by Debbie Lee Wesselmann

Dialogue is one of the most difficult elements of fiction writing. On the surface, it appears easy to execute – we all speak, don’t we? – but real life speech is not nearly as compelling and as pointed as fictional dialogue.

When you write dialogue, be mindful of both pace and natural progression.

If you are relatively new to writing, read your dialogue aloud to get a better grasp of how you write.  Never force your dialogue in a certain direction. Also, don’t allow it go on and on with meaningless exchanges. 

Dialogue must be an intergral part of your characters.

Dialogue should distinguish your fictional characters as much as their actions do.  The way they talk should reflect ttheir personalities.  For example, an impatient person might speak in fragments, and a chatty one in run-on sentences.  A scientist might use a technical vocabulary while a night club owner might spout cutting-edge idioms.  Avoid stereotypical and cliché talk unless this is your point. 

Avoid mundane exchanges.

A writer need not include everything characters might say to one another.  As a general rule, avoid empty pleasantries such as “How are you?” and “I’m fine.  And you?”  While people enter into conversations in real life this way, your job is not to document reality but to create a compelling illusion of reality.  To do this, your dialogue must get immediately to the point and do its job in as few words as possible.  As you read established authors, note how they frame their dialogue with summary, how the dialogue is compacted, and how each exchange advances the plot, characterizations, and theme. 

Dialogue does not always need to be linear in its progression.

If you listen to how people talk, you’ll see we often digress, or avoid answering a question directly, or are temporarily distracted.  As a writer, you cannot let your dialogue meander in this way, but you may allow information and tension to arise out of conversational lapses.  Of course, your readers must understand the logic behind such elliptical dialogue, either by your inserting the distraction itself into the text, or by preparing the reader through previous characterization and plot events.  This sounds easier than it is.  Study other writers to see how this can be accomplished. 

Frame your dialogue with narrative descriptions and character gestures.

At appropriate times, when you want to create a pause in the conversation or when you want to show a non-verbal reaction, describe what is happening.  Let your characters interact with the environment.  Although too much description will slow the flow of the conversation, too little can put the speakers in a literary vacuum. Find the balance. 

Start over if necessary.

If you discover you cannot get your characters to make the points you want them to, you may have to begin the exchange anew. Perhaps you began the dialogue on the wrong note, or had introduced emotions contrary to your aim, or have placed your characters at a location not conducive to the type of conversation they are having.

Dialogue is not real conversation.

As an exercise, record a conversation – with the participants’ knowledge, of course – and then type up a transcript, word for word.  You’ll find the result boring to read.  Now edit the transcript to a few pithy lines.  Most real-life conversation is filled with extraneous words and exchanges while good dialogue is not.  Dialogue only appears to reflect how people speak; it is the edited version of reality.


Language and Style