Writers want their characters to talk.
Okay, most writers want this. Exceptions exist, of course, such as Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler (her protagonist never speaks), The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and other epistolary novels (i.e., stories told through documents). Since dialogue, unlike exposition and narration, allows characters to express themselves without authorial interference, readers relish listening in as characters bury, betray, or bare their feelings on the page.
But capturing a character’s voice is a little more complicated than jotting down word for word your neighbors’ late-night quarrel.
In fiction, dialogue needs to be artfully constructed.
In daily life, we punctuate our talk with uhs and ers. We engage in small talk and sometimes repeat ourselves with little to no consideration of our audience. We hedge, stammer, lose our train of thought, and try to explain what we meant to say. While we tolerate and participate in such conversations in real life, encountering them on the page elicits yawns or induces us to close the book. To avoid boring or frustrating readers, we need to create compelling dialogue that accomplishes more than simple chitchat. For detailed dialogue tips, keep reading; for a summary, click here’s how.
- Artful dialogue improves upon ordinary speech.
As noted, everyday conversations tend to ramble, stutter, stop and resume, peter out, or persist well past our caring. Unless you’re a court reporter, avoid transcribing actual conversations onto the page.
“Good morning, Mike. How did you sleep?”
“What is that now?”
“I asked, how did you sleep?”
“It was a little rough, Constance. How about you?”
“Like I usually do: out with the light, up with the alarm.”
“Uh, Constance, where are the coffee mugs now?”
“You will find the coffee mugs in the cabinet by the stove.”
“You certainly have a collection here.”
“I know. Every time we travel, we wind up buying a new one. So, Mike, what happened last night?”
“Well, the air mattress was comfortable until about three o’clock this morning.”
“Oh? What happened then?”
“For some reason, it started to leak. It lost enough air I might as well have been sleeping on the floor.”
“I am sorry to hear that Mike. I will ask Hugh to take a look at it.”
“Thank you. I probably can take a look as well.”
“Morning, Mike. How’d you sleep?”
“Honestly? Could’ve been better. Where are your coffee mugs?”
“In the cabinet by the stove. What happened?”
“I was comfy until about three in the morning.”
“The air mattress sprang a leak. It lost enough air I was just about snoozing on the floor.”
“Sorry about that. I’ll ask Hugh to repair it.”
“Cool. I’ll give him a hand.”
Even if the first draft accurately records every word of the conversation, the revision sounds more natural and authentic. Why? And, better yet, how to achieve this?
1a. Be concise. The first draft contains 147 words in twenty-two sentences; the revision has only 65 words in fifteen sentences (or fragments). While the content remains the same in both, the revision compresses and distills the essence of the conversation in a more immediate and convincing manner.
1b. Pare down social niceties. Although real life encourages and even demands pleasant social exchanges (e.g., “How did you sleep?” “How about you?”), story dialogue thrives on action and drama. While a courteous word or two may make a scene sound authentic and while it might establish the status quo for your character—Oh, we think, life is good for her—in most cases, small talk should be short-lived. Listening to characters discuss their serene and stable lives entertains readers as much as watching ice cubes form in the freezer. Pleasantries can neither presage change nor produce conflict. When in doubt, cut to the chase. Leave the boring parts out.
1c. Prune extraneous talk. In the example above, Mike’s question “What is that now?” prompts his hostess to repeat her inquiry about how he slept. Unless this information is vital—for instance, if we need to know that Mike is partially deaf or that he’s distracted by something important—it’s best to skip it. Eliminating this question (as well as the back-and-forth about Constance’s sleep and her coffee mug collection) foregrounds the crux of the conversation, the problem at hand: why Mike didn’t sleep well. Scaling back, however, doesn’t mean stripping away all seemingly idle chitchat. Although Mike’s asking about the location of the coffee mugs may not be necessary, it helps the conversation sound natural and, thus, believable.
1d. Avoid filler words, such as “er,” “uh,” “ah,” “ahem.” While we use filler words in real life, on the page they merely take up space and waste a reader’s time. Instead, have the character do something that signals her reluctance or hesitation. She could bite her lip, for example, or glance around the room or stoop down to tie her hiking boots.
1e. Limit the number of times characters use each other’s names. On any given day, pay attention to how many times you address your spouse or boss or friend by name. You may be surprised by how rare it is. And when you do call them by name, consider the situation. Did you encounter them unexpectedly and, thus, blurt out their name? Were you trying to attract their attention discreetly, perhaps whispering their name during a graduation speech? Or were you expressing affection during a romantic dinner? Unless the circumstance seems appropriate for a personal address, leave out the character’s name and simply deliver the message.
- Avoid writing perfect, grammatically correct sentences.
Grammatically correct and complete sentences create coherency in writing, but in everyday conversations, sentence fragments abound. Constance’s sentence “You will find the coffee mugs in the cabinet by the stove” belongs in a grammar book, not in a casual exchange. Her fragment “In the cabinet by the stove,” however, condenses the information and sounds like genuine ordinary speech.
- Use contractions, casual words, and slang.
Unless the character’s background (Stanford professor), personality (pretentious or pompous), or circumstances (delivering a lecture at an international philosophy conference) necessitates formal and grammatically correct language, most dialogue should include contractions (“I’ll,” “How’d,” etc.), casual words (“comfy,” “snooze”), slang (“Cool”), fragments, and/or even one-word sentences. Really? Yeah!
Please note, while speech patterns lend authenticity to individual characters, accents, dialects, and regionalisms work best not through awkward or odd spelling but through syntax (word placement within the sentence), rhythm, diction, content (reflecting a character’s foreign way of viewing the world), and/or narration.
- Use echoing sparingly.
In everyday conversations, we echo each other to ensure understanding or to stall for time as we formulate our reply.
“Are you giving me a calico cat for my birthday?” he asked his wife.
“Am I giving you a calico cat for your birthday? Why do you ask?”
“Why do I ask? Because my birthday’s next week!”
On the page, though, echoing, like filler words, occupies valuable space and slows the pace. Instead, foreground conflict and heighten tension.
“Are you giving me a calico cat for my birthday?” he asked his wife.
“Why would I do that?”
“You know I want one.”
“Yes, and I also know that I’m highly allergic to them!”
- Artful dialogue avoids info-dumping.
“Al! I’m so glad I ran into you.”
“I’ve been meaning to call. You know your paralegal and I attend the same gym, so she just told me the news this past weekend. I can’t believe you and Helen are getting a divorce and after twenty-one years of marriage! I hope you’ll win custody of your three kids, John, age 9, Margo, age 8, and Suzette, age 3.”
“Yeah, me too.”
If you find your characters explaining their lives to each other, consider weaving the pertinent facts into exposition instead. Let the narrator describe the setting, fill in a character’s backstory, or provide historical context. In addition, fight the urge to overexplain. Give readers information on a need-to-know basis. That way they can digest the data as it comes rather than become bloated by a glut of details. In the above example, maybe we learn about Al’s divorce now and the details about his children in another scene or chapter.
“Al! Glad I ran into you. I’ve been meaning to call.”
“Well, I heard the news.”
“Not surprised. Who blabbed?”
“Is it true?”
“Wow, after twenty-one years, you and Helen calling it quits.”
“I know. Hits me every day, like a hammer strike to the forehead. Only I’m the one swinging the hammer.”
“You mean you’re the one ending it?”
“Had to. Couldn’t take any more of her compulsive late-night computer hacking.”
- Artful dialogue reveals or deepens characterization.
As soon as a character opens her mouth, she reveals something about herself. The elements of her speech—diction, vocabulary (including favorite words, curse words, and phatic expressions), rhythm, syntax, and accent—should convey her attitude, beliefs, biases, emotions, background, socioeconomic status, education, and/or ethnicity. Listen to these three characters, all teachers, directing a student to do something:
“I should like you girls to come to supper tomorrow night,” Miss Brodie said. “Make sure you are free.”
“The Dramatic Society …” murmured Jenny.
“Send an excuse,” said Miss Brodie. “I have to consult you about a new plot which is afoot to force me to resign. Needless to say, I shall not resign.”
(Miss Jean Brodie in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie)
“I shall speak to Professor Dumbledore and see if we can’t bend the first-year rule. Heaven knows, we need a better team than last year. Flattened in that last year by Slytherin, I couldn’t look Severus Snape in the face for weeks …”
Professor McGonagall peered sternly over her glasses at Harry.
“I want to hear you’re training hard, Potter, or I may change my mind about punishing you.”
Then she suddenly smiled.
“Your father would have been proud,” she said. “He was an excellent Quidditch player himself.”
(Professor Minerva McGonagall in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
“And you’re a bright shining star, too,” he [Mr. P] said. “You’re the smartest kid in the school. And I don’t want you to fail. I don’t want you to fade away. You deserve better.”
I didn’t feel smart.
“I want you to say it,” Mr. P said.
“I want you to say that you deserve better.”
“You are a good kid. You deserve the world.”
Wow, I wanted to cry. No teacher had ever said anything so nice, so incredibly nice, to me.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Now say it.”
And then I did cry. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I felt so weak.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You don’t have to be sorry for anything,” he said. “Well, you better be sorry for hitting me, but you don’t have to feel bad about crying.” (Mr. P in Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian)
Even in these snippets, each teacher’s individual traits—Miss Brodie’s outspokenness and egoism, Professor McGonagall’s formality, sternness, and fondness of her students, and Mr. P’s kindness and candor—shine through. Well-rounded characters possess their own speech patterns, so even without the aid of dialogue tags, description, or narration, readers should be able to distinguish one character from another.
- Artful dialogue creates conflict and tension.
The more characters speak, the more readers should learn about them, including and especially their motivations. What does your character want? Who or what is preventing her from achieving her goal? More than one writer has observed that dialogue is what characters do to one another. Conflict arises when characters seek different or opposing things from each other, whether that means a teenager arguing with her parents for a later curfew, a defense attorney cross-examining a hostile witness, or a husband insisting his wife attend church services with him, as Henry does in this scene from Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge:
Olive had refused to go to church the day before, and Henry, uncharacteristically, had spoken to her sharply. “Is it too much to ask,” he had found himself saying, as he stood in the kitchen in his undershorts, ironing his trousers. “A man’s wife accompanying him to church?” Going without her seemed a public exposure of familial failure.
“Yes, it most certainly is too goddamn much to ask!” Olive had almost spit, her fury’s door flung open. “You have no idea how tired I am, teaching all day, going to foolish meetings where the goddamn principal is a moron! Shopping. Cooking. Ironing, Laundry. Doing Christopher’s homework with him! And you—” She had grabbed on to the back of a dining room chair, and her dark hair, still uncombed from its night’s disarrangement, had fallen across her eyes. “You, Mr. Head Deacon Claptrap Nice Guy, expect me to give up my Sunday mornings and go sit among a bunch of snot-wots!” Very suddenly she had sat down in the chair. “Well, I’m sick and tired of it,” she’d said, calmly. “Sick to death.”
Henry’s sharp question and Olive’s vehement response create immediate conflict. As writer Stephen Fischer notes, and as Olive’s swearing and name-calling show, in conflict dialogue, “details are the rocks characters throw at each other.”
Conflict, of course, can be less dramatic. In Alice Munro’s “Miles City, Montana,” the narrator and her husband, Andrew, take a road trip east across the United States with their two young daughters.
I had made peanut-butter-and-marmalade sandwiches for the children and salmon-and-mayonnaise for us. But I had not put any lettuce in, and Andrew was disappointed.
“I didn’t have any,” I said.
“Couldn’t you have got some?”
“I’d have had to buy a whole head of lettuce just to get enough for sandwiches, and I decided it wasn’t worth it.”
This was a lie. I had forgotten.
“They’re a lot better with lettuce.”
“I didn’t think it made that much difference.” After a silence I said, “Don’t be mad.”
“I’m not mad. I like lettuce on sandwiches.”
“I just didn’t think it mattered that much.”
“How would it be if I didn’t bother to fill up the gas tank.”
“That’s not the same thing.”
“Sing a song,” said Cynthia. She started to sing.
Cynthia’s song interrupts the parents’ quarrel and defuses the tension. By tension, I mean the mounting pressure in the situation. “Tension” comes from the Latin tendere meaning “to extend outward, stretch, draw tight.” Essentially, tension in fiction is force under pressure; something stretches to tautness until it must snap. In Munro’s story, as soon as their six-year-old daughter finishes singing, the parents make up. However, the tension that creeps into their conversation (a minor conflict about lettuce) reveals much about the couple’s relationship. Indeed, immediately after this exchange, the narrator analyzes her conflicted feelings about her husband. The scene ends with her admission that she hasn’t seen Andrew for years, thereby alerting readers to the inevitable dissolution of their marriage.
- Artful dialogue allows characters to employ a variety of tactics, including silence and subtext.
In dialogue, drama ramps up when characters continually say no to (or are at odds with) each other. To obtain their hearts’ desire, characters employ a variety of tactics—oozing charm one moment and inducing guilt the next. Probing each other’s weak spots, characters threaten, seduce, cajole, and wheedle as they vie to gain the upper hand. Each word tightens the coil of their conversation. Tension builds not so much from the content of their speech as from the underlying emotions. This is why conversations about lettuce or other mundane topics can ignite heated arguments or launch characters into prolonged battles. As Donald Maass notes in The Fire in Fiction, “True tension in dialogue comes not from what is being said, but from inside those who are saying it.”
Sometimes tension arises from what’s not said. In Kim Edwards’s The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, David and Norah Henry go on a picnic with their one-year-old son. As he naps, the couple lounge and talk.
“You look so far away,” Norah observed.
He shifted, moving closer to her, leaning against the boulder too.
“My parents had great dreams for me,” he said. “But they didn’t match my own dreams.”
“Sounds like me and my mother,” Norah said, hugging her knees. “She says she’s coming to visit next month. did I tell you? She’s got a free flight.”
“That’s good, isn’t it? Paul will keep her busy.”
Norah laughed. “He will, won’t he? That’s her whole reason for coming.”
“Norah, what do you dream about?” he asked. “What do you dream for Paul?”
Norah didn’t answer right away. “I suppose I want him to be happy,” she said at last. “Whatever in life makes him happy, I want him to have that. I don’t care what it is, as long as he grows up to be good and true to himself. And generous and strong, like his father.”
“No,” David said, uncomfortable. “You don’t want him to take after me.”
She gave him an intent look, surprised. “Why not?”
He didn’t answer. After a long, hesitant moment, Norah spoke again.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, not aggressively but thoughtfully, as if she were trying to puzzle out the answer as she spoke. “Between us, I mean, David.”
He didn’t answer, struggling against a surge of anger. Why did she have to stir things up again? Why couldn’t she let the past rest and move on? But she spoke again.
“It hasn’t been the same since Paul was born and Phoebe died. And yet you still won’t talk about her. It’s like you want to erase the fact that she existed.”
“Norah, what do you want me to say? Of course life hasn’t been the same.”
“Don’t get angry, David. That’s just some kind of strategy, isn’t it? So I won’t talk about her anymore. But I won’t back down. What I’m saying is true.”
“Don’t ruin a beautiful day, Norah,” he said at last.
“I’m not,” she said, moving away. She lay down on the blanket and closed her eyes. “I’m perfectly content with this day.”
Despite Norah’s laughter and the overall calmness of the conversation, tension brews, surfacing each time David refuses to be honest and answer Norah’s questions. To obtain her heart’s desire—to learn what has come between her and David since their son’s birth—Norah employs a variety of tactics. At the beginning, she simply observes, “You look so far away,” and David responds by moving closer to her, as if proximity can make up for his emotional distance. When David mentions his parents, Norah strives to communicate her understanding by drawing a parallel between her and her mother. Norah also lightens the mood by expressing delight about her mother visiting her grandchild. After David rejects the idea that Paul should take after him, Norah poses a direct question, “What’s wrong?” When he doesn’t answer, she presents evidence, explaining exactly what she means. David objects, gets angry according to Norah. Although she doesn’t back down, when he tells her not to ruin a beautiful day, she relents, lies down, and closes her eyes not only to prove she’s enjoying the day but also to bide her time, for later in the conversation, she again talks about their daughter, asking David point blank, “Don’t you ever miss her too?”
Much of the tension in this scene stems from subtext, from what David is not saying. David and readers know what Norah does not: that their one-year-old daughter, Phoebe, who was born with Down Syndrome, is alive and being raised by the nurse who helped David during the delivery. David’s secret gnaws at him. He wants to be a good husband and to be seen as a good husband, but his personal motive to keep their daughter a secret infiltrates every interaction he has with his family. His pauses and silences, his refusals to answer, also affect the mood and pace of his and Norah’s conversations.
When writing dialogue, consider what your characters may be hiding from each other or from themselves. What do they want to conceal? What do they want to give?
One of the most famous examples of subtext—of characters avoiding the real topic—occurs in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you read this short story.
- Artful dialogue advances the action.
Talking for the sake of talking achieves little—in real life and on the page. While you may listen to a colleague dissect the latest episode of her favorite TV show (one you’ve never seen and have no desire to start watching), readers listen to characters only if they have something worthwhile to say. Characters speak for myriad reasons: to engage in competition (for resources, power, status), in quests (for knowledge, treasures, territory), in romance, in disputes, etc. In short, characters speak when they want something. Their emotional investment in whatever it is they seek—
“Care to dance?”
“Let’s talk about your abysmal grades, Ms. Hamilton.”
“Want a piece of me?”
—heightens the readers’ emotional engagement, because artful dialogue possesses “the possibility of change,” as Janet Burroway explains in Writing Fiction. Whether changing a character’s mind or circumstance or life, artful dialogue advances action. Momentum builds as characters flirt, equivocate, argue, negotiate, plead, and deny. Fictional conversations involve not mere discussion or debate but drama and action. Writers must ask themselves, will the dialogue between these characters change anything? If the answer is no, cut or revise the conversation.
- Artful dialogue uses action and/or narration to flesh out scenes and to control the pace.
Characters inhabit fictional worlds. They open rocket doors, scratch mosquito bites, crouch down to journey through caves, and lick oatmeal chocolate chip cookie batter from their fingers. Writers weave these elements of space and time into dialogue to control pacing and to help readers visualize scenes. Dialogue can stand alone if a character has an important speech, for example, or if a gripping, rapid-fire exchange erupts between characters.
“What do you mean, you don’t like waffles?” Victor said. “Since when?”
“See, this is exactly what I meant. We’ve lived together for three years,” Celia said, “and you still don’t know me.”
“Oh, I know you all right. I know you like my own heartbeat.”
She laughed. “You don’t work out. You don’t go to the doctor. I doubt you know much about your heartbeat.”
“I know when it breaks, don’t I?”
“You? Mr. Ironheart? You know how to break hearts, I wager.”
While monologues and conversational cross fires have their place, much of the time characters engage in less hurried give-and-takes. In fiction, as in real life, characters often do something as they talk. To lend verisimilitude to a scene, intersperse your dialogue with action and narration:
“Want to go to the hardware store?” her dad asks.
His hand hovers above the key tray on the table near the front door.
“Sure,” Violet says.
“Great. I’ll warm ’er up.”
Although she’d rather stay on the couch texting her boyfriend, Violet gets up, pulls on her winter coat and boots, and clomps outside.
As she climbs into the rumbling Ford pickup, her dad stares out the windshield. She angles a vent and cups her bare hands around the stream of warm air. Sunlight has melted much of the ice from the windows, yet her dad remains motionless. Violet coughs. She counts the number of icicles dripping from the eaves of their garage. Once she’s reached a dozen, she touches his shoulder.
He startles, then turns the ignition. Swiveling his head, he drapes an arm across the back of her seat and steers them down the driveway.
“So what are we getting at the store?” she asks.
“Oh, I’m not sure yet. I’ll know when we get there.”
He whistles a few notes, and she nods and smiles.
This is how their conversations always start no matter where they go now. Since her mother’s death eight months ago.
Actions and gestures convey how the dialogue is spoken. When the father poses his question about going to the store, his hovering hand reveals both his desire to leave and his hope that his daughter will come too. Later, when he replies to her question about what they will get, he whistles as if to lighten the mood, to show her that he is all right. Violet probably believes otherwise. Indeed, earlier, as her dad stares out the windshield, she warms her hands, coughs, and counts icicles, all in the hope that her father will rouse himself and start driving. Action and narration not only allow readers to picture the setting but also reinforce the dialogue, as readers glean insight into characters’ thoughts, emotions, motivations, relationships, and circumstances.
Action and narration can also interrupt dialogue to increase tension. In a murder mystery, a private investigator may methodically present all the clues to an associate, who, like readers, impatiently awaits the PI’s insightful answer to Whodunit? Similarly, in legal thrillers, a writer may depict a tense courtroom scene in which those in attendance, having listened to days or weeks of testimony, murmur, fidget, and fall silent as the judge bangs her gavel and asks the jury for their decision. While the writer cuts away to describe the expressions and gestures of key characters, readers hold their breath, waiting for the head juror to rise and speak. And the verdict is …
By adjusting the amount and placement of dialogue, action, and narration, writers can control the rhythm, pacing, and tension of a scene. If a scene seems too slow, sprinkle in more dialogue. If characters are talking nonstop, give them something to do. If readers need to know something about a character, insert dialogue or narration. All three elements—dialogue, action, narration—reveal characters’ motives and motivations. And when we understand why a character thinks and acts as she does, we understand the character.
FINAL THOUGHTS AND TIPS
Written dialogue achieves what we often wish for in real life: a second, third, or even fourth chance to say what we really meant in a powerful way. To create dialogue, writers need to listen to other people’s speech, to eavesdrop, to gain an ear for rhythm and language.
Writers also need to read their dialogue aloud and revise. A first draft rarely proves to be the most artful one. Craft a conversation. Read it aloud. Craft another, better version. Repeat until your dialogue simultaneously accomplishes more than one thing and your characters engage in arresting, electrifying scenes.
Artfully authentic dialogue packs a punch. Readers won’t know what hit them—but they’ll certainly thank you.
- Dialogue is compressed, distilled, and much more focused than actual speech. On the page, concision matters.
- Scale back but don’t strip away all seemingly idle chatter.
- Limit the number of times characters’ address each other by name.
- Eschew grammatically correct sentences (unless the character or situation calls for them); instead, use contractions, casual words, and slang.
- For accents, dialects, and regionalisms, rely on syntax, rhythm, diction, content, or narration—not on odd or awkward spelling.
- Avoid info-dumping.
- Give each character a distinct speech pattern to reflect and reveal their background, education, personality, etc.
- Create tension and conflict by having characters say no to or conceal things from each other.
- Let characters employ a variety of verbal tactics to obtain their hearts’ desires.
- Use subtext and silence.
- Give your characters motives and motivations. Characters speak not to shoot the breeze but when they want something.
- Weave action and narration into dialogue to control the pace and depict vivid scenes.
- Have your characters do something as they speak.
- Read your dialogue aloud and revise, revise, revise.