3

Let’s get this out of the way. Dialogue, much like characterisation, has never been my strongest suit as a writer. I’m brilliant at writing prose. Action setpieces are a joy for me to write. And everyone I’ve shared my work with has nothing but positive things to say about my worldbuilding talents.

But making strong characters or passable dialogue isn’t up my street.

The dialogue I produce is so nonsensical, so melodramatic, and so stilted it would even make the likes of George Lucas, Skip Woods, and Ehren Kruger burst into maniacal laughter if they were to ever read it. For me, the dialogue writing process is filled with so many obstacles that it becomes intimidating. Often I’m afraid that characters in a scene sound alike, what they say will fly right over the reader’s heads, won’t make sense or gets delivered with the subtlety of a punch to the face.

Every piece of advice about writing dialogue I’ve found has only further hindered me in my journey. Listening to strangers talk to each other doesn’t do it for me, as small talk makes me uncomfortable while making me wonder what is going through another person’s mind. Reading dialogue aloud doesn’t help as I tend to express myself in an overly formal way with speech or writing. Studying dialogue from other fictional works hasn’t done any good, as I wouldn’t know what good dialogue was if it slapped me across the face.

Not helping matters is that I also happen to be a socially awkward introvert with a slack grasp of the Theory of Mind. And before anyone shrieks at me, “ReAd mOrE BoOkSSS!” I find it harder and harder to do that with each passing day. Reading novels only makes me bitterer, angrier and more resentful towards those more talented than me.

Is there any possible way for me to solve this problem?

4
  • 5
    So don't write dialogue. There's no rule that works of fiction have to have dialogue. And I expect that a quick look along the library shelves will find plenty of works with no, or very little, dialogue. Aug 17, 2022 at 12:44
  • Of the authors you admire, which three or four seem to handle dialogue best? Aug 17, 2022 at 22:35
  • It's hard to give you any advise without knowing what's actually wrong about your dialog. And considering that you yourself claim that you "wouldn’t know what good dialogue was if it slapped you across the face", your own judgment of what's wrong with it might not be so reliable either. Can you perhaps provide an example?
    – Philipp
    Aug 18, 2022 at 7:20
  • 1
    @HighPerformanceMark I once read a novel where all the dialog was in indirect speech. It took me about half the book to even realize that.
    – Philipp
    Aug 18, 2022 at 7:25

7 Answers 7

9

Dialog is for Charisma Skill Checks

Do dialog if a D&D DM would call for a Charisma skill check.

  • Fred wants to convince Barney to join the bank job (Roll Persuasion)
  • Wilma wants to convince Betty that the bank job is a sure thing (Roll Deception)

This ensures you have a clear dialog related goal for the scene.

Break the Skill Check up

Often it takes multiple skill checks to succeed at something - Fred needs to come up with three strong arguments why the bank job is a good idea to convince Barney. But Barney is only going to listen to listen to four arguments total, so Fred only gets one mistake.

Use Non-Verbal Communication

People don't normally tell you their emotional state. You determine it from watching them and reading between the lines. So don't have Barney say: "That's not persuasive, and now I'm angry" -- Instead, do something like:

Fred watched a frown form on Barney's face, and a flush of anger colored his cheeks. "Now wait just a minute," Barney began. Fred could see he'd hurt the other man's pride.

This description of Barney's expression, and Fred's assessment of what it means, are absolutely vital to good dialog. It shows that Fred knows he's failed this skill check, and he has to take actions to correct it. If he doesn't calm Barney down, Barney will leave and he will have failed at convincing him to join in the bank job!

Put it all Together

Now you've set up a good dialog scene:

  1. Fred makes an argument (Without the money, you're going to lose your house!).
  2. Fred watches to see how Barney reacts. (if he's angry, Fred screwed up. if he's thoughtful, Fred scored a point)
  3. Fred uses the information he gathered watching Barney's reaction to pick his next argument
  4. Repeat until the scene is resolved
  5. In the end, Fred succeeds or fails in convincing Barney

When I set dialog scenes up like this, I often find that most of the "dialog" is outside of the quotes. Most of the writing is describing character's posture, tone, and facial expression, and describing how the POV character is interpreting all of those things. The actual spoken words are more rare.

0
1

Don't worry. Everyone struggles with writing dialogue. Don't get yourself down by constantly comparing yourself to others or you'll only become endlessly dissatisfied with yourself and your writing.

Dialogue is all about having a conversation.

First, think about the situation the character is in.

Then, think about what you would say if you were in that situation.

Let's say your characters are approaching a mountain. How would you react when you finally got there? Would you feel relieved and collapse on the ground? Would you be amazed by the beauty of nature? Would you complain that the trip was too long and you want it to end? Think about how you'd react to the fictional situation if you were there.

Then, think about what the character would say in that situation.

Unless the character roughly has your personality, they probably have a different set of opinions and ideas than you. What do they like? What do they hate? What are their goals in life?

Once you know what the character's interests are, you get a better feeling of how they would react in certain situations. If they hate being outdoors, they'd probably complain about being outdoors. If they love going on hikes, they might stand there in silent awe. If they're not interested in nature at all and are more interested in aliens or something, they'd ignore the mountain entirely and talk about aliens and UFOs for the rest of the trip.

Also, if you're good at writing prose, you can interweave that into your dialogue. If your prose is very flowy and very lyrical, then maybe that's how the characters should sound as well. If your prose is very logical and includes a lot of high-level vocabulary, then maybe the characters could speak like that too. All you need is an in-universe explanation for why.

A sci-fi setting would lend itself well to technical dialogue whereas fantasy would lend itself to that floating or lyrical style, but it's up to you either way.

1

Dialogue is one of the trickiest aspects of writing because it allows characters to express themselves to each other both directly and indirectly; much like in real life. Many writers use dialogue as a crutch to tell the reader who their characters are, rather than showing. If you're strong at writing prose, showing is your forte. So, your dialogue will become stronger with a bit of practice.

But making strong characters or passable dialogue isn’t up my street.

I suspect that this is your greatest challenge. These are two separate problems to me. A strong character does not need to speak. They need to be well-rounded and believable. Passable dialogue is how the character expresses their emotions to others, and that becomes easier if you understand their identity.

I recommend writing character sheets for the main characters in your story. Think of it like a character outline. It can include details about the character's appearance, their past background and a few keywords to describe their personality.

Once you have a strong understanding of who your characters are, you can tackle their self-expression.

Listening to strangers talk to each other doesn’t do it for me, as small talk makes me uncomfortable while making me wonder what is going through another person’s mind.

As cliché as this sounds, that makes this the perfect case study for you. Similar to how you are unsure of what's going through another person's mind, so are your characters. Tap into what about small talk makes you feel uncomfortable. Is it because you don't how to continue the conversation? Is it because you don't know the appropriate response to a question? Is it because you don't like talking to strangers? All of these are great reference points to base your characters.

To put these two things together, the key is to understand what you want to achieve.

For example: Let's say your goal is to introduce an awkward, brainy character. To keep with the small talk example, they are stuck talking about the weather with a stranger.

If your character is trying to impress the stranger, they would feel pressure to keep the conversation going, but weather is a well-known dead-end. If your character is shy, they may panic. They could blurt out an oddly specific, random fact about the weather. Since you mention comedic timing, in this case, the more specific, the funnier it could be because it adds an element of "why do they know that?" If you want to add even more humor, you can describe the confusion on the other person's face as the main character continues to ramble.

In this interaction you have shown:

  1. They have a desire to be well-liked. (Wanting to keep the conversation going)
  2. The character doesn't handle pressure well. (Panicking)
  3. They have a plethora of knowledge perhaps outside the scope of other characters. (The random fact)
  4. They lack control (Rambling towards the end)

Studying dialogue from other fictional works hasn’t done any good, as I wouldn’t know what good dialogue was if it slapped me across the face.

This is a feeling most writers can relate to, but I would encourage you to view it differently. Reading for pleasure has helped so much as a writer. That's because I was naturally engaged and, therefore, inspired. By talking to people and reading works you enjoy, you'll be able to tap into the emotions that make characters feel real. You just need a bit more practice.

1

Watch plays, movies or TV shows, which are much more dialog dependent than Books. Quinton Tarrentino films are noted for their use of dialog, as are Joss Whedon shows and films (I highly recommend Firefly and Avengers as great examples of his work). Another film example is "Hot Fuzz" which derives a lot of it's humor from the use of dialog. Archer, is another show which has almost entirely dialog based humor. Several times an entire plot line will consist of only dialog based humor, and almost once a season, the transitions from the A-plot scenes to the B-plot scenes are done in such away that the first line in new scene would fit in naturally with the last line of the previous scene... despite being part of a different conversation on a different topic entirely. For kids shows, I recommend works created by Greg Weisman.

Unlike others on this page, I contest that dialog is "tell" as opposed to "show" as dialog is an action. What someone says... and more importantly how someone chooses to say it can inform an amazing detail of their characters in subtle ways that prose cannot.

Dialog is one of the chief ways to get ideas out to the audience as dialog can often convey dramatic changes or demonstrate a character's thoughts.

One trick to do with a dialog scene (or any part of the story) is to work your way backward from finish to start. When the conversation is over, what do you want the readers to take away. Why is it important. What is being said, and why does it need to be said for the story to work.

I should also be stressed that with dialog, unless it is important to be said in that particular way, is rarely grammatically perfect. People do not talk with grammatically perfect dialog. Never let perfect dialog be the enemy of good dialog. Get used to those squiggly red lines to show up when writing dialog drafts, because it's going to happen. Especially if you do phonetic spelling to show a character using an accent. People mispronounce things all the time. And lots of people use "Me and someone else" as a subject. Whatever rules you have about proper writing, lose them for the dialog. (If you do do a phonetic spelling for characters with accents, try to avoid making it read so thick that you can't understand what they're saying. It usually easier to listen to... say... a person with a Scottish Accent than read a Scottish Accent...).

I also recommend thinking of dialog from the point of view that you are writing a script (with stage descriptions) rather than a novel. In conversations, what will the audience see and hear? You may even want to block the scene out, especially if the dialog occurs in a fast moving scene (blocking being the stage turn for choreographing the movement and timing of the actors through a scene on the stage). In novel writing, it's often hard to forget the environment that you're in and that a critical component of dialog is body language and tone. Consider the following sample dialog:

"No. Stop. Don't," he said.

Which doesn't tell you much about the character's state of mind when he said the lines. Was he trying to warn someone who was about to do something dangerous to cease the actions? Or was he delivering the lines like Gene Wilder's titular character in "Will Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" where he already knows the person who he's warning is going to do the dangerous thing no matter what he says and is only going through the motions of telling the kid not too, even though by now he's lost all the emotional panic one should have in the scene. The use of punctuation (Exclamation points) and a description of the tone of voice and the body language will tell you as much as the dialog... and combined with each other tells you other things. Essentially Wonka has decided not to do anything beyond what he is obligated to do because if the fates of the previous children haven't taught this brat that maybe you shouldn't mess around with strange things in the factory, what's one more panicked voice going to do.

The point is, dialog does not occur in a vacuum, and that many writers will forget this if they are not working in a visual medium (i.e. Books and short stories).

Also don't be afraid of the word "said" and avoid other dialog tags in favor of describing the manner dialog was said with adverbs or additional adverbs modifying the character's speaking voice. If the character does something while they say something, but dialog paragraphs should either start with the quote, end with the quote, or start and end with the quote ("I wonder," Tom said to no one in particular, "If this would work.")

Again, act out your dialog in a space that can represent the environment. Step through the conversation with your goal and the other speaker's goal in mind. If you think you can give a fair voice to both characters, do it your self. If you can't ask a friend... set the scene, explain the pov they're acting out, the space, and ask them to respond accordingly. See what the friend thinks the appropriate response is... it could be more authentic... hell, it might be funnier than what you thought.

If the space isn't private but accessible to you, go there and work out the scene yourself... don't worry about what strangers will think and if they ask, well, you'd be surprised what people will let you get away with if you tell them "It's for a book."

2
  • "Also don't be afraid of the word "said" and avoid other dialog tags in favor of describing the manner dialog was said with adverbs or additional adverbs modifying the character's speaking voice. " Are you suggesting that we should avoid other speech verbs, such as "mumble", "scream", "admit", "confess", "growl", etc? Why?
    – Stef
    Aug 18, 2022 at 15:19
  • Yes, Stef, don't use them. Context should be sufficient to show how something is being communicated. (Very occasionally it isn't and that's fair enough.) Use description of character behaviour if you need to - it's another expression of "show don't tell". Even "said" can be left out and only inserted when it becomes unclear who is doing the talking - though action tags are always better. Aug 19, 2022 at 9:10
1

First Person:

This is a little out-of-the-box, but have you tried to write in first person? You can write exactly what is said, if you want, OR your POV character can TELL people what happened, and the guts of the dialog, without actually covering the blow-by-blow.

How many people tell others EXACTLY the words used when they are telling a story verbally? Maybe they use an occasional direct quote, but not often. Try to replicate this style of storytelling, and see if it works for you.

You can even have the character describe the conversation melodramatically. Then, if it sounds off, they can "admit" they were paraphrasing, and the conversation might have gone a little different. At that point, the melodrama becomes part of the character's voice in the story. They look a bit goofy, but If you've ever read The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, or watched surreal films like Brazil, over-the-top melodrama can be a style all its own. From a first person perspective, it makes better sense.

0

A simple way I find the right dialogue is to act as if I were the character and how I would feel in a situation or I would just ask a friend what their reaction would be in a situation like whatever is happening. I'd ask many different people and see what would fit best. Also, any dialogue you're unsure of, I normally put them in // // in order to show it's a WIP. (Work in progress)

0

Let the central character of this scene propel the plot forward with new dialogue,and then have another character come in and introduce dating to lighten the mood,and end with where is the next scene.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.