How to write dialogue in fiction: rules and examples

 

We remember famous dialogue and speech gives life to stories. It breaks up long pages of action and description. The Writers’ Workshop has sometimes received entire novels 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 examples in your manuscript. Getting speech right is an art form in itself.

Fortunately, there are a few dialogue rules to follow – and we are here to tell you what they are, with great dialogue examples from stories.

 

Dialogue rules and dialogue examples

Clarice StarlingOftener than not, great story moments hinge on character exchanges, hallmarked by a dialogue. But writing dialogue (even short dialogue) can 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 does so because of a few simple dialogue rules.

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. (Hollywood sporadically swaps grit for gloss with CGI, but grit is what counts. Grit is character, plot. Grit is story.)

So, just like scriptwriters’ dialogue, there should be no spare parts in novels. No waffle.

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 writing ‘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?

Writing dialogue (even brief speech) can show character dynamics, 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 writing 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.

 

Dialogue to show character dynamics

The Perks of Being a WallflowerGood dialogue writing, 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 writing must show dynamics.

Let’s take coming-of-age novel The Perks of being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky for another example of dialogue writing.

Protagonist Charlie, a high school freshman, learns his long-time crush, Sam, may like him back, after all. Their romantic dialogue 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 romantic 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.” ... 
... “I can’t feel that. 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 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 writing, 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.)

 

Dialogue to show emotion and drama

Pride and PrejudiceWriting dialogue can create great drama, without being melodramatic.

Think of this dialogue writing 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.

Their argument exposes Lady Catherine’s true officiousness, and a final proof of Lizzy’s refusal to be cowed by wealth:

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. ... 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, Lady Catherine becomes more grandiose and Lizzy’s 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 note on romantic dialogues

Jane EyreWriting (good) romantic dialogue is tough. So tough.

But, ideally, it should be giving breath and life to your characters without veering into clichés.

Think how you would feel around someone you liked a lot. Would you be reminding yourself how to breathe? Probably not, because we breathe naturally until we can’t. But you may do other things, and so may your characters.

Your characters may become more open, or perhaps the opposite, more reserved and shy. They may be challenged, uncertain of their footing. Their minds may be opening to new ideas and your dialogue may be exploring new ideas, new ground, for them in real-time, the dialogue acting as catalyst (as for Charlie and Sam in The Perks of being a Wallflower).

In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Jane and Rochester let down their guard in several fuelled evening talks. They’ve spoken before as governess-and-master, but something is different in this conversation (cut for this page):

... “You examine me, Miss Eyre,” said he: “do you think me handsome?”
... The answer somehow slipped from my tongue before I was aware. — “No, sir.”
“Ah! ... There is something singular about you. ... What do you mean by it?”
“Sir, I was too plain. ... I ought to have replied that it was not easy to give an impromptu answer.” ...
“You ought to have replied no such thing. …  Go on: what fault do you find with me, pray?” ...
“Mr. Rochester, allow me to disown my first answer: I intended no pointed repartee: it was only a blunder.”
“Just so: I think so. ... I flatter myself I am hard and tough as an India-rubber ball; pervious, though, through a chink or two still. ... Does that leave hope for me?”
“Hope of what, sir?”
“Of my final re-transformation from India-rubber back to flesh?”
“Decidedly he has had too much wine,” I thought. ...

Rochester is secretly teasing Jane (asking if she finds him handsome, hinting he is ‘pervious’, open to learning about her). And it is romantic dialogue because it is authentic (with an insight and rhythm to their rapport). Both give sharp answers, gradually becoming expansive.

Again, the dialogue is ‘turning’ a scene as Rochester gets to know Jane, and she (and we) can learn about him. And it is building things up, paving the way to more later.

So if you are a romance writer, get dialogue right by knowing characters before you go and anchoring things in what feels real, not hackneyed. And please do not riddle ‘love dialogues’ with clichés because, perversely, it gives your readers a little less ‘true’ love to read about and enjoy.

 

A few last dialogue rules

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

Or just take a peek at our own page on film dialogue here by screenwriter Pauline Kiernan.

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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