Writing Dialogue in Fiction

Knowing how to make characters speak in novels is an essential part of writing. Dialogue reveals character, creates tension and controls pace. Without compelling dialogue, the story falls flat, regardless of the narrative. So how does the writer make effective use of dialogue in novel writing?

When to Use Dialogue

Dialogue provides contrast within the novel by breaking up action and description. With careful thought in its placement and use, it will offer breathers, alter pace and keep the reader interested. The following pointers might help.

With the exception of unusual novels such as Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Canongate Books, 2003), which has very little dialogue, pages of description, action and the inner thoughts of the protagonists might benefit from the peppering of a little dialogue here and there.

Conversely, pages and pages of speech might benefit from a break provided by action description or the inner thoughts of the protagonists. Like a painting, the novel requires a certain amount of balance of the complimentary components to make it work.

How to Write Dialogue in a Novel

If one were to transcribe word-for-word, a real life conversation and to place it into the novel, it would often result in a dull read. It would contain reiterations, digressions, interruptions and lots of irrelevances.
The secret to writing good dialogue is to obtain the essence of authentic conversation and to inject it with conflict, pace and plot development. This is done by cutting out the deadwood of real life conversation to the bare bones and to build it up with these elements. This will help give an authentic feel to the dialogue, but one that is compelling for the reader. It might be a good idea to record (with consent) such a conversation and to edit it in this way.

When Dialogue Should Not be Used

Dialogue must serve a purpose without seeming to. If it does none of the following, it might be worth omitting:

  • Reveal character
  • Keep the story moving
  • Impart information without seeming to (see below)
Making Fictional Characters Speak

The following excerpt is an example of the ineffective use of dialogue.

"You don’t love her, do you?" Jess asked.
"No, but that’s none of your business." Jake replied, placing the tray on the floor.
"You should tell her how you feel instead of stringing her along."
"I told you, that’s none of your business."
"It is my business when I see how you treat everybody, me included, by keeping me here against my will."

In its efforts to impart what the protagonists are feeling and what is going on, the dialogue seems contrived and forced. With little subtext and no body language, the conflict it strives for deflates. Without the effective use of attributive verbs, the dialogue feels rather like table tennis with little action to break it. If the dialogue continues in this way, the reader will be left wondering who is speaking and not really caring.

The following example shows how less dialogue often says more. The dialogue has been pared down until every word becomes significant. Evasion, subtext and body language reveals a power struggle between the characters and creates an underlying tension.

‘Do you love her?’ Jess asked.
Jake lowered the breakfast tray to the floor. ‘Who?’
‘Kia,’ Jess replied. ‘She is your girlfriend, isn’t she? She propped her elbow against the pillow and cupped her cheek in her hand. ‘Don’t bother to reply. I already have your answer.’
Jake cleared away the leftovers as though Jess had not spoken.
‘When you said, "who?"’ Jess persisted, as though Jake had asked her to clarify.

Attributive Verbs in Speech

In order to avoid the overuse of the verb "said," some might strive to avoid it, but there is nothing wrong with using this word if no other will do. However, attributive verbs can be avoided altogether if a break of action makes it obvious who is speaking. The thesaurus is invaluable when seeking alternative words for imparting words: expounded, questioned, uttered, moaned, slurred, crowed etc. But try to avoid overly obscure attributive words for the sake of it, as this might interfere with the appreciation of the discourse itself.

My blog book Nora uses others ways of attributing who is speaking by tagging action with speech, as can be seen on this scene where the heroine tries to get out of a raucous night out with her drunken friends as can be seen on the link above.


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© Rachel Shirley 2010