Dialogue guide part 3: Getting technical
We've covered most parts of writing dialogue, but there are still some parts left, the somewhat more technical parts. They're not as boring as they sound and some parts are more style and technique related instead of what you should or shouldn't do, bu either way it's something you'll want to take into consideration before writing dialogue.
After that all there's left is the exercise page. I've thought of some fun little exercises which could help you put the information in this guide to use and they might help you improve your writing too. They're also just a fun way to spend time writing if you have nothing else to do or only a short amount of time available.
Purpose of dialogue
I've mentioned this before but I'll mention it again. Dialogue has to have a purpose. If a line of dialogue or a conversation doesn't add to story, advance the plot and/or reveals information it doesn't belong in the story. Ideally you'd want dialogue to both advance the plot and reveal information, but this isn't always possible. At least, it isn't always possible to reveal information that is new to the reader.
If your dialogue only does one thing, but not the other, rewrite it in a way so it does. Add character motivation, show a character's personality or add drama, there are plenty of ways to make a line of dialogue more interesting. Here are a few more tips which will help you strengthen your dialogue:
- Will the story still make sense without this line? If so, either remove it or rewrite it.
- Does it give new insights into the character? Does it show what a character wants? If a line reveals new information about a character it's likely a good one or you're at least well on your way to a good one.
- Does it change the situation? If a line adds suspense, tests the character's resolve or otherwise makes the reader wonder what happens next you're likely onto a good one.
- Does it add new information? Information on the history of the fictional world, information on the history of a character, any history at all. Whether it's a 1 day old rumor the character just learned or the 100 year old history of the origins of a kingdom, as long as the information you provide helps the reader further understand the story and the universe it's set in you're likely writing a good line.
- Does the line lack all of the above? Don't worry just yet. A story could use a few moments of chit chat here and there. While the conversation itself might not be the most interesting, providing it in the right context can have a just as strong of an effect. Two people who have fallen in love might by too shy or uncomfortable to talk about any real subject. Soldiers who face a dire battle the next day might be too afraid to talk about anything else other than the weather and other small talk.
I just mentioned history when I talked about providing information. Providing history and other information which isn't part of the story, but which is important to the story, is called exposition. Do note that not all history is exposition, some history can be crucial to the story.
Dialogue is a great way to provide exposition as it often provides both exposition and new insights to characters, whether it's their part in that exposition piece or something as seemingly simple as the relationship between the two characters.
However, exposition can often be dull. It takes the reader out of the main story and it slows down the pace of it, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. The best way to handle exposition is to provide it in small bits and pieces, it makes it easier to digest and it keeps the main story going.
Having said that, there's one major pitfall when giving exposition through dialogue, which is that you run the risk of making characters state something the other character already knows. It seems like an obvious thing to avoid, but many new writers fail to do so.
Making a character state the obvious to another character will make your dialogue look clumsy and unnatural. Like the following example:
"Please hurry sir, if you cannot stop the evil villain with your superpowers, he will be able to rule the world!"
Thank you captain obvious. I'm sure the hero hadn't realized this yet. You've done such a great job I'm promoting you to major. Major disappointment. (I'm not even sorry for this joke, haha.)
Watson or intermediate exposition
Intermediate exposition is a way of providing exposition by having one character explain important facts and details to another. In the case of the Sherlock Holmes stories that character was Watson.
Intermediate exposition can be a great way to provide exposition, but it can also be tricky to get right. If too much is explained to a character he will seem stupid or ignorant. It's why it did work perfectly in Sherlock Holmes. Watson isn't an idiot, far from it, he's a physician, but Sherlock Holmes is such a logical thinker with an incredible ability of solving cases that even the reader wouldn't know how Sherlock came to a conclusion if it wasn't explained, which is where Watson comes in.
Obviously your story doesn't need to have a Sherlock in order for you to use intermediate exposition. It's perfectly fine to have a character who needs some more explanation on what is happening or what the plan is. Just make sure the whole interaction doesn't come across clumsy or as a poor attempt to explain things. Other forms of exposition are available, use them if needed.
I might seem like a captain obvious myself for stating this, but dialogue (and the writing in general) should be audience appropriate. It is an obvious thing to pay attention to, but it's also an easy thing to forget while writing.
You might have a perfect story planned with underlying messages and social commentaries, but if the story is aimed at or tailed for an audience who won't understand or even pick up on these messages, you're doing it wrong.
He said, she said, they said.
Stating how somebody says something is often not needed. A simple 'he said' will usually do and it will often be the best choice. Yes, there are plenty of other dialogue tags, like 'he yelled', 'muttered', 'she said angrily' and so on. But the dialogue itself will (or should) in most cases already show the reader how something is said.
You should only use a different dialogue tag when the tone of voice isn't obvious to the character.
Always using 'said' may seem weird at first if you're not used to it, it might seem like you're repeating it too often. But the reader usually doesn't pay a lot of attention to this dialogue tag, in a way it can be seen like just another form of punctuation, like a comma or period.
On the other hand, don't use said in every line of dialogue or it will seem repetitive to the reader. When a character says something and another replies, the second sentence won't need a dialogue tag, it's both implied and obvious there.
Beginning and end
As mentioned in part 1 of this guide, real life conversations are generally boring to listen to. One way of dealing with that is to simply state the conversation happened, but sometimes conversations will contain both interesting and dull parts.
The dull parts tend to be at the start and at the end of a conversation, parts like 'Hello, how are you?', 'Okay, talk to you later." and other similar parts which don't add to a story. But they can be anywhere within a conversation.
These parts can often be left out. Doing so will leave you with the interesting part, the informative part. Once the important parts have been said, move on to the next scene or chapter. There's no need to keep the conversation going until the last bye has been said.
At the same time you don't have to start every conversation with a hello, start the scene later in the conversation, as long as you don't start it too late the reader will understand what's going on.
Ah, one of the more annoying topics. Like everything else, dialogue needs punctuation. Fortunately you only need to remember a few things when dealing with dialogue, which are as follows:
- Whenever a different character speaks, start it on a new line.
- Use quotation marks around what is said. Using double or single quotation marks tend to different depending on where you live. But whichever you choose, stick to it.
- Punctuation part of the dialogue has to be within the quotation marks. It's "I love it!", not "I love it"!.
- Punctuation not part of the dialogue has to be outside the quotation marks. - When you use a dialogue tag, end the dialogue line with a comma, as follows: "I love it!", she said.
- When a dialogue tag comes before the dialogue, use a comma and a space, as follows: He said, "I love it!".
Break the rules
The final tip I leave you with is to break the rules once in a while. Not only does breaking the rules help you understand what works and what doesn't, it also prevents dialogue from being (almost) too perfect. Reading dialogue from characters who always speak in the best way, have the best remarks and who always have something interesting to say can be almost as boring as listening to two stranger on the bus who talk about nothing in particular.
Write what you think makes for great dialogue. Put it aside for a while and then come back to it. Does everything still sound great? Does it sound natural or does it sound fabricated? If you're unhappy with it, rewrite it until you are happy.