Dialog is one of the most difficult aspects of writing to master. There are many pitfalls you must try to avoid, such as:
Dialog that does not sound like natural speech.
- Dialog that does not further the scene and does not deepen your
understanding of the characters.
- Dialog that has the character explain the plot or repeat information
for the benefit of the audience.
- When one character uses another character’s name to establish identity.
People almost never say other people’s names back to them, and if they do it
is a character trait typical of a used car salesman.
Overuse of modifiers
- Too many dialog modifiers such as shouted, exclaimed,
cried, whispered, stammered, opined, insinuated,
hedged, and a million others. Modifiers such as this can sometimes be
useful, but are often annoying and used as a crutch for poorly designed
Here are a few exercises to help you master dialog as a tool for writing:
- Write down the things you say over the course of the day. Examine your own speech patterns. You don’t have to get every word, but you may find that you say less than you think and that your statements are surprisingly short. You might also find that you rarely speak in complete sentences.
- Find a crowded place such as a restaurant, a bar, or a shopping mall, and write down snippets of the conversations you hear. Avoid trying to record whole conversations, just follow along for a brief exchange and then listen for your next target. If you are worried about looking suspicious, you might want to purchase a Palm Pilot, Handspring Visor or other hand-held PDA device. These handy spy tools make it look like you are conducting business or playing with your favorite electronic toy rather than eavesdropping.
- Test responses to the same question. Think of a question that will require at least a little thought, and ask it of several different people. Compare their responses. Remember that you are focused on their words. Write them down as soon as you can.
- Record several different TV shows. Some choices include sitcom, news, drama, talk show, infomercial, sporting event, etc.). Write down a transcript using just the dialog and people’s names. If you don’t know the names, just use a description such as an announcer or a redheaded woman. You can also transcribe two shows of the same genre, using one show you like and one you dislike. Compare dialog between the fiction and non-fiction programming you recorded. Look for such things as greetings, descriptions of physical actions, complete sentences, slang, verbal ticks (Such as like, you know, uh, well, etc.). Compare how these dialog crutches change according to the show format and quality.
- Rewrite one or more of the shows in exercise 4 as prose, trying to recreate the show as accurately as possible. Note how easy or difficult it is to work in the entire dialog from the show. Does it seem to flow naturally and read well or does it get in your way? Rewrite again eliminating any dialog you feel is unnecessary. Try not to change any dialoge though until your final draft. Work with what you have. Remember that you don’t necessarily have to rewrite the whole show. Do enough to be sure you have the feeling for it.
- Rewrite one of the transcripts from exercise 4 using as much of the dialog as possible, but changing the scene in as many ways as possible. Change the setting, change the people’s intent, and change the tone. See how easy or difficult it is to give the same words a different intent. Again, do enough to be sure you have the feeling for it.
- Write the dialog for a scene without using any modifiers. Just write down a conversation as it goes along naturally. After you have completed the dialog, add a narrative description, but not dialog tags such as said, shouted, or ordered. Instead, try to work the dialog into the action as a logical progression of the statements. Finally, add any dialog tags that are absolutely necessary, and keep them simple such as said, told, or asked. Again, only put them in if you can find no other options. Compare this to the previous dialog you have written and see what you like or dislike about the changes.
- Write a scene in which one person tells another person a story. Make sure that you write it as a dialog and not just a first-person narrative, but clearly have one person telling the story and the other person listening and asking questions or making comments. The purpose of this scene will be both to have the story stand alone as a subject and to have the characters’ reactions to the story be the focal point of the scene.
- Write a scene in which one person is listening to two other people have an argument or discussion. For example, a child listens to her parents argue about money. Have the third character narrate the argument and explain what is going on, but have the other two provide the entire dialog. It is not necessary to have the narrator understand the argument completely. Miscommunication is a major aspect of dialog.
- Write a conversation between two liars. Give everything they say a double or triple meaning. Never state or indicate through outside description that these two people are lying. Let the reader figure it out strictly from the dialog. Try not to be obvious, such as having one person accuse the other of lying. That is too easy.
- Write a conversation in which no character speaks more than three words per line of dialog. Again, avoid crutches such as explaining everything they say through narration. Use your narration to enhance the scene, not explain the dialog.
- Write a narrative or scripted scene in which several characters are taking an active role in the conversation. This can be a difficult aspect of dialog to master because, with each additional character, the reader or audience must be able to keep track of the motivations and interests of the individuals involved. This can be especially difficult in prose, where the time between one character speaking and the next can be interrupted by action or description. See how many characters you can sustain within the scene and still have it make sense and be engaging.