One evening I took a break from the dense, jargon-laden books prescribed for my academic course and picked up a romance. A light, sexy book that was unlikely to make me question my worldview on a Saturday (I never really recovered after reading The Last White Man).
Ten minutes in, I had to set it down and take a walk. I would not complete Colleen Hoover’s Ugly Love, not after encountering an interaction between two characters, Rachel and Miles. Here is a clear bad dialogue example:
“Thank you for this baby,” she says from the backseat. “He’s beautiful.”
I laugh. “You’re responsible for the beautiful part, Rachel. The only thing he got from
me was his balls.”
She laughs. She laughs hard. “Oh, my God, I know,” she says. “They’re so big.”
We both laugh at our son’s balls.’
How does dialogue impact a story?
Writing compelling dialogue is one of the core aspects of good fiction. It is also difficult to pull off. Life-like dialogue must capture the natural rhythm of language and the reflexive fluidity of speech. In contrast, bad dialogue can trip up a good story, and potentially interesting characters can start scraping at readers’ minds like nails on a chalkboard.
Good dialogue adds nuance to a character and establishes character backstories more effectively than descriptive paragraphs.
I could quote dozens of good dialogue examples, but let’s take an example from Steinbeck’s work. One of my favourites is from The Winter of Our Discontent, where the author depicts the alienation and miscommunication between his protagonists through a simple, yet profound, exchange:
“You’re trying to tell me something.”
“Sadly enough, I am. And it sounds in my ears like an apology. I hope it is not.”
“I’m going to set out lunch.”
This is a perfect example of oblique dialogue, where characters never give each other straight-forward answers.
Balancing description with dialogue that emerges as an organic part of the text is a craft that can take time and practice to perfect. Here we’ll take a look at three important questions that writers usually have about dialogue writing.
1. What are the rules of dialogue?
Strictly speaking, dialogue is bound by certain rules of punctuation. Here are four of the most important ones:
• If something is spoken in a text, it goes in quotation marks.
• New lines of dialogue, and actions sentences within dialogues, get their own paragraphs.
• Punctuation marks for dialogues go within quotation marks. For example: “When will this list of rules end?” she wailed.
• Use speech tags with care – not every line of dialogue needs a he said/she said/ they said.
In titles published over the last few years, authors have begun to experiment extensively with punctuation; Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, a deft and poignant exploration of feminism and race, lacks conventional punctuation. Sally Rooney is famously known to skip the use of quotation marks to separate lines of dialogue from description. Such prose blurs the line between dialogue and narration; when done intentionally it makes readers pay greater attention to the text, to make and unmake meaning in what they are reading.
See, for example, how Rooney plays out a conversation between Connell and Helen in Normal People:
‘One evening, after an overly long discussion about Israel, Helen became irritable, and on the walk home she told Connell that she found Marianne ‘self-absorbed’.
Because she talks about politics too much? said Connell. I wouldn’t call that
Helen shrugged, but drew a breath inwards through her nose that indicated she didn’t
like his interpretation of her point.
She was the same way in school, he added. But she’s not putting it on, she’s genuinely
interested in that stuff.
She really cares about Israeli peace talks?
Surprised, Connell replied simply: Yeah. After a few seconds of walking along in silence, he added: As do I, to be honest. It is fairly important.’
The text lacks speech marks, though the dialogue is interspersed with speech tags and paraphrasing, but it isn’t difficult to identify the dialogue lines. The only quote is of Helen’s perception of Marianne as ‘self-absorbed’; Rooney’s paraphrase seamlessly incorporates words from a line of perceived dialogue by Helen without going into length about her complaint about Marianne’s navel-gazing behaviour. In fact, since it isn’t explicitly signposted, the dialogue reinforces the mood of the scene and adds depth to the actions in the background.
While the best practice is to incorporate correct punctuation into your text, one day you may, as a serious writer, choose to do away with it. But the finest of artists must learn the rules of their craft before they do away with them.
2. What makes dialogue successful?
The most successful kind of dialogue is one that sounds natural. Natural dialogue doesn’t mean being completely true to the spoken conventions of contemporary life, or we’d be stuck writing pages and pages of small talk and “How’re your kids doing?” and “Did you have lunch?” It also doesn’t mean completely doing away with literary convention; Shakespeare hardly wrote exactly as his contemporaries spoke, for example.
What ‘natural’ dialogue does mean is a dialogue that is natural to the specific scene you are writing. Are your characters tense? Are they happy? Are they grieving, or deeply in love? Let your dialogues reflect these emotions. Your story will feel stilted if the dialogue and reactions of characters do not align perfectly with the emotion of the scene. Natural dialogue does not flow from a magical reservoir of creativity; it takes study and practice to craft, but if you pay attention to the mood of your scene and the tone of your dialogue, they will match and you will achieve natural dialogue.
A good example of natural dialogue is from Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait, a stunning historical novel that traces the life of Lucrezia de Medici. Upon her marriage to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, she is introduced to his sisters and finds out that Alfonso’s mother has been sent away from the palace:
‘Lucrezia clears her throat. She feels that if anyone is to speak, it should be her. “Is
there…” She hesitates, looking about the room, as if she might find a different topic of
conversation among its furnishings and chairs. “Will I have the pleasure of meeting your
honoured mother today? And your elder sister?”
Nunciata snorts. “Are you,” she gestures with the arm not holding the little dog, her
gown rustling indignantly, “intending to travel on to France?”
Lucrezia is thrown by this reply. “I… no… Are they—?”
Elisabetta sighs. “What do you wish us to say, Fonso?” she murmurs.
Alfonso doesn’t reply. He disengages himself from Lucrezia, walks towards a table and
pours himself a draught of wine. “What do I wish you to say?” he repeats. “Whatever do
you mean, Elisabetta?”
“You know exactly what she means,” Nunciata snaps, and the spaniel, as if sensing its
mistress’s irritation, lets out a sharp, high bark.
Alfonso takes a sip from his glass, eyeing Nunciata and her dog over the rim. Lucrezia
takes a step back. It is as if the room is filled with flickering flames, visible only to these
three siblings, hidden conflagrations that would burn if she came too near them.
“My mother,” Alfonso enunciates these words clearly, and Lucrezia realises with a jolt
that he is addressing her, “is now in France, with our sister Anna. As I told you. So I
struggle to comprehend why, my darling,” he says, swirling the wine around in its
vessel, “you would ask about them.”’
The dialogue aligns beautifully with the mood of the setting, and the dynamics of the family bubble to the surface –Nunciata’s bitterness, Elisabetta’s gentler nature, Alfonso’s deceit and Lucrezia’s realisation of the dangers she must navigate in her new home are brought out in tandem in this interaction. Such characterisation would have fallen flat through mere description, whereas in dialogue it comes across as vivid and memorable.
In conclusion, your dialogue must be dynamic; it must fully reflect the mood of the scene; it must uplift the description and play it out in front of your readers’ eyes. Most importantly, it must add something to your character.
3. How do you improve characterisation through dialogue?
Dialogue can be used to develop characterisation in your novel. Authors incorporate accents and verbal mannerisms like catchphrases, slang or colloquial terms to create realistic characters grounded in certain locations. For example, Joseph Darling from Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, speaks with a heavy Scottish accent that is conveyed through transliteration:
‘Ah jist cannae believe it!’ he had said, mostly to himself. ‘In ma day a person’s religion
said something about them. Ye came up through the school having to fight yer way there
through bus-fulls of cabbage-eating Catholic bastards. It was something to be proud of.
Now any good lassie will sleep with any dirty Mick as soon as she’d lie with a dog.’
But even something as simple as the length of dialogue and the choice of expression can define characterisation. In Pride and Prejudice, the protagonists’ dialogue are also an examination of their personalities. Tightly wound Mr. Darcy is terse. Even his expressions of love are, though powerful, quite short:
‘“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must
allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”’
… while Elizabeth, in keeping with her more open nature, is more verbose:
‘“In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of
obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is
natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank
you. But I cannot—I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly
bestowed it most unwillingly. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to anyone. It has been
most unconsciously done, however, and I hope will be of short duration. The feelings
which you tell me have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard can have
little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation.”’
By incorporating elements like verbal tics, well-written accents and differing dialogue lengths you, as a writer, can create unique and distinguishable characters. In the end, what your characters say and how they say it can make or break a book, so practice as much as you can to create better dialogue.
Some last tips:
• Read books ,plays and screenplays critically study how their dialogue is crafted and question decisions the author has made, seeking to understand the reason behind them.
• Write and rewrite your dialogue, and read it out loud until you find that it sounds natural to your scene. You should be able to hear the voices of your characters as you imagine them.
• Remain consistent with your punctuation. Don’t swap between single and double quotation marks on a whim.
• Be aware of commentary from you, the author, creeping into your characters’ speech. Avoid having characters go off on a rant that you should perhaps be saving for Reddit.
• Choose mannerisms, accents and speech tags carefully and see what works best for the genre you’re writing.
That’s it, now get started!