Dialog in a story is any time two or more characters have a conversation. Writing books often focus on dialect in dialog – but well-written dialog does far more than deliver cultural flavor.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Marvin the robot and a random mattress:

“You may not instantly see why I bring the subject up, but that is because my mind works so phenomenally fast, and I am at a rough estimate thirty billion times more intelligent than you. Let me give you an example. Think of a number, any number.”

“Er, five,” said the mattress.

“Wrong,” said Marvin. “You see?”

 

Gone with the Wind (movie version):

Gerald[the men are discussing the prospect of going to war with the North] And what does the captain of our troops say?

Ashley: Well, gentlemen, if Georgia fights, I go with her. But like my father I hope that the Yankees let us leave the Union in peace.

Man: But Ashley, Ashley, they’ve insulted us!

Charles: You can’t mean you don’t want war!

Ashley: Most of the miseries of the world were caused by wars. And when the wars were over, no one ever knew what they were about.

Gerald[the other men protest] Now gentlemen, Mr. Butler has been up North I hear. Don’t you agree with us, Mr. Butler?

Rhett: I think it’s hard winning a war with words, gentlemen.

Charles: What do you mean, sir?

Rhett: I mean, Mr. Hamilton, there’s not a cannon factory in the whole South.

Man: What difference does that make, sir, to a gentleman?

Rhett: I’m afraid it’s going to make a great deal of difference to a great many gentlemen, sir.

Charles: Are you hinting, Mr. Butler, that the Yankees can lick us?

Rhett: No, I’m not hinting. I’m saying very plainly that the Yankees are better equipped than we. They’ve got factories, shipyards, coalmines… and a fleet to bottle up our harbors and starve us to death. All we’ve got is cotton, and slaves and… arrogance.

Man: That’s treacherous!

Charles: I refuse to listen to any renegade talk!

Rhett: Well, I’m sorry if the truth offends you.

Charles: Apologies aren’t enough sir. I hear you were turned out of West Point, Mr. Rhett Butler. And that you aren’t received in a decent family in Charleston. Not even your own.

Rhett: I apologize again for all my shortcomings. Mr. Wilkes, Perhaps you won’t mind if I walk about and look over your place. I seem to be spoiling everybody’s brandy and cigars and… dreams of victory.

 

Huckleberry Finn, meeting his father who has found out about his half of the reward for “capturing” Indian Joe in Tom Sawyer:

He set there a-mumbling and a-growling a minute, and then he says:

“Ain’t you a sweet-scented dandy, though?  A bed; and bedclothes; and a look’n’-glass; and a piece of carpet on the floor—and your own father got to sleep with the hogs in the tanyard.  I never see such a son.  I bet I’ll take some o’ these frills out o’ you before I’m done with you. Why, there ain’t no end to your airs—they say you’re rich.  Hey?—how’s that?”

“They lie—that’s how.”

“Looky here—mind how you talk to me; I’m a-standing about all I can stand now—so don’t gimme no sass.  I’ve been in town two days, and I hain’t heard nothing but about you bein’ rich.  I heard about it away down the river, too.  That’s why I come.  You git me that money to-morrow—I want it.”

“I hain’t got no money.”

“It’s a lie.  Judge Thatcher’s got it.  You git it.  I want it.”

“I hain’t got no money, I tell you.  You ask Judge Thatcher; he’ll tell you the same.”

“All right.  I’ll ask him; and I’ll make him pungle, too, or I’ll know the reason why.  Say, how much you got in your pocket?  I want it.”

“I hain’t got only a dollar, and I want that to—”

“It don’t make no difference what you want it for—you just shell it out.”

 

Read closely.  Each of these examples of dialog from classic books functions to a lesser or greater extent to characterize the speakers. Marvin is not only depressed, but has an existentially defeated attitude. In the Gone with the Wind passage, each character speaks a little differently, and it’s clear from both word choice and sentence meaning that Gerald O’Hara takes the position of host and discussion mediator; Ashley Wilkes is the classic Southern gentleman, ready to do his duty but not at all optimistic about fighting; Charles Hamilton is petty and over-confident; and Rhett Butler, the scoundrel, is not only unwilling to go to war but cynical about the South’s chances. And in Huck’s dialog, he is trying to conceal from his ne’er-do-well father that he is indeed a rich boy, while the violent Pap will do whatever it takes to get Huck’s money.

The passages above do several things very well. Each advances the plot, increases story tension, reveals elements of the plot, gives a sense of time and place, reveals the genre of the story, and – most importantly for current purposes – describes the character in a dynamic way.

Huck, for instance, has done something special in order to have money; his social class, clear from his grammar and diction, is too low to have been born wealthy. He clearly does not trust his father. His father, on the other hand, is violent and mean, has no real sense of morality (he’s ready to steal from his own child!), is greedy and a bully.

Gerald O’Hara has a subtle Irish accent, if you look closely at his grammar. Ashley Wilkes is educated, gentlemanly, and a bit of a philosopher. Rhett Butler speaks plainly and either does not have education that matches Ashley’s or simply does not care for it. He is brash and honest and unafraid to offend.

Crafting Dialog

Dialog is very unlike other writing elements, and the best way to do it well is to look at how young art students learn how to paint, once they’ve mastered the basics: they copy old masters and closely observe life. For the first part, they ideally visit the original works in person and closely examine the colors, textures, overlays. They deconstruct the elements, examining how Michelangelo used his knowledge of sculpture to make the Sistine Chapel figures look realistic or Georges Seurat used tiny pure dots of color to create his soft, dreamlike images, and they examine the different atmospheres inherent in art from choices in color and texture. They squeeze art dry to understand what is really going on before our eyes so that they can mimic and, ultimately, expand on those techniques.

In addition to looking at technique, they look at life, how different lights affect their subjects, how motion really appears to the eye, the magic of reflections on water and moonlight on the beach. Only once they have learned to closely examine what is in front of them can they create great art.

Dialog is exactly the same. To write great dialog, first examine the work of other writers you admire and look at how much their dialog, bare of all other supports like narrative description or background plotting, works to characterize the speaker. How even silence can become dialog. How choices in grammar and diction take the place of cheap tricks in punctuation and poor spelling to lay out a dialect. And yes, stereotyping is completely okay provided you stereotype honestly. Irishmen can be feisty, Germans a bit anal, Marines and SEALs fearless and self-sacrificing in battle. (It’s when stereotype characters go against their type that they stand out and become heroes and villains, but that’s a topic for another blog.) Make your Marines sound like Marines, your Hawaiians sound Hawaiian, hillbillies sound hillbilly – not just in diction, but in what they choose to say.

That’s what great writers do.

Secondly, go out into the world and really listen, listen actively, to what others say and, more importantly, how they say it. Stereotype the people you meet or eavesdrop on. At the coffeeshop, pick out hipsters, businessmen, feminists, Antifa, academics. Don’t be afraid to put them in category boxes at first; you are learning how types speak IN GENERAL, not necessarily how your main character will speak. Notice what words they commonly use. Do the same online; use word cloud tools to determine what vocabulary is common to groups, paying special attention to buzz words. Warning here: don’t create your dialog based on how people speak online. Written language is very different from spoken. Use online and other written content to supplement, not create, your understanding of different types.

Consider the things you can use dialog to tell your reader about not just your main character, but throwaway characters:

Education level: “Well you ain’t getting none, so there.” “The real thesis behind Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is the power of femininity over culture. Why women today don’t use that considerable leverage, I don’t know.”

Sex: “I think I’m pregnant.” “Bros before hos, pal.” “Oh, my gosh, look at this adorable poodle purse!” “I identify as a golden-maned pink centaur princess, and my pronouns are equee, equir, and equis.”(hat-tip on the last to the hilarious The Narrative by Deplora Boule.)

Politics: “Do you have your mask for the protest?” “Oh, I don’t know, Trump’s not so bad.” “I can’t believe you’re supporting her killing her baby!” “Well, I’m sorry if the truth offends you.” (*that last is from Rhett Butler above. Some things never go out of style.)

Culture: “The waves was so high, brah, they broke dah boat, and we wash out makai – to sea – on the alaia because they all that was left.” “A pleasure it is to be meeting you on this bonny day, Miss Marvy.” “Well, up to I was 18, I never went a fur piece from Shandy, not further than the next holler down.”

Less easily-definable things like background and beliefs: “My dad got me into the Scouts, and we did everything together from the Pinewood Derby to the Jamboree, even though by then he had to ride the scooter anywhere we went.” “Look, Desert Storm wasn’t a picnic, whatever you’ve been told.” “It’s just a test; I don’t see any reason having the answers in advance really makes a difference. Hell, kids are starving in, like, Mexico and Arkansas and places; why does it matter whether I make an A or a D on one test?”

Great dialog does several of those things all at the same time. Look back up at the Huckleberry Finn excerpt and try to see how much Twain has done in that one short passage – how much he tells you about Huck and his dad. Who’s afraid? Who holds power? What can you say about their backgrounds? Can you describe their facial expressions from the words exchanged? What do you predict the next action might be? What are their respective goals? Who are you rooting for?

Monologue

Monologue is just like dialog, only the character is speaking to himself instead of others. While dialog actively builds tension, monologue shows the main character reflecting on what has happened earlier and determining what to do from this point forward.

Fiction monologues are very different from stage or movie dialogs, and they serve a different function. Spoken monologues are there to let the audience in on what’s going on inside the speaker’s head. In fiction, we can use introspection instead, since the writer can take the reader right into the character’s mind.

In general, when writing fiction rather than plays or scripts, monologues should be avoided in all but short snippets. Introspection is almost always a better choice.

The Extra Character in a Dialog: Relationship

A funny thing happens when you have a dialog. Suddenly, characters are weaving a relationship right before your eyes. The hero and heroine fall in love. A friendship is converted into an undying enmity. The tension just under the surface between rival lovers, frenemies, or a resented boss/overworked peon crackles to life. Well-written dialog can be just as tense and active as a fight to the death, if you pay close attention to what is happening within the relationships.

Don’t worry about the active relationship while writing your dialog. But when you go back and read it, think about what you’re doing in the interaction. For example, within the Gone with the Wind snippet above, Rhett Butler is rapidly turning himself into an outcast as he shows the other gentlemen that he does not feel the same way about the impending war as they do. This was exactly what Margaret Mitchell intended to do with that scene (the movie dialog tracks closely to the book, though the movie is much faster and more efficient) and she does it very well.

Often, stories that go awry have fallen apart within a dialog (or dialectic, if you’re being a grammar cop) passage. Harness your characters and make them do what they need to do in speech – or rethink your plot to match the dialog your characters want to have.

Exercise: Try writing a short passage of dialog between two important characters in your work in progress, or between an important character and a minor character who is bringing important news or unwanted and unsought advice. What happens in the relationship between the characters? How are you characterizing them? Can you visualize the characters from their speech – how they dress, their facial expressions, their backgrounds?

Resources: Your favorite books. Also your favorite movies. The books show you clearly how the writer has used dialog to create realistic fleshed-out characters. Movies show you how to cut dialog to the essentials, delivering the most information efficiently. Well-done action movies like Lethal Weapon, for instance, have stunningly dense payloads in relatively short dialog passages.

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Previous installments in the series:

Part 1: Point of View: Whose Story Is It?

Part 2: Healing Wordiness and Making Yourself Clear

Part 3: Political Writing 101: Start With Theme

Part 4: Political Writing 101: Creating Compelling Epic Heroes

Part 5: Writing Stealthcon 101: Plots That Don’t Preach

Part 6: Characterizing Through Appearance

Part 7: Nine-and-Sixty Ways: When Writing Advice Conflicts