We talk to tell someone we want them to pass the salt. We talk to ask questions, share feelings, and ask for directions when we are lost. We talk to ourselves in our thoughts, and we speak out loud. Dialogue is all around us, every day.
In our stories, our characters talk, too. It is not quite as easy to write dialogue for our characters as it is to have conversations in real life. But if you take time to learn how dialogue works and practice writing it, you will be able to write brilliant conversations that sound natural and move your story forward.
3 Tips for Writing Brilliant Dialogue
Today, I will give you three tips about writing dialogue. I am learning these principles from master writers like Robert McKee, Stephen King, and Anne Lamott. Will you come practice them with me?
1. It Reveals Character
Robert McKee, in his book Dialogue, The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen, says,
In a story, writers use dialogue to show what a person wants, to advance the story and to show character.
2. It Sounds Real
Dialogue needs to be believable, to sound like real dialogue, as in actual people talking. To write believable dialogue, start to listen to the conversations around you. As Stephen King says,
Pay attention to how the real people around you behave and then tell the truth about what you see.
I was in the grocery store listening, paying attention to how people talk to each other. A woman was in line at the customer service desk to return an item. The women behind the counter asked, “Still living with your mom?”
The woman replied, “Actually no. She’s been in a nursing home the last three years.”
3. It Doesn't Data-Dump
Dialogue is not to tell backstory:
“Hello, Mary, whom I went to grade school with in 1984, and whom I haven’t seen in six years, because I was in prison for stealing. But I got out recently, and now I have this new job, and I quit smoking. Are you still living with your mom?”
Dialogue is not direct. It talks in subtleties.
As Stephen King says in On Writing,
Good dialogue gives your cast their voices, and is crucial in defining their characters.
A Few Final Thoughts on Dialogue
Brilliant dialogue reveals nuances about characters. It can hint at deeper meaning and unsaid thoughts or feelings.
Brilliant dialogue sounds like real people talking. People don't always talk in complete sentences.
Brilliant dialogue does not dump backstory. It does move the story forward.
Brilliant dialogue is not easy to write. But writing it is a skill worth practicing. As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird,
Do you struggle with any of the tips above? Do you have another tip to add? Let us know in the comments.
Today, it's time for a field trip. Go to the supermarket or a coffee shop and listen to people's conversation. Then, take fifteen minutes to write down a conversation you overheard. What do you notice about the way their real dialogue works?
If you do not want to go listen to other people's conversations, take fifteen minutes to write a scene in which one character wants the other character's sandwich. What do they say to each other?
(But really, I think you will miss out on some wonderful writing research if you do not go out into the world and listen to real people talk.)
When you're done, share your conversation in the comments below, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers. I look forward to reading your dialogue.