Writing dialogue—this is a true struggle for some people. I’ve tried to understand this struggle, and this is what I’ve come to learn.
Dialogue starts by listening—not talking. You need to listen to two things: listen to people around you in every day conversation, and listen to the characters in your head. To do the first part is fairly easy. When there’s conversation around you (could be in real life or in movies and TV), be quiet and listen. Observe people’s mannerisms with their body and with their speech, notice when and how they pause, how interruptions are handled, do they speak the truth or does their body language say one thing while they speak something else? In this way, listen to people.
The second part of listening is a little more complicated. It requires you to take time to yourself and come to several realizations. First: you have people in your head. Second: those people aren’t you. Third: they’re going to talk to you or talk to each other, and fourth and finally: there’s nothing you can do about it.
The most important part of all this is the second point—the characters in your head aren’t you. Yes, they’re in your head. They’re essentially your thoughts, but they are not you! This is one of the hardest aspects of writing that writers must comprehend. “If they’re not me, how do I make them stop acting like me or sounding like me?” One easy solution: have your Main Character (MC) the opposite gender from you. If you’re male, have a female MC. If you’re female, have a male MC. This automatically put a distance between that character and you. Once there is distance, you stop looking at what they say as words out of your mouth. Sure, they might say something stupid—something you wouldn’t say, but they’re not you! What they say is true to themselves, so you need to allow room for that.
Another struggle with dialogue I hear is knowing when to use dialogue and how to transition between narrative and dialogue. The key to this is to listen to the flow of the story. I know that sounds weird, but every word you write must first pass through your mind, and while it’s in your mind, you can imagine how the scene will unfold—like a movie perhaps. Each scene must have a purpose, and when you go into that scene, you need to know what that purpose is. Once you have the setting and characters figured out, all you have left is the dialogue, but there is always a balance between dialogue, action, and narration. Too much plain dialogue, and the reader gets lost. Too much narration and description, and the reader will skip paragraph. If you pay attention to the flow of the story, you will instinctively know when to use dialogue or narration. Here is a snippet from a story of mine. Notice first how I set up the scene, assign each character to their place, and then I start into the conversation:
When he woke, he made no sudden moves. He felt the presence of others in the room, and he wanted to determine who was here before he opened his eyes. At the foot of his bed staring directly at him sat an unmoved individual; Lorrek searched his memories of this place until he found a match: Wordan—king of Nirrorm. However, King Wordan was not alone. Off to Lorrek’s right, further from the bed and closest to the door stood another stubborn figure with a fiery soul—Princess Mordora. Given their last encounter, her presence surprised Lorrek, but he knew he could not feign sleep much longer if he wished to settle issues first in ensure his safety for the time being.
Slowly, Lorrek cracked open his eyes. As he had predicted, King Wordan sat at the foot of his bed—powerful arms folded over his chest and heavy brows furrowed. Wordan was a well-aged man and did not look his many years, but Lorrek knew not to doubt him.
Knowing it best to show reverence to the local sovereign, Lorrek struggled to sit up in order to bow his head, but Wordan lifted a hand—and Lorrek noted Princess Mordora in the corner of the room as he had foreseen as well. Still, Lorrek focused on her father, who heaved a disappointing breath before speaking. “Prince Lorrek, it is good to see the rumors of your death are not true.”
Lorrek’s breath hitched in his chest, but he managed a whisper. “Please do not tell me you informed my brothers.”
And the rest of the scene continues to unfold in conversation.
If your hesitation with dialogue comes from the use of dialogue tags, I’ve already dedicated two posts to that topic. You can find them here:
If your dialogue seems stilted or forced or even juvenile, take the moment to step back and look at your work. Don’t judge it as words on paper. Realize the dialogue pieces are part of your character’s identity. If you’re unhappy with it, stop and talk with the character. Yes, you can hold a conversation with him in your head. Listen to what he tells you, how he speaks, what words he chooses to tell you. It’s commonly said writers are insane, and the main reason for that belief is because they frequently hold conversations with non-existent people. The good news is, as a writer you’re entitled to a bit of insanity. The bad news is, if you’re worried about what people think of you, you won’t embrace your full writer-self, and your characters won’t talk to you if you don’t do that. So, in the end it’s up to you.
The good bit about dialogue—it’s usually The Exception to most rules of writing. Here you can have fragments, run-on sentences, leave out words, revert sentence order, use adverbs, and whatever else your character wants to do. It’s the one place where you’re really truly given freedom to write whatever you want—whatever your character wants to say, so dialogue shouldn’t be burden but rather a freedom.
And again, to summarize: in order to write good dialogue, you must first listen.