Say What You Mean – Dialogue (Part 1)

Dialogue is as important to your writing as it is in everyday life! (Photo by Niels Linneberg via Flickr)
Dialogue is as important to your writing as it is in everyday life! (Photo by Niels Linneberg via Flickr)

Moving ever so slightly away from the topic of character building, I wanted to take some time this week to discuss the creation and successful deployment of dialogue. In writing circles, I have found my feelings and approaches to dialogue to be somewhat unique. Many writers struggle continuously with putting words in the mouths of their characters – but I have never had much trouble with it. For me, a character is often a line or two of dialogue before they’re anything else; certainly before they’re a name or a story.

I’ll often be sitting somewhere, playing around with the idea of jotting down a flash fiction piece, or starting a new story and a line of dialogue will pop into my head, in a voice and cadence almost always distinctive from my own internal narrator. For example, while I was beginning to work on my current novel, four or five years ago now, I was trying to write down a scene, the first scene between my main characters, who I knew to be a rich, young man and a female android, during which the man would confront the female android with his knowledge of her inhumanity. The first thing I wrote on the page?

“Are you going to kill me?”

“Kill you? Why?”

 “Well, because…I know now. What you are.”

“Do you go around killing people who find out who you are? Of course not. It’d be terribly rude.”

I often write entire scenes, three or four pages in length, only in dialogue, before doing anything else. I’ll then go back and ‘fill-in’ what I think of as stage direction – facial expressions, body movement, dialogue tags, setting, action, etc. If you’re struggling with dialogue this might be a good place to start:

Go back to a scene that is giving you trouble and strip out everything that isn’t speech. Read through the dialogue and ask yourselves the following questions:

  1. Can you tell which character is speaking without dialogue tags?
  2. Can you tell where the character is from, geographically, by their speech?
  3. Can you hear them in your head, as a voice, that’s different from your own?
  4. What is the tone of the conversation? Does it have one?
  5. What character traits can you glean from the dialogue alone?

If you can’t tell one character from another, or can’t tell anything about a character from their dialogue, you need to go back and put some more work into each line.

Tip #3: Dialogue is just as important as every other element of writing (character, setting, etc.) – treat it as such!

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

One thought on “Say What You Mean – Dialogue (Part 1)

  1. I think its important to be able to strip away those dialogue tags and still tell who is speaking. With really distinct characters you can pretty much guess who it is, even after a long stretch of narration. My book is heavy on the dialogue. I used it to set the scene so that people can infer relationships and personalities by their interactions alone.

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