Bring Fiction to Life with Dialogue by @EdenBaylee

One of the ways in which we bring life to characters is through dialogue. Unless you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, you must create a world with believable people in it who do believable things. How they talk and what they say is integral to that world.

An author can create characters by giving them specific personality traits such as being rude, boastful, kind, courageous, tender-hearted, etc. This is all well and good, but the reader needs to experience these traits. In other words, show me how a character is boastful or tender-hearted.

Effective dialogue is one way to reveal such details.

Good dialogue is all about listening to your characters. It’s the process of: writing a line of dialogue, listening, and then writing down the next line, and so on. Characters come to life through what they say and how they say it. 

For this reason, I often talk to my characters as if they are real people. I suspect I’m not the only author who does this! I refer to characters by name, have full conversations with them. Sometimes I have a conversation involving multiple characters to work out their unique voicing. It’s akin to having imaginary friends, that world we played in when we were kids (in the pre-video games era!). 

When writing fiction, we balance scenes using a combination of: dialogue, action, and narrative. Let me address when we should use dialogue.

Use dialogue to convey conflict and tension

A scene about two people spending a perfect day at the art gallery doesn’t constitute plot. Though pleasant conversations are great in real life, they don’t make for gripping dialogue in fiction. 

An example of yawn-inducing dialogue.

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

Jane was nervous about her first date with Bill. Going to the art gallery was her idea. “Do you like Van Gogh?” she asked. 
Bill stepped up to the painting and read the label, hesitated. “Yes ... I do like it.”
Jane offered a sweet smile. “Me too. This painting is one of my favourites.” 
“All those blue and yellow swirls, very calming.” 
“That’s an interesting observation.” 
Bill stood a bit taller. “Thanks.” 
“Feel like seeing more of his work?” 
“I'd love to." Bill cleared a path for her. "You lead the way.”

Boring, right? Let's improve this dialogue by adding conflict.

“Do you like Van Gogh?” Jane asked.
Bill stepped up to the painting and read the label, hesitated. “Can’t say I do. All those blue and yellow swirls, looks like a kid went crazy with finger paints.”
Jane glowered at him. “You’re kidding, right? You're talking about one of the master painters.”
“His work is highly over-rated, not my style.”
“So who do you like then?”
Bill stood a bit taller. “I don’t know the name of the artist, but I love that painting with the dogs playing poker. Now that’s art!”

A Friend in Need by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge

Isn't this more interesting?

And the reason is because the dialogue is in conflict. Jane and Bill obviously have different tastes in art. You can only imagine how this first date will go! 

Use dialogue to move a story forward

Effective dialogue should advance the plot and create anticipation and suspense for what is coming next.

Nancy seethed at the thought of her husband. “I can’t wait to get rid of him once and for all,” she said.  

This dialogue advances the plot. It forces the reader to explore the possibilities. Is the husband a villain? Is Nancy a villain? Are they going through a divorce or has she hired a hitman? Dialogue provides a tool to create interesting scenarios by adding to the character’s motives.

Use dialogue to deepen characterization

In addition to advancing the plot, dialogue can also give us a deeper understanding of a character’s personality. 

Imagine the speaking character talking about her fear of heights, her love of animals, or what gives her nightmares.

These revelations may not affect the plot, but they can help explain the character’s motivation for what she wants. Knowing this gives us greater insight into the character’s goals. 

Use dialogue to impart information

All stories have a certain amount of “boring but necessary information” for readers. These are the details known as exposition, normally found at the beginning of a story when the setting and characters are introduced. 

A writer can weave the background information into dialogue. This allows the reader to piece together what is relevant. Presenting this type of dialogue in bite-sized pieces will make potentially dry facts easier to digest.

Jessie asked, “Will you be staying the week?”
“Afraid not,” said Tom. “I have to get back to Toronto for a birthday party, twin daughters.”
“Wow, how old are they?”
“Ten,” he said. “Hard to believe how quickly they’ve grown up since their mother died.”

Use dialogue to speed up a scene

If you’re creating a fast-paced scene between two or more people, consider using only dialogue. While it can take pages to tell the reader something with narrative, a scene of dialogue can quickly let us know what a character is thinking.

We’ve all experienced when someone tells us a compelling story. We immediately focus on what that person is saying. Everything else fades into the background. This is what happens when we strip away action and narrative and leave only the characters’ spoken words.

Narrative explains what’s going on, but dialogue divulges what's in the character’s head. When you have narrative that goes on for pages and pages, adding dialogue breaks up the monotony and provides a more interactive and interesting read. 

Do you have any great dialogue tips? Please feel free to share. 

I’d love to hear from you! 



Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Eden. I couldn't agree more (but then, my earliest output consisted of radio plays, where dialogue was all I had). Unlike you, though, I don't talk with/to my characters in prose fiction because I find that once they start saying things, I tend to disappear and just listen to them.
Interestingly, though, I found that, in a recent adjudication I did, some writers didn't make the register of the dialogue distinct from the narrative prose around it (no contractions, no pauses, no non-sequiturs). That had the opposite effect to the one required by calling attention to its artificiality.
Unknown said…
Excellent post, Eden. I love the idea that you're having conversations and arguments with your characters as you wander around the house doing all the mundane tasks of life!
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Bill,

Thanks for commenting. Maybe that's why I love listening to talk radio. Sometimes the topics are lame, but often the speakers are bright and have a real way with words. I've learned a lot just by listening.

As for the 'artificial' dialogue -- I hear you. Writing should not replicate real-life conversations . We need to select the interesting parts to say and then distill the conversation to what's important. Otherwise -- snoozeville!

Eden Baylee said…
Hi Unknown,

Haha, true. It usually happens in the shower. Instead of singing in there, I talk to my characters. ;)

Thanks for your comment!

Brian said…
Hi Eden. Actually, I liked the first bit of dialogue better than the aggressive second one. When he stood a little taller, we knew he had confidence issues. Why? We'll find out later, I hope. In the second example, we've almost immediately lost half of the characters. It's obvious he has no taste so why would she stay with him and why would we care what happens? I can imagine all kinds of twists and turns in the first example, nothing but a quick ending in the second.
I wish there was a way to write where you could use a macro or something to spit out the quotes so you'd just have to type in the space between. I'm lazy!
Brian (Not that one, the other one!)
Eden Baylee said…
Hi other Brian, Yes I know which one you are. ;)

Your comment is very interesting. When I made up the example, I aimed for immediate conflict, but I completely understand what you mean. In the first example, Bill is not confident. In the second, he's a jerk with too much confidence.

Both have possibilities.

I suppose it's not easy to make up really boring conversation unless I remove all the action tags.

Thanks for your great comment!

Unknown said…
Science fiction and fantasy stories also need realistic dialogue. There just tends to be more exposition because you've got to describe the world too.
Umberto Tosi said…
"...Effective dialogue should advance the plot and create anticipation and suspense for what is coming next..." Right on! You could do a workshop from this post, or a TED talk... I love dramatic dialog in a novel, to vary the pace and and break up prose as well a reveal and dramatize characters and their dynamics. Easier said than done, but work the effort!
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Unknown who said: "Science fiction and fantasy stories also need realistic dialogue. There just tends to be more exposition because you've got to describe the world too."


You're absolutely right! I'm less familiar with sci fi and fantasy but agree they need the same type of realistic dialogue. Thanks for commenting!

eden :)
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Umberto, thanks very much for reading and commenting. I'm no expert on dialogue but I've learned over the years what I enjoy reading.

In that vein, it's a lot easier for me to see how to pursue my own writing with dialogue.

Breaking up prose with dialogue is definitely a good way of varying pace. Thanks for that!

eden :)

Eden Baylee said…
William, thanks for reading and leaving a comment! Much appreciated. :D


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