Dialogue writing in fiction (with examples)


Speech gives life to stories. It breaks up long pages of action and description. The Writers’ Workshop has sometimes received entire manuscripts with virtually no dialogue (and unsurprisingly, such scripts are a long way from being marketable).

But it is not enough to include plenty of dialogue. Getting speech right is an art form in itself.

Fortunately, there are rules to follow – and we are here to tell you what they are.


Dialogue to propel your plot

Clarice StarlingOftener than not, great story moments hinge on character exchanges, hallmarked by a dialogue. But dialogue can also help drive a plot and show more about your characters and what’s happening than longer descriptions can. 

Think of Jane Austen’s characters and the drawing room repartees that drive her plots along.

Or Hannibal Lecter’s exchanges with Clarice Starling from a prison cell; he taunts her as she needles him for insights into serial killer psychology.

All this talk grips us. And it is all driven by careful writing. US screenwriting author and lecturer Robert McKee has written on dialogue:

Dialogue is not [real-life] conversation. ... Dialogue [in writing] ... must have direction. Each exchange of dialogue must turn the beats of the scene ... yet it must sound like talk.

Writers of both novels and scripts can learn from this. Good stories depend on dialogue; scripts for plays or films are generally as strong as the characters talking in them. (And yes, Hollywood sporadically swaps grit for gloss with CGI, but grit is what counts. Grit is character, plot. Grit is story.)

But novelists should remember, just like scriptwriters’ dialogue, there should be no spare parts.

Take this, for instance, from Ian Rankin’s crime novel, A Question of Blood. The detective, John Rebus, is phoned up at night by his colleague:

... Your friend, the one you were visiting that night you bumped into me …” She was on her mobile, sounded like she was outdoors.
Andy?” he said. ‘Andy Callis?
Can you describe him?
Rebus froze. “What’s happened?”
“Look, it might not be him …
Where are you?
Describe him for me … that way you’re not headed all the way out here for nothing.

This quick, simple example of dialogue ‘turns’ the scene and works in setting us on edge, ready for danger and suspense to come; the words turn the beats of the scene and propel things on.

So is your dialogue also moving a plot forward?

Is it supplying information on story or character dynamics, or ‘turning’ a scene event?

Even in the subtlest sense, dialogue can reveal much, like this from another famous thriller, Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs:

... “The significance of the chrysalis is change. Worm into butterfly, or moth. Billy thinks he wants to change. ... You’re very close, Clarice, to the way you’re going to catch him, do you realize that?”
“No, Dr Lecter.”
“Good. Then you won’t mind telling me what happened to you after your father’s death.”
Starling looked at the scarred top of the school desk.
“I don’t imagine the answer’s in your papers, Clarice.”

As antagonist Hannibal and protagonist Clarice speculate on killer Buffalo Bill, we see Hannibal establish control. She calls him Dr Lecter, he calls her Clarice. And Clarice can’t push him, as he pushes her. We’re given her hesitancy, Hannibal’s wry prompting. (In this sense, dialogue can show a lot you don’t need to waste time telling readers.)

So there’s much we see in just a few lines. Hannibal holds power, despite being behind bars. And because he is still withholding information, the dialogue in itself builds suspense.

Going back to Robert McKee’s words, ‘dialogue must turn the beats of the scene’ and the beats stand for action and reaction, dynamics between characters.


Character and dynamics in dialogue

The Perks of Being a WallflowerGood dialogue, then, should reveal character dynamics. 

It mustn’t be wooden, so whilst you want your dialogue to ‘turn’ a scene and move plot, you can’t afford to make speech too much like a game of table-tennis. Nor can you let dialogue descend into waffle or spiral off.

Dialogue must show dynamics.

Let’s take coming-of-age novel The Perks of being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. Protagonist Charlie, a high school freshman, learns his long-time crush, Sam, may like him back, after all. This speech would be far too obvious, if that pivotal talk were written like this:

Sam: What did you think after Craig and I broke up?
Charlie: I like you. But I want you to be happy.
Sam: I need more than that. You have to do things.
Charlie: Like what?
Sam: Ask me on a date. Ask me to dance.

These words are functional but the rhythms are stilted, dull. This is how the dialogue is written between Charlie and Sam in the book:

“Okay, Charlie ... I’ll make this easy. When that whole thing with Craig was over, what did you think?” 
... “Well, I thought a lot of things. But mostly, I thought your being sad was much more important to me than Craig not being your boyfriend anymore. And if it meant that I would never get to think of you that way, as long as you were happy, it was okay.” ... 
... “It’s sweet and everything, but it’s like you’re not even there sometimes. It’s great that you can listen and be a shoulder to someone, but what about when someone doesn’t need a shoulder? What if they need the arms or something like that? You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can’t. You have to do things.”
“Like what?” ...
“I don
’t know. Like take their hands when the slow song comes up for a change. Or be the one who asks someone for a date.”

These words reflect the mood of the scene because they are tentative, exploratory, and do the job of ‘turning’ a scene; both characters are receiving new information that drives the plot forward. But we also see their dynamic. We feel connected to them because of it.

We see Charlie’s reactive nature, checking with Sam what she wants him to do. Sam is gentle, throws out ideas, but it’s clear she wants him to be doing this thinking, not her, subverting Charlie’s idea of passive selflessness as love.

Any dialogue, as well as moving a story along, needs to reflect the deeper dynamics of characters authentically, conveying emotion and drama to connect with readers. (And that comes from knowing your characters.)


Character and drama in dialogue

Pride and PrejudiceGood dialogue can drive tension and emotion to create drama. (And without being melodramatic).

Think of the showdown between Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Darcy’s aunt) towards the end of Pride and Prejudice.

Lady Catherine tries to bully Lizzy into a promise she will never marry Darcy, bombarding her with reasoning Lizzy dismisses as snobbery. Jane Austen writes this scene almost only in dialogue, but it is a fuelled dialogue. This speech exposes Lady Catherine’s true officiousness, and a final proof of Lizzy’s refusal to be cowed by wealth and superciliousness.

Read their climatic showdown, the last obstacle to Lizzy’s marrying Darcy:

This is not to be bourne. Miss Bennet, I insist on being satisfied. Has he, has my nephew, made you an offer of marriage?”
“Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible.”
“It ought to be so. ... I am almost the nearest relation he has in the world, and am entitled to know all his dearest concerns.”
“But you are not entitled to know mine; nor will such behaviour as this, ever induce me to be explicit.”
“Let me be rightly understood. This match, to which you have the presumption to aspire, can never take place. No, never. Mr. Darcy is engaged to my daughter. Now what have you to say?

“Only this; that if he is so, you can have no reason to suppose he will make an offer to me.
“... I have not been used to submit to any person
’s whims. I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment.
“That will make your ladyship
’s situation at present more pitiable; but it will have no effect on me.

As Lizzy goads her, Lady Catherine becomes more grandiose in her arguments. Lizzy grows waspish as her flippancy gives way to anger. Tensions rise; very different values are exposed as they do battle. There is a deeper principle to be gained, whoever triumphs.

And we’re right there with them, because emotions are running high and the dialogue is creating drama. This is how dialogue can be one of the most gripping tools in your writing arsenal.


A few last tips

Mr DarcyIf you struggle writing dialogue, read plays or screenplays for inspiration. Read Tennessee Williams or Henrik Ibsen. The exchanges of characters like Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski, or Nora and Torvald Helmer.

See what’s possible with dialogue, when dialogue is all you have to write.

Well-written dialogue can rivet, but if anything’s surplus or showy, you’ll at once bore readers. It isn’t enough to record a conversation you heard once in a coffee shop queue, because (say) you’re desperate to write something metafictional, consciously reflective of real life. It might be literary and clever, but do you want to move your readers (and keep them) or preach to them (and lose them)?

If you would rather keep your readers, master dialogue and how it helps your story arc. And if your dialogue isn’t functional, it should go (or be rewritten), but let’s explore some final tips.

Some tricks of the trade are:

  • Keep speeches short. If a speech runs for more than 3 sentences or so, it (usually) risks being too long.
  • Ensure that characters speak in their own voice. And make sure that characters don’t all sound the same as each other.
  • Spice it up. Add a little slang and banter. A bit of swearing (not too much). If you must curse, do so for impact, because a string of those words actually does less to engage readers.
  • Get in late and out early. Don’t bother with all the Hellos, HowAreYous and other small talk. Work out the point of each interaction; begin with that as late as possible and leave it as soon as your point is made.
  • Interruption is good. So too are characters pursuing their own thought processes and not quite engaging with the other.

The trick to achieving dialogue that feels right is to write speech that seems life-like, while being anything but. You can always sharpen your know-how by taking one of our courses, or get honest and constructive feedback on your work so far.

We can help, either way. Just get in touch.


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