Writing Dialogue for Narratives

Girl writing dialogue
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Writing verbal conversations or dialogue is often one of the trickiest parts of creative writing. Crafting a relevant dialogue within the context of a narrative requires much more than following one quote with another.

The Purpose of Dialogue

In it's simplest form, dialogue is narrative conveyed through speech by two or more characters. The characters may express themselves internally through thoughts or a voice-over narration, or they may do so externally through conversation and actions.

Dialogue should do many things at once, not simply convey information. Effective dialogue should set the scene, advance action, give insight into characterization, remind the reader, and foreshadow future dramatic action. 

It doesn't have to be grammatically correct; it should read like actual speech. However, there must be a balance between realistic speech and readability. It is also a tool for character development. Word choice tells a reader a lot about a person: appearance, ethnicity, sexuality, background, and morality. It also can tell the reader how the writer feels about his or her characters.

How to Write Direct Dialogue

Speech, also known as direct dialogue, can be an effective means of conveying a lot of information quickly. But most real-life conversations are boring to read. An exchange between two friends may go something like this:

"Hi, Tony," said Katy.

"Hey," Tony answered.

"What's wrong?" Katy asked.

"Nothing," Tony said.

"Really? You're not acting like nothing's wrong."

Pretty tiresome dialogue, right? By including nonverbal details in your dialogue, you can articulate emotion through action. It adds dramatic tension and is more engaging to read. Consider this revision:

"Hi, Tony."

Tony looked down at his shoe, dug in his toe and pushed around a pile of dust.

"Hey," he replied.

Katy could tell something was wrong.

Sometimes saying nothing or saying the opposite of what we know a character feels is the best way to create dramatic tension. If a character wants to say "I love you," but his actions or words say, "I don't care," the reader will cringe at the missed opportunity.

How to Write Indirect Dialogue

Indirect dialogue doesn't rely on speech. Instead, it uses thoughts, memories, or recollections of past conversations to reveal important narrative details. Often, a writer will combine indirect and direct dialogue to increase the dramatic tension, as in this example:

"Hi, Tony."

Tony looked down at his shoe, dug in his toe and pushed around a pile of dust.

"Hey," he replied.

Katy braced herself. Something was wrong.

Format and Style

To write dialogue that is effective, you must also pay attention to formatting and style. Correct use of tags, punctuation, and paragraphs can be as important as the words themselves when writing dialogue.

Remember that punctuation goes inside quotations. This keeps the dialogue clear and separate from the rest of the narrative. For example: "I can't believe you just did that!"

Start a new paragraph each time the speaker changes. If there is action involved with a speaking character, keep the description of the action within the same paragraph as the dialogue of the character saying it.

Dialogue tags are best used sparingly, if at all. Tags are words used to convey the emotion within an action. For example: "But I don't want to go to sleep yet," he whined.

Instead of telling the reader that the boy whined, a good writer will describe the scene in a way that conjures the image of a whining little boy:

He stood in the doorway with his hands balled into little fists at his sides. His red, tear-rimmed eyes glared up at his mother. "But I don't want to go to sleep yet."

Practice Makes Perfect

Writing dialogue is like any other skill. It requires constant practice if you want to improve as a writer. Here are a few tips to write dialogue that will get you going.

  • Start a dialogue diary. Practice speech patterns and vocabulary that may be foreign to your normal habits. This will give you the opportunity to really get to know your characters.
  • Eavesdrop. Carry a small notebook with you and write down phrases, words or whole conversations verbatim to help develop your inner ear.
  • Read. Reading will hone your creative abilities. It will help familiarize you with the form and flow of narration and dialogue until it becomes more natural in your writing. 

Not even the best writers get it right the first time. Start off writing in your dialogue diary, and once you get to a first draft, it will be a matter of molding your words into the feel and message that you intend.