it's pretty obvious someone's visited it pretty recently.
Finally, remember that the characters will talk for more reasons than simply to pass information. They'll talk about their feelings and emotions, chat to pass time, share their opinions and dispute various topics. Such conversations can do a lot to characterize your characters and make them feel more alive.
Playing with your audience's expectations can be really fun! Plus, there's the potential to explore Hidden Depths this way.
- Have your character's speech differ from their archetype in some way. Got a muscular jock character? Make him prone to flowery, poetic speech.
- Established characters can take the audience by surprise for comic effect. The Shrinking Violet might actually have quite a lot to say about trains. The Stoic might Squee when he meets his childhood hero.
- Remember, O.O.C. Is Serious Business for a reason. You can create some great dramatic tension when your normally loud Plucky Comic Relief gets his Berserk Button pushed and becomes disturbingly quiet.
- That being said, even your Out-of-Character Moment has to be in character. That is, your character must have some kind of internally consistent reason for acting that way, even if it doesn't look like it. Otherwise, you're risking Character Derailment.
- Do not ever make an Out-of-Character Moment on accident. It looks amateurish.
Try writing a scene - or an entire story - with nothing but dialogue. It's a great exercise to test whether you can keep your characters distinguishable by nothing but their voices.
The dialogue index is a great start for learning different ways characters can express things. Also check out the pages for tropes that would apply to your characters. The "quotes" pages in particular will give you a basic idea of how these characters might talk. Real Life is a fantastic place to find inspiration for dialogue. All you have to do is listen.
Every medium sports many examples of great dialogue, awful dialogue, and everything in between. Here just a few of them to get you started.
The Epic Fails
My Immortal is basically a list of everything you should never do with dialogue... or storytelling, for that matter.