This is the first of two posts on writing good dialogue in fiction. The second post is here.
Why do we have dialogue?
In a book, dialogue is conversation between two or more characters, and it is usually shown by using quotation marks and dialogue tags.
Good dialogue serves many purposes in a book. It:
- provides background information about the characters
- gives away plot details
- shows relationships between characters
- provides some details of the backstory
- provokes arguments between characters
- increases tension.
And there are possibly many more…
What does dialogue do?
Dialogue must help to move the story forward. There is no point in having dialogue that is empty and meaningless just for the sake of filling the page. Although we might have a conversation with our next-door neighbour about why the weekly bin collection has been missed, this is of no relevance in a story unless it is key to the plot. However, if there are chopped-up body parts in a refuse bag in one of the bins, then this is something that is relevant to the plot.
Dialogue should be realistic but not so much that it relays every aspect of how a conversation would be in real life. Although we might discuss a missed bin collection while pieces of our neighbour’s husband are festering alongside us, there is no need to add in every err and hmm, or every yes and no or every perhaps or maybe. All the reader needs to know are the bits that add to the story.
Effective dialogue is usually invisible. I’ve never thought how outstanding the dialogue is in any of the books I’ve read. But I do notice if dialogue is pointless and does not add to the story.
What should my characters talk about?
In the first section, we considered the purposes that good dialogue serves. One of those points was that dialogue is used to reveal plot details. Our example of the body parts in the bin shows how a mundane conversation about a missed bin collection is actually an important part of the plot.
In real life, we don’t always agree with everyone else and the same should apply with characters in dialogue. A book would become quite boring if the characters all agreed with each other. Disagreement creates friction and tension, which will help to keep the dialogue interesting. But, of course, any disagreement should be relevant to the plot.
Dialogue can be used as a way for snippets of the backstory to be introduced or for characters to reveal information about themselves. But it is important that this does not turn into a mass dumping of information, a monologue or maid-and-butler dialogue. Maid-and-butler dialogue is a term used when characters tell other characters facts about the backstory that they both already know. Monologues and maid-and-butler dialogue are discussed more in part two of this post.
The dialogue in the extract below from Chapter 1 of The Daughter by Michelle Frances reveals a few character details about Becky and her mum and their close relationship. It also gives a little bit of backstory, without dumping too much information about how it has just been the two of them until now.
‘But there’s not been anyone truly significant before.’ Becky paused. ‘He’s the Big One. I can sense it. It’ll never be you and me again.’
Kate laughed and touched Becky’s cheek. Gave the reassuring smile of a parent. ‘it’ll always be you and me. And that’s a promise.
Becky smiled sheepishly. ‘Sorry I’m used to it being just the two of us.’
‘So, now it can be the three of us. Sometimes.’
‘And I’m chuffed to bits, you know that. Tim sounds wonderful…’
Breaking up dialogue
Dialogue without any action or reference to surroundings is unnatural. Adding in the occasional reminder of surroundings, introducing an action or having a character interrupt breaks the dialogue up and helps to maintain the reader’s interest.
The occasional reminder of where the dialogue is taking place is a great way to break up dialogue.
The person who is speaking could be distracted by something going on around them. There could be a lot of traffic noise, so they may have to pause speaking. The conversation could be in a pub or restaurant. A pause could happen when a meal is bought to the table, or the speaker gets served at the bar. They could be in a park and stop to throw a ball for their dog. In the extract below, Jack’s nod to the bar reminds us of where the conversation is taking place.
‘Come on, get the lady a drink,’ Roger interjected.
‘I’ll have a lemonade,’ Jack said. He tilted his head back, a half-nod to the bar behind him. ‘Chivalry’s dead, eh?’ Roger said.
Everything but the Truth by Gillian McAllister (Chapter 5, Kindle).
When I am listening to others speak, I nod or shake my head, or I might even roll my eyes, shuffle my feet, look around me or glance at my watch. These are just some of the actions that all of us do unconsciously when listening to someone else speak.
The person speaking might pause to look at their phone or take a sip of a drink, which is probably needed after a long speech. They could be walking as they talk. Even a small break in the dialogue will have a dramatic effect and allow the reader to pause too. Below, Isabel’s shrug breaks up the dialogue and lets us know she is unsure of why Jamie liked Horace.
He suddenly thought of Horace again. ‘Why did I like Horace?’
Isabel shrugged. ‘He was pleased with life. He liked to write about farms and beekeeping and drinking wine with friends. He was that sort of poet.’
The Geometry of Holding Hands by Alexander McCall Smith (Chapter 1, Kindle)
The person delivering the dialogue could be interrupted by another character. This happens in real-life conversations when people are rude and think it’s acceptable to talk over others, or perhaps they aren’t really listening to what is being said. Or maybe an emergency has arisen or something important has just occurred to them prompted by the conversation.
‘So to conclude, I believe that the attack was carried out by—’
‘Oh come along, do get on with it, DS Black. The attacker will be miles away by the time you get to the point,’ said DCI Barnaby.
Speech that trails off is normal. A character could lose their train of thought while speaking. They might even become unwell. Or perhaps they remember something important. There could well be an interjection from another character before the speaker continues.
‘So, the main thing I gleaned from my conversation with the Chief Inspector was that Smith is going to…’ He closed his eyes and clenched his fists.
Sarah touched his arm. ‘Are you OK, Jim?’
‘Sorry, I went a bit dizzy.’ Now, where was I?’
Reducing adverbs in dialogue
Effective dialogue shows characters’ emotions and reactions, rather than using adverbs, which tell the reader. Action beats could also be added in, which may allow for the speech tag to be removed completely.
‘Actually, I would like another piece of cake,’ said Clare angrily.
Clare brandished the cake knife and scowled. ‘Actually, I know my own mind and I don’t need you to tell me that I have had enough cake. I am going to have another piece whether you like it or not.’
In the first example, we know Clare wants another piece of cake and the adverb after said tells us she has said this in an angry way.
In the second example, Clare is waving a cake knife around, and her reaction to the suggestion that she has had enough cake makes it obvious to the reader that she is angry. The speech tag is not required as the action beat before the dialogue tells us she is speaking. We can imagine the scene much more clearly from being shown Clare’s reaction, rather than being told she is angry.
Adverbs are also often used with dialogue tags that in fact have the same meaning.
‘What do you think you are doing?’ she yelled loudly.
As yelling is loud, the loudly is not needed.
‘What do you think you are doing?’ she yelled.
Removing the adverb doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence.
You can read more about using adverbs in fiction here.
- Good dialogue should push the story forward. Make every conversation count and don’t include speech that has no relevance.
- Keep dialogue realistic but don’t include every err and hmm.
- Break up dialogue with action beats, interruptions, trailing off and descriptions of surroundings..
- Well-written dialogue combined with using action beats may reduce the need for adverbs and speech tags
The second part of this post on writing good dialogue can be found here.
Everything but the Truth, Gillian McAllister, Penguin, 2017
The Daughter, Michelle Frances, Pan, 2019
The Geometry of Holding Hands, Alexander McCall Smith, Little, Brown Book Group, 2020