Writing advice: dialogue. For the birds.

Writing advice: dialogue. For the birds.

Of all elements of storytelling, dialogue should be the one of greatest facility as humans talk all the time, too much really, but it is not easy. In fact, it is one of the most difficult elements to master if not uniquely talented.


Face to face conversations do not simply depend on words. Body language plays an important role in conveying ideas and sentiment. It happens simultaneously and is picked up by many subconsciously. Writing body language to accompany dialogue is not easy and tends to disrupt the flow of information and break attention. The second reason dialogue can be difficult is trying to write how humans speak in verisimilitude. This includes inflection, idiom, wandering off topic, etc…

Do now fret, there are simple solutions. Easy to learn too.

1)  Dialogue should reflect how humans converse in that people don’t tell the whole truth. I had a hard time not just blabbing out the whole, honest truth between interlocuters at first. We all hide and limit what we say for progressive or defensive purposes. Characters have agency and motives in the mimetic realm of fiction; therefore, each conversation should parallel the internal wants and needs of the interlocuter.  That means defensive lying is fine and encouraged if it is important to the story. Also, if it is an intimate scene of revelation where the whole truth is warranted, then do so.  

For the most part though, we never tell the whole truth when we speak and we tend to use “go to” phrases as a means to transition from one topic to another with the utmost efficient deflection.  The most prominent lie that most humans tell is a response to the question “How are you?” And what is that? “Fine.”  This is done because we know most people don’t really want to know how we are actually doing and we don’t want to tell them. It is a pleasantry and an acknowledgement but it allows for a continued interaction that grows organically instead of blurting out statement that reveals truth and frontloads in such as a way bring the conversation to a screeching halt. Then, there is no way to further delivery of information in discrete units.  

See. Not so hard.    

2) Each character should have their own unique way of speaking or turning a phrase though it should vary depending on circumstance and context. Sure you can give them catchphrases or speak in grandiloquent manner but that’s dull and no one adheres to strict rules locution all the time. No character who has a gun to their head is going to rattle off Proust quotes or use complex vocabulary. Unless they are a supervillain, but then all bets are off because they are insane.

You can give them a lisp or stutter and try to manifest through phonetic means, but don’t unless it is absolutely a defining element of the character and even then it can backfire. For example, I created a character who never used contractions. Not once did he utter can’t or won’t until the very end after he went through a profound existential change. Why? The character was insecure. He gave himself more time to reply to question and slowed down interactions. After he became more confident, he uttered contractions at the end. An editor who reviewed the manuscript told me the dialogue was stilted and unnatural for the character. My reply was ‘That’s the point’ and it was based on a real person who spoke that way. The editor did not care about that. Only that readers would dislike the character because of the way he spoke. That book was not published by that house. This does not mean you cannot give a character a very stylized manner of discourse. Words reflect the internal condition of the interlocuter and the condition they inhabit at the time.

What can you do otherwise?

3)  Each person/character has a limited vocabulary and uses certain words all the time. Be consistent with the usage. Some people/characters speak in short sentences. Basically, vary the way all the characters speak. If all the characters speak the same way, with the same interests, then you have written nothing but the way you probably speak or think. Serve the story and not your ego. A reader should be able to have a very good guess to which character spoke a line if isolated from the context of the narrative.                

4)  Simple. Simple. Simple. No exposition. No explaining the world around them and current situation. That should be done with setting, plot, and the causal incidents/conflicts depicted by the narrative. For example, no character when in the heat of battle should say “The enemy hates us for our freedoms and has taken up arms. They fire with the intent to kill us and rule our land.” That sort of stuff should be redundant at that point and the dialogue should reveal the plot unfolding or the character. This can be done in very specific situations. I refer to what screenwriters call “The pope in the pool” type of exposition of dialogue.    

To reiterate, dialogue should reveal the character or the plot or both as Vonnegut said.

5)  People don’t have the attention span for reading long monologues. Keep away. Distribute information in units that will be absorbed or run the risk of readers glazing over. 

There is obviously more to constructing dialogue but I will leave you with a simple observation from reading too many psychology texts.

6) People who are confident and in a dominant position almost never use “I” in conversation to underlings. Those in an insecure status or lower position, use “I” frequently to reinforce to the dominant interlocuter that they indeed have accomplished acts and have potency by using this constant self-referral.  

And also always remember, first drafts are crap. You have future drafts to refine execution. 

Happy writing.


Joshua Lee Andrew Jones of Wayward Raven Media

Imbalance comes. Balance is restored.