Story Development and Execution Part 4: Dialogue

Ciao, SEers. We’re at part four of this series: dialogue. I’ve written two posts on the subject (101 and 201), and there are several others by my colleagues. Harmony has a series of tips, and John discusses tags and beats.  Today, my goal is to show how to use dialogue to reveal your story.

The best way to write realistic dialogue for your characters is to study how people talk in real life. Study it; don’t duplicate it. The astute student will notice right away that real conversations are boring and riddled with fillers. You want your dialogue to sparkle. Eliminate the ums and ahs (unless the character is supposed to be hesitating and stammering, which shouldn’t happen often), Also, get rid of those dull five-minute greetings where people discuss traffic and weather. Cut straight to the chase. You might find you don’t even need a “hello” in many situations. The more you can distill and sharpen your conversations, the better. Take what you learn from people-listening, then improve upon it. Cut as much as you can so what you’re left with is gold.

Word choice is a powerful way to reveal character. And remember what we learned last time: the story is being told through the lens of your POV character. You need to get into his head. If he’s a chef, his metaphors will be cooking-related. That’s what he knows best. If he’s a mechanic, his analogies will be based on cars and engines. You’ll want to use appropriate jargon, but not so much that a reader unfamiliar with his forte struggles to understand. The military and first responders are notorious for speaking in shorthand and acronyms. Many readers won’t know this vernacular. You need to find a balance. Too much lingo will push your reader away. Not enough and the dialogue won’t ring true. A good technique is to have your character use specific terminology to a layperson. When that character expresses confusion, he has the opportunity to explain things in simpler terms, which helps the reader without feeling forced. (Just make sure you avoid the “as you know, Bob” mistake. If Bob already knows, the characters shouldn’t talk about it.) Otherwise, you have to walk the line between immersing yourself in the character’s language and spelling things out more.

Sometimes, it’s not what the character says that reveals information. It’s what he chooses not to say. It’s an expression, or his refusal to show any reaction at all. It’s the internal monologue going a mile a minute while he stays silent. Make use of all devices at your disposal to reveal reactions and emotions.

As for the mechanics of it, use tags and beats sparingly. Let the dialogue flow with as little interruption as possible. But don’t go overboard and not use them enough. If there’s confusion as to who is speaking, you need an attribution. Conversations between one Italian man and one American woman will need a lot fewer attributions than conversations between three or more people of the same gender and region. Foreign phrases and regional colloquialisms can take the place of an attribution, but they should be used sparingly so as not to tire a reader.

Whatever your characters say, make sure the dialogue advances the plot, reveals character, or (even better) does both. Every scene benefits from physical and emotional stakes. You get to decide how much of them to address. Dialogue is an excellent way to do that.

When you’re done, read the conversation aloud. Nothing will reveal dialogue that doesn’t ring true faster than hearing it spoken.

To summarize:

  • Study, but don’t copy, real world conversations.
  • Distill the conversation to the strongest and sharpest words possible.
  • Tell the story through the POV character’s voice, not yours.
  • Find a balance between lingo and simpler exposition.
  • Sometimes it’s knowing what not to say. Non-verbal responses can be a powerful tool.
  • Use only enough attributions to eliminate confusion. Let the dialogue speak for itself when it can.
  • Let your dialogue advance the plot and/or the character arc. If it’s not doing either, it’s not doing its job.
  • Read dialogue aloud to “hear” if it sounds organic.

Next time, we’ll discuss plot in more detail. Until then, I’d love to know more about how you use dialogue in your work. Please leave a comment below. Grazie!

Links to the Whole Series:

January 7: Idea Generation
February 2: Story Bible
February 28: Character
March 25: Dialogue
April 20: Plot
May 16: Constructing Chapters
June 10: Pacing/Tension/Suspense
July 6: Writing Suspense
August 1: Writing Action
August 26: Macro-Level Self-Editing
September 21: Mid-Level Self-Editing
October 17: Micro-Level Self-Editing
December 7: Planning a Series

Note: Links will only work on and after the date the post goes live.

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70 thoughts on “Story Development and Execution Part 4: Dialogue

  1. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 7: Pacing, Tension, and Suspense | Story Empire

  2. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 6: Constructing Chapters | Story Empire

  3. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 3: Character | Story Empire

  4. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 2: The Story Bible | Story Empire

  5. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 1: Ideation | Story Empire

  6. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 5: Plot Development | Story Empire

    • I’m glad you found the post useful, Robbie. I love to play with dialogue. It’s my favorite part of writing, I think. (Definitely one of my favorites.) I need to work on setting, but I love practicing all parts of the craft.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I never even thought about that. I’ve written creative nonfiction, but no purely nonfiction books. I’ve written corporate pieces—user manuals, grant proposals, marketing materials, etc.. In that regard, I can relate to how different the types of writing are. Regardless, you’ve made the transition look easy.

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  7. I love your suggestion to read the dialogue out loud, Staci. That is a surefire way to catch a stilted or unnatural dialogue. Oftentimes in movies, the expression on the actor’s face tells lots more than what’s coming out of his mouth. this is a great tutorial on enhancing dialogue. The dialogue along with POV are two big engines that drive the story. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Expressions and music reveal a lot in movies that we just can’t do in fiction. That’s why dialogue is so important. (And why I often rely on internalization, but that’s a topic for another time.) Very astute observations, Jan. Thanks for sharing.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: #ReblogAlert- #TwoFer #ThisWeekOnStoryEmpire & #SmorgasbordWeeklyRoundUp | The Write Stuff

  9. Great post and advice, Staci 🙂 It is hard to get that perfect balance in dialog. Reading it outloud certainly helps, along with trimming the greetings and normal filler words we use in everyday communication. It is a great place though to learn a lit about the character and if done correctly.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Very succinct and amazing tips, Staci. Each one of them is important. This is another example of how writing is a craft, and not just putting our imaginations down on paper. There’s so much to it. I especially liked your comment about the characters using metaphors that are familiar to them and what they do. Also not “over-attributing,” something I need to pay attention to. Thanks for the excellent post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Friends and I often discuss the difference between storytellers and writers. Storytellers have fantastic ideas and can entertain us by sharing them. But that doesn’t make them writers. There’s a long bridge to cross, with plenty of craft to learn along the way, before they reach the point where their engaging tales actually work in the fiction format.

      I’m glad you found the tips useful, Diana. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m delighted to hear you found this post helpful. Feel free to look around our site when you get stuck. My colleagues have a lot of great advice, too. Wishing you much success, Yellow Daisy! Looking forward to hearing about your progress.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. This is such a useful post, Staci! Dialogue literally gives our characters a voice. What they say, how they say it and what they don’t say, all give a unique perspective on what’s happening on the inside. Doing an audio version can be challenging when several characters are from the same community and share the same background and upbringing and I do struggle with differentiating them without the benefit the written attributions sometimes. Many thanks for this advice – greatly appreciated!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is tough. The more similar characters are, the more attributions are necessary. (A conversation between me and my sister—who is also a published author—would require a lot more attributions than one between me and my mechanically-oriented next door neighbor who is constantly fixing one of his vehicles or pieces of equipment.) I just had this discussion with one of my SE colleagues. You do have to get creative with the ways you use the tags and beats so you don’t end up with a list of names. But done correctly, you won’t feel like that and you might actually learn more about the characters, too. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Trish!

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  12. Wow, excellent post, Staci. This is one I’ll be re-reading a few times. Enlightening and to the point, it illuminates that which makes a story shine. Thank you for the lesson. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Fantastic post, Staci. Dialogue is such an important ingredient in the stew of storytelling. If the dialogue adds flavor, the story will be memorable. I love writing dialogue. This is where the character’s personality will germinate in the mind of a reader. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 3 people

  14. As a descriptive writer, I strive to find a balance between narrative and dialogue. I do use tags and beats when necessary (mostly beats), but those long silences where an expression speaks for itself Is also something I enjoy employing. I love your list at the end. It’s a concise reminder of how best to handle dialogue in our stories, Excellent post today, Staci.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. Dialogue brings a story to life, pulls me into a book. Narration gives info needed to move the story along, but “listening” to people talk lets me know how what’s happening affects them and how they’re a part of it, what they think about it. Dialogue’s great in mysteries, lets me decide if I trust a person or not and if I think they’re hiding something or steering me in the wrong direction.

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  16. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 4: Dialogue | Legends of Windemere

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