Hello everyone! Another month, another lesson! This time Feliciano has written a lengthy but incredibly well written and useful lesson on dialogue! I hope you all find it very enjoyable :D
Lurn tu tak reel gud
A lesson on dialogue by Feliciano
Rule of Three
The Complete Guide to Writing Dialogue
8 Tips for Writing Dialogue
How to Write Good Dialogue: Ten Tips
OOC is Serious Business
The Alot is Better Than You at Everything
How to Use a Semicolon
How to use an Apostrophe
Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling
How and why to use whom in a sentence
Cannot vs. Can Not
The Three Most Common Uses of Irony
Body Language Cheat Sheet for Writers
Said is NOT Dead (be sure to read the comment UNDER the picture – there’s a couple f-bombs in there but the point is clear)
Introduction ===> Aggrieve
So you’ve got your grand world to play in, and your majestic, awe-inspiring plot, and you’ve even created a group of well-rounded heroes and villains so complex and well-defined that the heavens shall forever sing of their glories. But something’s missing. Your beautiful world somehow seems static and lifeless, and try as you might, you can’t set your epic story into motion. The story worked beautifully in The Sims! What could you possibly have overlooked?
The answer is, much like Schrödinger’s Cat, simultaneously simple and very complex: dialogue. Without dialogue, characters do not exist; they are no more than vague concepts floating around in the writer’s mind, and not even the most dramatic of backstories can save them from that fate. Dialogue is how characters and worlds come alive, because no world is made up of billions of pods in total isolation from each other. Dialogue is everywhere, from legends and fables to Sunday breakfast to pillow talk, and it allows the reader to become fully immersed in the story. It’s how readers get to know characters, and is how the characters themselves become realistic and relatable. Hopefully, by the end of this lesson, it will be easier for the reality of your understanding of dialogue to collapse into the possibility of simplicity rather than complexity.
There is a general “rule of three” to most aspects of writing, and dialogue is no exception. In this lesson, we will be looking at three broad kinds of dialogue: internal dialogue, verbal dialogue, and body language.
Internal Dialogue – or why you keep talking to yourself
“But Feliciano,” I can hear you protest, “there have to be two people for there to be dialogue! People don’t just talk to themselves!”
To that, I say only that the voices in my head are telling me that you’re wrong.
The foundation of every character is their relationships, and dialogue is an essential part of founding and developing those relationships. I’m not just referring to romantic relationships; either; every single person a character interacts with is someone they build a relationship with. A relationship that often gets completely ignored, however, is the relationship characters have with themselves.
This is where internal dialogue comes in. Though it might seem that it would only fit into a first person narration perspective because of its intimately personal nature, internal dialogue is a fundamental foundation for any character, especially if you want to tell the story from their perspective. Just because you’re not using “I” doesn’t mean the reader can’t get inside your character’s head, and internal dialogue is the best way for them to do that.
What do I even mean by “internal dialogue” anyway? I’m certainly not advocating that your character be constantly talking to themselves. Internal dialogue can be thought of as a dialogue between the character and the reader by way of the conflict between a character’s internal and external thoughts, feelings, and actions. It is also much less direct than verbal dialogue or body language, as it is essentially an expression of their thoughts. As such, it is very different from verbal dialogue or body language in that readers will only ever hear the internal dialogue of the character whose point of view the reader is currently seeing.
(As a side note: please, never ever change perspectives in the middle of a scene. The only appropriate time to switch perspectives is during a transition, whether between chapters or just scenes.)
If you’re still confused as to what internal dialogue actually is, then ask yourself a few questions about your character. How do they treat themselves? How do they feel about their feelings, actions, or surroundings? How is that going to change as the story goes on?
Go ahead and take a minute. Got it?
Good. Now that you have those answers, ask yourself one more question: how will you go about expressing these answers in the story?
The answer, of course, is by using what you didn’t know was called internal dialogue.
Internal dialogue is not limited to direct thoughts, either. Any sort of narration that is directly tied to your perspective character’s mental or emotional state can be considered internal dialogue. For example, if a character is established as brash, confident, and stubborn, than the narration used to describe them when they are confronted with something they truly fear would be internal dialogue. Take a look at this paragraph:
Lucy couldn’t shake off the terror that gripped her heart as she looked down into the cave where the monster slept. There was no way she could back down; she was the chosen champion, the hot-headed idiot who faced her fears by punching them in the face. All of reality was at stake – she knew that better than anyone – but now she felt as though the very qualities that she was celebrated for were mocking her behind her own back. Champions weren’t cowards. Then again, champions didn’t usually go rushing into caves housing reality-warping dimensional spiders armed only with a stick and a rapidly disintegrating cocky attitude.
In this example, Lucy isn’t talking to anyone in particular, but she isn’t forming cohesive thoughts such as ‘I’m scared of the monster,’ either. Rather, the dialogue happens when her responsibility to face the monster conflicts with her own fear of the monster. By this point, the reader probably already knows that Lucy has a short fuse, but the internal dialogue of this paragraph explicitly shows that Lucy considers herself hot-headed, and isn’t necessarily proud of that aspect of herself. This sort of characterization can only happen through internal dialogue, however; just imagine how awkward and stilted this scene would have been if Lucy had just been awkwardly describing her feelings aloud.
I separate this from regular narration because descriptive narration does not have an inherent connection to the character itself. Describing the weather is important to the setting, but it doesn’t help the reader figure out why little Johnny loves thunderstorms.
To recap: character is all about relationships, and two of the most important relationships a character can have are with themselves and with the reader. Both of these relationships are built through internal dialogue, and neither require your character to get funny looks from the neighbors as they usher their children away from the madman.
Verbal Dialogue – or put up or shut up
So I’m guessing this is what you’re all here for. You, being the aspiring literary juggernaut that you are, lured into this lesson with the promise that, by the end, you’ll be writing the next I Have a Gettysburg speech for a warm up. You slogged through the first third of the lesson, where I surely baffled and confused you by trying to explain how characters could talk to the reader – and without moving their lips at all! But now, at last, you’ve reached it: the one, the only, the massively humongous, multi-stage extravaganza that is verbal dialogue. Don’t forget to stay for the afterparty!
Verbal dialogue is probably what you think of when you think about dialogue. It’s the most common form of communication between characters, and it is very easy to take for granted and ignore. While it’s true that well executed dialogue should flow seamlessly with the narrative, the key to make it look effortless.
It’s best to think of verbal dialogue like the inner workings of a clock. There are an infinite number of intricacies that all have to fit seamlessly together, and when they do, the clock runs smoothly. However, if only one piece is missing or working improperly, the clock stops, and it becomes painfully obvious to the reader that something is wrong. This lesson will be broken up into three main categories to help focus on what makes successful dialogue work.
Before we get to the good stuff, we’re going to start off with a quick lesson on grammar.
Using proper grammar is an essential skill for any writer to learn, especially when writing dialogue. There are several rules of grammar that are either slightly altered when used in dialogue or are difficult to translate into dialogue if the proper methods are unknown. Here are some basic rules to keep in mind.
- Learn to spell. Just learn.
- “Alot” is not an amount of something; it is a large furry cross between a bear, a yak, and a pug. When describing an amount of something, say there is “a lot” of it.
- In verbal dialogue only, ellipses (…) can be used to indicate speech trailing off. Do NOT use them to indicate pauses in speech or end a sentence, and NEVER use more than three.
- NEVER use more than one of any punctuation mark.
- Do NOT use an interrobang (!? or ?!), no matter how cool they look. If your character’s shouting a question, use a question mark and follow up with “they shouted.”
- Punctuation goes inside quotation marks “like this.”
- Semicolons are used to separate two complete but related sentences; the second one generally clarifies or expands upon the first. They should connect two AND ONLY TWO sentences that could not otherwise be connected with a word like and or but.
- Colons are used to preface a list or explanation, but only if the part of the sentence before the colon would be a complete sentence on its own.
- Apostrophes are used to indicate ownership and contractions, NOT plurality.
- When in doubt, remember that dictionaries and thesauruses are your best friend.
- People don’t talk in parentheses, so don’t use them in speech.
- I usually use ‘single quotation marks’ for thoughts and “double quotation marks” for speech, but it can be done the other way around (I'm looking at you, Mr. Tolkien). Whatever you choose, be consistent.
- “Cannot” means the action is completely impossible. “Can not” means that the action is possible, but not being done.
- There is a difference between “who” and “whom,” and though it is largely negligible, it is still good to know, especially if you have a character who is either a stickler for this sort of thing or just trying to show off. Generally, the person who is performing an action is referred to with “who” and the person who is having an action done to them is referred to as “whom.”
Speech tags are simple, and exactly what they sound like: tagging lines of dialogue so that the reader knows who is speaking.
A popular saying amongst people trying to sound smart and tired English teachers is “Said is dead.” Unfortunately for them, “said” is an immortal Highlander; it cannot be killed, and it is the only word of its kind. It is perfectly okay to use the word “said,” but as with any other descriptor, use with moderation. It is NOT okay to use descriptions when we know the names of both speakers but it is otherwise unclear as to who is speaking. For example, '“Stop doing that!” the semi-irritable brunette writing the lesson on dialogue yelled.' would be an example of how NOT to tag a sentence. When writing dialogue between two characters of the same gender, use either the speaker’s name or context to indicate who is speaking.
Remember that not all dialogue needs tags. If you embed, preface, or follow up the dialogue in the action, there is no need for any indicator of speech other than the dialogue itself. Tags are also not always needed when a character suddenly initiates conversation, or when one character is dominating a conversation.
The most difficult part of writing verbal dialogue is making it sound realistic and natural. Even fictional characters can sound like they’re phoning it in, and forced dialogue for the sake of pushing the plot where it’s “supposed” to go is a one-way ticket to a flat, uninteresting character that nobody will ever care about. A good general rule of thumb is to read your dialogue aloud; if it doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t. But if you aren’t sure how to fix it, here are some steps to keep in mind as you write.
Step 1: Learn how real people talk, then trim the fat
There’s nothing more realistic than reality, and it’s only eavesdropping if you get caught. Going out and listening to people talk is the quickest way to start learning how to make your characters sound like actual people instead of cardboard cutouts. Listen to conversations when you’re stuck on the bus, while you’re waiting for a friend, or while you’re enjoying your coffee in the coffee shop. Really pay attention to how people use words, and write that down. Then, it’s time to trim the fat.
When people speak, most of what they say doesn’t actually contribute to the conversation. People interrupt and talk over each other constantly. While this is a natural part of speech, trying to write dialogue this way quickly renders your story completely unreadable. Written dialogue has no room for unnecessary distractions because all they accomplish is wasting the reader’s time. Since the writer’s time is wasted if no one reads their work, these distractions must be eliminated. Similarly, slang and filler words, such as ‘um,’ ‘uh,’ ‘er,’ ‘well,’ and ‘huh,’ should also be completely removed from dialogue.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course – characters can get cut off every once and a while, filler words are used to convey uncertainty or lack of confidence, and slang can be used if it is established in story – but as with everything, there must be moderation. Almost nothing kills a story more quickly than oversaturation, be it of outdated slang or a character’s constant voicing of their anxiety.
Step 2: Make your dialogue fit your character, not the other way around
This seems like it should be common sense. Of course characters should say things in such a way as to stay in character. Yet so many times, writers will force dialogue on to characters, either to force the plot in a certain direction or because they want a character to be perceived in a certain way. Establishing a character doesn’t just mean creating a backstory and a list of personality traits; it’s also about establishing who they physically are as a character.
A character’s physical characteristics are a large factor in determining how their verbal dialogue should sound. No matter how “mature” or “immature” a character may be, a child, a teenager, an adult, and an old person are not going to think, speak, or act in the same way. This applies to men and women as well. Trying to ignore these differences only makes characters sound unnatural – and thus, not relatable. To make dialogue sound truly realistic, each character must have dialogue that is not only as unique as they are, but that also carries an inherent, fundamental connection between their status as an individual and their place in the larger world. Think of it as fitting each individual character with a precisely tailored suit. You would not make a child wear the clothes of an adult – that would just make him look silly – and you would likewise not force an adult into clothes that do not fit their body type. Trying to force a character’s dialogue into a specific role is like putting them in a straight jacket; all it will do is restrict and ultimately hurt both them and the story. A child is not mature if they speak the same way an adult does: they’re creepy. Similarly, a teenager speaking in the manner of an adult doesn’t sound intelligent, they sound like they’re trying too hard to be taken seriously by those around them. An old man speaking and acting like a child doesn’t convey that they are young at heart, but rather that they might very well be senile.
When explaining this concept, I often come across writers worrying that their character won’t stand out and be “special” if they speak or act just like any other member of their demographic. This, I think, speaks more about the writer’s ability to create characters than it does to any perceived fault in the system. If a writer is incapable of creating distinct, noteworthy characters without keeping them in the bounds of their established character, then they still have a lot to learn about writing as a whole.
Step 3: Accents are fun, but beware of stereotyping
Another thing that separates real speech from written dialogue is the presence of an accent. In real life, no two people enunciate in the exact same way, and this adds an infinite variety of color and flavor to spoken conversations. Unfortunately, translating this diversity into written dialogue is a tricky affair.
Usually, it is best to simply describe the manner of speaking instead of trying to type out the accent every time they speak. Saying that someone speaks with a long, slow drawl is not only a lot easier than trying to spell out all the little quirks and turns of phrase that come with accents every time the character opens their mouth, but also eliminates the risk of reducing them to stereotypes. Snoipin’s a good job, mate, but leetle baby men ain’t gonna appreciate all ya dandies with yer heads fulla eyeballs prancin’ aboot all over their accent – so unless you’re parodying something or writing a satire, it’s usually best to avoid accents altogether unless you feel very confident in your ability not to offend your readers.
At the same time, you shouldn’t be afraid to play around with how your characters speak, as long as it is actually in character for them to speak that way. For example, it might be interesting to subtly hint at an accent by using alternate spellings, such as “colour” instead of “color,” in that character’s dialogue. However, it is important to remember that there is no such thing as a universal accent. Just as there is no one “American” accent, every conceivable accent has innumerable different dialects within it.
Step 4: Different relationships, different dialogue
This seems like another step that should be fairly obvious, but it’s amazing how few people stop and think about how differently they speak depending on whom they’re addressing. You don’t talk to your parents the same way you talk to your friends, and you don’t talk to your teachers the same way you talk to a complete stranger. Depending on their relationship, your character should be interacting differently with everyone they speak to, whether this means politely reining in a foul mouth around a very strict teacher or blowing up at a negligent or abusive parent.
The context of relationships also has an effect on how your character will interact with others. For example, a character that has a positive relationship with a parent is going to interact with them differently than if the relationship was a negative one, but both interactions will still be different than one between your character and a friend.
Simply put, verbal dialogue isn’t a one-way street. As with every form of dialogue, it changes depending on whom the character is communicating with.
Step 5: Emotion affects everyone
There seems to be this perception that, if a character shows any emotion other that stoicism, they somehow become less complex and mysterious. This makes absolutely no sense to me, as the entire point of storytelling is to learn more about your characters and watch them grow and change, and emotion is a fundamental part of being human.
People don’t always feel the same way, and characters who’s dialogue does not reflect their various changes in emotion come across as static and boring. Monotonous speech isn’t very interesting to read, and certainly doesn’t help the reader become invested in the character. Intense emotion, such as fear, anger, joy, or grief, will affect how a character speaks. A character on the verge of tears will have a small crack in their voice, where an angry character will not care about offending anyone else.
This is not the same as creating a character who, for whatever reason, feels that they have to hold their emotions back. Though these characters might be reserved, the important thing to remember is that they are not immune to emotions. They are still capable of feeling happy, sad, or any other emotion. The key is manipulating the tone of their speech. A happy person does not speak in a hesitant whimper, and a shy person does not speak in an authoritative manner. Fluctuations in tone, even when not experiencing intense emotions, are one of the keys to building strong, relatable characters.
Step 6: Dialogue is a tool, and like any tool, won’t work unless properly used
If any given story is a toolbox, then dialogue and silence are two related, but essential tools; both are best suited for different situations, but without one, the story is incomplete. Sometimes, what doesn’t get said is just as important – if not more so – than what does. Silence is just as much a part of dialogue as speech, and can sometimes convey more than speech ever could.
When you’re writing, it is important to make every word count. If you pile unnecessary descriptions or additions on to any part of your story, it gets weighed down and will never get off the ground. This is especially important with dialogue; if your characters can’t get to the point, then readers will give up on your story out of frustration. If your dialogue doesn’t move the story forward or develop character, it doesn’t need to be said. The rule of three mentioned in the intro to this lesson applies here too. When grouping things together, try to put them in groups of three. This helps create a situation, develop tension, and then finally deliver the payoff.
When establishing character through dialogue, it is important that core characteristics are not only established early, but that they remain consistent throughout the story. General personality traits are a little more mutable and can change as the surrounding environment and situations do, but core personality traits should never permanently change unless something drastic happens to the character. In order to change them on that level, they must first be completely broken down in story – a process that, usually, is not very pleasant for anyone.
Stories should also make the effort to avoid exposition dumps whenever possible. It’s one thing to have something explained to the character because the character doesn’t know, but you should avoid having the character be ignorant of things that should be common knowledge just so you can justify an explanation. Similarly, the phrase “as you know…” should be avoided to prevent the reader’s suspension of disbelief from being completely shattered.
Finally, there must be a balance between action and dialogue. Too much of either gets boring and repetitive. Separate your dialogue with narration, and your narration with dialogue. It can be difficult to determine what balance is appropriate for each individual story, because it depends on the circumstances of the scene. A large fight scene, for example, isn’t going to leave the characters a lot of time to talk out their problems with each other. This can be mediated with the use of internal dialogue and body language, but ultimately, finding the correct balance of dialogue to narration is something that the writer must determine for themselves based on what is happening in their story.
7. Irony isn’t worth nitpicking about
There are three kinds of irony: verbal, dramatic, and situational. And none of them are ever worth arguing or nitpicking over.
The three kinds of irony are very simple. Verbal irony happens when a character says one thing, but means another. This is perhaps the kind of irony we are most familiar with, in the form of sarcasm. Dramatic irony happens when there is a disconnection between information the reader knows and information the character knows. Finally, situational irony happens when there is a reversal of expectations of any kind; for example, when a self-proclaimed grammar nut uses the wrong variant of “your,” that is situational irony.
Body Language – or how’s your poker face?
“You’ll have your looks! Your pretty face! And don’t underestimate the importance of body language! Ha! The men up there don’t like a lot of blather! They think a girl who gossips is a bore! Yes on land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word and after all, dear, what is idle prattle for?”
While I wouldn’t usually condone taking the advice of a sea witch, Ursula does have a point about body language. Not all communication between two people is verbal, and posture, gestures, and movement are all just as important for communication as speech. Sometimes, they can convey or reinforce the meaning behind the words being spoken – or not spoken. They can also reveal the truth that words would otherwise hide or change. So, how is your poker face, anyway?
For those of you who’ve never played before, here are the basics of why I’m talking about a card game instead of how to talk to other people without saying anything.
In Five-Card Draw, the most basic variation of poker (some people would argue that that honor goes to Texas Hold 'Em, but considering that Five-Card Draw and Texas Hold 'Em have completely different rules, we're gonna stick with Five-Card Draw), each player contributes to a “pot” of winnings in the middle of the table. This is called the ante. Then, each player is dealt five cards. Players then ante a certain amount in the pot and can either match or raise the previous players’ amount until everyone who hasn’t folded, or dropped out of the hand, has anted the same amount. Players can then choose to discard between zero and five cards to be replaced by the dealer. After another round of antes, the hands are revealed, and the player with the best hand receives the pot.
Now, obviously your opponent isn’t going to just tell you what cards are in their hand. That would cause them to lose. However, there are subtle clues that you can use to figure out whether or not your opponent has a good hand or one that you can reasonably beat. These little quirks, or tells, are often involuntary, unique to each individual player, and very hard to spot; once you notice them, however, they can provide detailed information about what the other player is thinking, and this can be the difference between hitting the jackpot or going home empty-handed.
Most professional poker players will often wear sunglasses when they play large or important hands, even though they play indoors. This isn’t because of vanity; the eyes are one of the most expressive parts of a person. Eyebrows, lips, hands, fingers, legs, feet, and overall posture can all also be used to gauge another player’s reaction to their hand or to figure out whether they are bluffing a better hand than they actually have. The twitch of a lip, the slight tightening of their grip on the cards, the tapping of a foot, or even scratching an itch can all give away a player’s state of mind even when the room is dead silent. Almost any movement or gesture possible can convey information if you know how to look for it.
Away from the table
So, how does this relate to dialogue?
Characters are dynamic and constantly changing by their very nature – this is what makes them interesting and drives the plot of the story. Body language is not only an excellent way to show off this fluid nature, but also prevents the writer from having to write out tedious exposition just to tell the reader that the character is happy or sad. This was touched on very briefly in the previous section, but it bears repeating that no character is immune to emotion, and these emotions will have visible effects on the character’s demeanor. They don’t have to be blatant, but they do have to be present and noted to the reader.
The point is that body language is excellent shorthand for writers, and helps to build the character. It sets the tone for the character’s actions for the rest of the scene. Nervous characters are hunched over, constantly glancing around and wringing their hands, and jump at even the slightest surprise. Confident characters will stand up tall and walk with bold, sure steps while making direct eye contact with the people they communicate with. It is also incredibly useful for when the writer wants to express an emotion that the character might want to keep hidden from other characters; for example, an angry character might clench their fists behind their back while outwardly trying to remain calm and civil.
Conclusion ==> Abscond
Congratulations. You have successfully made it through the small novel that is this lesson on dialogue. Have a cookie – you’ve earned it. Now let’s review what you should be taking away from this wall of text.
Stories are built on the backs of their characters, and good characters are, in turn, built on strong dialogue. Without well-written dialogue, not even the most interesting of backstories or concepts can manifest into a compelling character, and all characters – not just main ones – deserve to be compelling. Without dialogue, characters can’t interact with the reader, each other, or even themselves. They can’t build the relationships that cause readers to love them so much.
It is good to remember why we write. Ultimately, we are creating a dialogue between ourselves and our readers. We want to build a relationship with them and know that, in some way, something we did gave them as many feels as any other thing they could have chosen to spend their time on. We want to know that, in some small way, we have affected someone’s life. And that can’t happen without communication – without dialogue.