In our stories, we use dialogue to convey to our readers what our characters say to each other. It is the building block to making believable characters and is one of the hardest things to write.
I’ve come across stories in my line of work as an editor and judge, where it is clear that the writer didn’t know what dialogue was or how to use it to enrich their story.
Common misconception about dialogue: It’s a way of feeding information to the reader in a subtle way.
That is the quickest way to write stale dialogue and lose your reader. If you want to write dialogue that feels organic to character and story, you’ll need to know your characters and story like a best friend or a hated ex-. Don’t stop there, though, to make your dialogue truly phenomenal, you need to use subtext to say what can’t be directly stated.
When writing your dialogue, think about what the character speaking:
- wants from the other person
- thinks is going to happen in the situation
- what they are hiding
If you’re confused about subtext, the best way to think about it is as an actor reading lines. Good actors that sell a line or script, ask the fundamental question of: “What is this character’s motivation?” This is how they channel the correct emotion into the lines they are saying.
That is how you must think about each line of dialogue.
Pro Tip: Characters in a story don’t really speak like real people, they speak like actors.
Tips and Tricks
Here are some things to keep in mind when writing dialogue that will help your characters and stories come to life for the reader.
Use the Setting
Depending on what type of story you’re telling, your characters will be having their discussion in a space of some sort, whether physical or not. Make sure that the space that the dialogue is happening in makes sense for the argument, so that it quietly heightens the tension of the scene.
What are the characters within your scene avoiding saying? What are their inner motivations, secrets, and desires? If one of the characters is using this time to manipulate the other character into doing something they want, make them go about whispering their intentions through what they say and don’t say.
Use Character Relationships
Dialogue between two exes and a child and parent will have different stakes and power struggles. Knowing how your characters are related and what their histories are will help you in understanding what each would say to the other to get what they want out of the argument. And I mean really knowing. Truly examine your characters and their histories, shared and personal.
Use Reader Emotion
It may be tempting for some to put arguments at the beginning of their story or to introduce characters, but at that point, readers don’t know enough to care about why there is an argument taking place to actually be engaged in it. Arguments are best saved for moments when the reader knows the characters and believes they’ll know the outcome of the argument (this leaves room for you to pull a reversal or a big reveal that makes the reader fall out of their seats).