Why Dialogue is Important
The word dialogue has several useful definitions including,
‘a written composition in which two or more characters are represented as conversing’
‘a conversation between two or more persons – also : a similar exchange between a person and something else (such as a computer)’
‘an exchange of ideas and opinions’
‘a discussion between representatives of parties to a conflict that is aimed at resolution’
‘the conversational element of literary or dramatic composition’
‘a musical composition for two or more parts suggestive of a conversation’
However we choose to view it, and we can view it in all of these ways when it comes to our storytelling, dialogue is an essential tool for adding depth and personality to our characters. It allows us to show, rather than tell, allows our readers to understand how our characters think and feel, and it can reveal their motivations, beliefs, and values. Dialogue also creates opportunities for conflict, suspense, and humour, and it can help us build relationships between characters. Think of your favourite characters and think about the many ways in which what they say tells you more about them, their ambitions and intentions, their motivations and desires.
So the question is; how can we make our characters speak to each other and to our readers more effectively? Here are some answers.
1. Make your dialogue sound like real speech, with natural rhythms, pauses, and interruptions
When writing dialogue, it’s essential to consider the natural rhythms of conversation, including pauses, interruptions, and overlapping speech. These elements help to create a sense of authenticity, allowing our readers to connect with our characters and the story more fully. To achieve this, we must consider the following three aspects: the character’s background and personality, the context of the conversation, and the purpose of the dialogue.
Firstly, the background and personality of your characters are critical factors in creating realistic dialogue. Consider how the upbringing, education, and cultural background of your characters would influence the way they speak. Some may be more formal or use specific jargon or dialects, while others may be more casual or use slang. A character’s personality traits, such as shyness, confidence, or aggressiveness, can also affect their speech patterns.
The context of the conversation is also crucial in shaping how dialogue flows.
Think about the setting and the situation your characters are in.
Are they in a rush, or do they have time to chat?
Are they in a noisy environment or a quiet one?
These factors can affect the tone, pacing, and length of the dialogue. For instance, a conversation in a busy restaurant may involve more interruptions and shorter sentences than a conversation in a library.
Finally, the purpose of the dialogue plays a vital role in how it is written. Consider the goal of the conversation and what each of your characters want to achieve. Is it a friendly chat, or is there an underlying tension or conflict? Are your characters trying to persuade or inform each other, or are they simply making small talk? The purpose of the dialogue will influence the language, tone, and pacing of the conversation. Try the following exercises and see how they help you develop your characters:
Exercise 1: Take a conversation from a movie or TV show and analyse the natural rhythms and speech patterns of the characters. Consider how the three aspects mentioned above contribute to the realism of the dialogue.
Exercise 2: Practice writing dialogue between two characters with opposing personalities or backgrounds. Try to capture the differences in their speech patterns and the ways they interact with each other.
Exercise 3: Experiment with different types of interruptions, such as someone talking over another character, or a sudden change of topic. Think about how these interruptions affect the flow and pace of the dialogue and how they can add to the realism of the conversation.
2. Avoid dialogue that is overly expository or does too much heavy lifting for the story
While dialogue can be an effective tool for conveying important information, it’s essential to avoid dialogue that does too much heavy lifting for the story. This means that we have to try and strike a balance between conveying information and maintaining a sense of naturalness and authenticity in their dialogue. To achieve this, we need to consider should the following three aspects: subtext, action, and tone.
Subtext is crucial in creating dialogue that doesn’t feel overly expository. Rather than simply stating information outright, we should look for ways to convey information through the subtext of the dialogue. We can achieve this by having our characters imply things rather than stating them explicitly or by using dialogue to reveal character motivations and intentions. By using subtext, we can can create dialogue that feels natural and authentic while still conveying important information.
Secondly, action is another tool that we can use to avoid dialogue that feels forced. Rather than having characters simply talk about what’s happening, we can show the action unfolding in real-time. This means using actions and body language to convey information and advance the story. For instance, a character might look away or fidget when they’re lying or nervous, allowing our readers to infer what’s happening without it being spelled out in the dialogue.
Finally, tone is another critical aspect of creating dialogue that feels natural and authentic. Even though it is very hard, we should always try to capture the unique voice of each of our characters and to write dialogue that sounds like something our characters would say in real life. This means paying attention to things like vocabulary, syntax, and sentence structure, as well as the character’s personality and motivations. By writing dialogue that feels true to each character, we can create a sense of authenticity that engages readers and draws them into the story.
Exercise 1: Take a scene from your favourite book or movie and rewrite the dialogue without any exposition. Instead, use subtext, action, and tone to convey the same information in a more natural and authentic way.
Exercise 2: Write a scene in which two characters have an argument without directly stating what they’re arguing about. Instead, use subtext and body language to convey the conflict and tension between the characters.
Exercise 3: Practice writing dialogue that captures the unique voice of each character. Try to imagine how each character would speak in real life and use that as a basis for their dialogue. Pay attention to things like word choice, syntax, and sentence structure to make each character’s dialogue feel distinct and authentic.
3. Vary the length and tone of your dialogue to keep it interesting and engaging
By mixing up the rhythm and pacing of the dialogue, we can create a sense of energy and momentum that keeps our readers invested in the story. To achieve this, we should think about the following three aspects: sentence structure, pacing, and tone.
Sentence structure is a critical aspect of creating engaging dialogue. We should aim to vary the length and structure of their sentences to create a sense of rhythm and flow. Short, punchy sentences can create a sense of urgency and tension, while longer, more complex sentences can create a sense of depth and nuance. By using a mix of sentence lengths and structures, we can keep hopefully keep our readers engaged and invested in the story.
Secondly, pacing is another important factor to consider when crafting engaging dialogue. Where possible, we should vary the pacing of our dialogue to create a sense of momentum and energy. This means knowing when to slow things down and when to speed things up. For instance, a slow, deliberate conversation can create tension and build suspense, while a fast-paced, frenetic conversation can create excitement and urgency.
Finally, tone is another critical aspect of creating engaging dialogue. We should vary the tone of our dialogue to create a sense of nuance and complexity. This means using a mix of serious, humorous, and emotional tones to create a range of moods and emotions. By varying the tone, we can create a sense of depth and realism that draws readers into the story. Here are three exercises you might like to try.
Exercise 1: Write a scene in which two characters have a heated argument using short, punchy sentences to create a sense of urgency and tension.
Exercise 2: Write a slow, deliberate conversation between two characters that builds tension and suspense using longer, more complex sentences.
Exercise 3: Write a conversation that shifts tone multiple times, moving from serious to humorous to emotional to create a range of moods and emotions. Use tone shifts to create a sense of depth and nuance in the conversation.
4. Use body language and physical descriptions to help convey your characters’ emotions
While dialogue is a critical tool for developing character and advancing the story, it can only do so much on its own. By using body language and physical descriptions, we can create a sense of depth and nuance in their characters’ emotions, helping readers to connect with them on a deeper level. To achieve this, we must consider the following three aspects: specificity, subtlety, and consistency.
Firstly, specificity is crucial when it comes to using body language and physical descriptions to convey emotions. Rather than relying on vague, generic descriptions, we should aim to be as specific as possible. This means using precise, concrete details to create a sense of realism and authenticity. For instance, rather than saying a character “looked sad,” we might describe the character’s downcast eyes, slumped posture, and trembling lips, allowing readers to visualise the emotion more vividly.
Secondly, subtlety is another critical aspect of using body language and physical descriptions to convey emotions. While it’s important to be specific, it’s also important to avoid being heavy-handed or over-the-top. We should aim to convey emotions in a subtle, nuanced way, using small gestures and details to create a sense of depth and complexity. By doing so, we can create a more realistic and believable portrayal of our characters’ emotions.
Finally, consistency is crucial when it comes to using body language and physical descriptions to convey emotions. We need to ensure that our characters’ actions and physical descriptions are consistent with their emotional state. For instance, if a character is feeling anxious or nervous, their body language might be tense, their hands might shake, and they might avoid eye contact. By ensuring consistency between a character’s emotional state and their physical actions, we can create a more realistic and believable portrayal of their characters. Here’s your chance to play with these ideas.
Exercise 1: Write a scene in which a character is feeling angry or frustrated, using specific, concrete details to convey their emotions through their body language and physical descriptions.
Exercise 2: Write a scene in which a character is trying to hide their emotions, using subtlety and nuance to convey their feelings without stating them outright.
Exercise 3: Write a character description that focuses on their body language and physical descriptions, rather than their personality or backstory. Use specific, concrete details to create a vivid and believable portrayal of the character’s emotional state.
5. Have characters reveal information that the reader needs to know
While exposition can be dull and heavy-handed, characters can reveal important information in a way that is both natural and engaging. By using dialogue and action to reveal key information, we can keep our readers invested in the story while also advancing the plot. To achieve this, we should think about relevance, timing, and naturalness.
Relevance is crucial when it comes to characters revealing important information. We should ensure that the information revealed is relevant to the story and helps to move the plot forward. This means avoiding irrelevant details and backstory that don’t add to the story’s overall arc. By keeping the information focused and relevant, we can ensure that our readers stay engaged and invested in the story.
Secondly, timing is also important when it comes to revealing information. We should try to reveal information at the appropriate moment, avoiding info-dumping or revealing information too early or too late. This means considering the story’s pacing and structure and finding the right moment to reveal key information. If successful, and practise is key here, we can create a sense of tension and anticipation that keeps readers engaged.
Finally, naturalness is crucial when it comes to characters revealing information.Let’s try and ensure that the way information is revealed feels natural and organic to the story and the characters. This means using dialogue and action in a way that feels authentic and true to the characters’ personalities and motivations. By doing so, we can create a more immersive and believable story world.
Exercise 1: Write a scene in which a character reveals important information to another character, making sure that the information is relevant, timed appropriately, and revealed in a natural way.
Exercise 2: Write a scene in which a character tries to conceal important information, forcing another character to uncover the truth through careful questioning and observation.
Exercise 3: Write a scene in which two characters reveal important information to each other through subtext and implication, rather than stating it outright. Use dialogue and action to create a sense of tension and nuance in the conversation.
6. Use dialogue to add conflict and create obstacles for your characters to overcome
Conflict is at the heart of any good story, and using dialogue effectively can help to create tension and raise the stakes, making it harder for characters to achieve their goals. To achieve this, we have to consider the motivation of characters, the structure of our dialogue motivation, and the subtext.
The motivation of our character is crucial when it comes to using dialogue to add conflict. We should understand the motivations of our characters and use dialogue to create situations where these motivations clash. This means creating dialogue that is true to the personalities of our characters and their beliefs, and using it to create friction and tension between them.
Secondly, dialogue structure is also important when it comes to using dialogue to create obstacles. We should try very hard to vary the structure of our dialogue, using interruptions, subtext, and subplots to create a more dynamic and engaging reading experience. By using these techniques, we can create obstacles that are both external and internal, making it harder for our characters to achieve their goals.
Subtext is also crucial when it comes to using dialogue to add conflict. We should use subtext to create tension and conflict beneath the surface of the conversation. This means using dialogue to imply hidden meanings and motivations, rather than stating them outright. By doing so, we can hopefully create a more nuanced and complex portrayal of the our characters, their relationships and their motivations.
Exercise 1: Write a scene in which two characters with conflicting motivations engage in a heated argument. Use dialogue to create tension and conflict, varying the structure and using subtext to imply hidden meanings.
Exercise 2: Write a scene in which a character is faced with an unexpected obstacle that threatens to derail their plans. Use dialogue to create tension and raise the stakes, varying the structure and using interruptions to create a sense of urgency.
Exercise 3: Write a scene in which two characters are forced to work together despite their differences. Use dialogue to create tension and conflict, using subplots and subtext to create a more nuanced and complex portrayal of their relationship.
Dialogue is not only a way for characters to communicate with each other, but also a way for us to communicate with our readers. We can use it as a tool to reveal the motivations and emotions of our characters, drive the plot forward, and create tension and conflict. We can also use dialogue to create a sense of realism and authenticity, making our characters and their relationships more believable and relatable.
Dialogue should never feel like exposition or a clumsy attempt to explain the story. Instead, it should feel natural and organic, as if our characters are speaking in their own voices. To achieve this, it’s important for us to focus on character development and understanding their motivations and personalities. When we know your characters well, it becomes easier to write dialogue that feels true to them.
Another important aspect of writing effective dialogue is to use subtext. Subtext is the unspoken thoughts and feelings that lie beneath the surface of the conversation. It is the things that the characters are not saying out loud, but are implied by their words and actions. By using subtext effectively, we can create tension and conflict that is more nuanced and complex. It allows our readers to read between the lines and draw their own conclusions about what our characters are really thinking and feeling.
Using body language and physical descriptions can also be a great way to convey emotions and add depth to our dialogue. By describing a character’s gestures, facial expressions, and body language, we can give our readers more insight into their emotions and motivations. This can be particularly effective when the words being spoken don’t match the character’s true feelings. By using these visual cues, we can create a more complete picture of the scene and the characters involved.
When writing dialogue, it’s also important to keep in mind the pacing of the conversation. Varying the length and tone of the dialogue can help keep your readers engaged and interested. Using short, snappy sentences can create a sense of urgency and tension, while longer, more descriptive sentences can slow the pace down and give the reader a chance to absorb the information. By varying the pacing, we can create a more dynamic reading experience that keeps our readers engaged from beginning to end.
Writing effective dialogue is a skill that can be honed and developed with practice. By using techniques such as subtext, body language, pacing, and character development, we can create dialogue that is engaging, realistic, and impactful. Remember to avoid overly expository dialogue, and focus on creating conversations that feel natural and organic. With dedication and hard work, we can all become masters of dialogue and create stories that truly resonate with our readers.
If you would like to see how this works in the real world then why not check out my best-selling VIRO series on Amazon. The books tell the story of Jake, a boy with special needs looking for his missing mother. Jake wakes one morning to find his life is broken. His mum has gone missing. The world has fallen apart. Determined to find her, Jake is forced to comes to terms with what has happened to the world. Confronted by the horror, he initially struggles to make sense of everything. Helped by the new friends he makes, Ellis, kind and resourceful, and the twins, Amber and Abe, Jake starts to develop his independence. Forced to confront the apparent difference defined by his special needs, Jake realises that this difference doesn’t matter any more. This gives him the strength to keep going. As they fight for survival, the four kids meet a wide range of other people also battling to stay alive and with each encounter Jake and his new friends learn a little bit more about themselves and each other. Ultimately, Jake’s story is one of hope and determination in the face of complete and utter devastation. Here are some real-world reviews for the VIRO series:
‘This review is for the series. Capturing the voice of a young character with special needs (I spent 25 years as a special education teacher/administrator), Taylor’s story of a group of young people coping with a world disintegrating in front of them; with the loss of structure and trust, and with betrayal by the adults who should be protecting them is both uplifting and horrifying. Do not be fooled by the simple language of the narrator: there are hard questions asked and realistic, unsentimental consequences to the apocalypse confronting the children, and an ending that you are unlikely to forget easily.’
‘Barnaby Taylor has a daring and rich imagination that transports you to new adventures in a re-imagined world, that are vividly written with a fresh and vibrant use of language. […] Barnaby can really write an action packed scene with fear inspiring characters such as the Tall Man. Baxter the dog who accompanies the children gives the story the delightful twist of feeling like an apocalyptic Famous Five. Genius.’
‘The writing style is beautifully compelling, and after the first couple of pages I couldn’t put it down. The author very skilfully creates a world and characters through deceptively simple prose that draws the reader right in. It is a fascinating blend of one-after-the-other edge-of-the seat scares, alongside a haunting narrative about what it is to be human.’
‘Barnaby is an exciting and passionate writer. There’s real depth of meaning behind his books. You emotionally engage with and care about the book’s characters. Barnaby’s books also have a strong visual sensibility. His stories particularly Viros I and II would translate superbly to television and cinema. I am a huge fan of all things zombie orientated and to see the zombie genre reinterpreted from the perspective of children is thrilling. I look forward to more books from Barnaby. He’s one to watch out for. Children, adults and I suspect the film and TV industry people will love this book. I highly recommend it.’
‘I absolutely loved this book. Powerful and poignant, ‘Viro’ packs a punch. Sad and haunting, ‘Viro’ is a new take on the zombie genre. The characters are dynamic and interesting, finding strength despite their horrifying circumstances. Jake is a character that will stick with you long after the final page. The action sequences are thrilling. I was on the edge of my seat!’
Dear Writing Friends,
As a writer, it can sometimes be difficult to find the support and encouragement we need to keep going. That’s why it’s so important to connect with others who share our passion and can offer valuable feedback and advice. Leaving a comment is a great way to start a conversation and connect with other writers who are on a similar journey.
By sharing our experiences, challenges, and successes, we can learn from each other and grow as writers. We can offer encouragement and support when someone is struggling, and celebrate each other’s achievements when they reach a milestone.
Furthermore, starting a conversation can help to hold us accountable to our writing goals. When we share our progress with others, we are more likely to stay committed to our writing and make meaningful progress towards our goals.
Finally, leaving a comment and starting a conversation is an excellent way to build community and find the support and encouragement we need to keep writing. So why not take a moment to share your thoughts and connect with other writers today?
Also, as a thank you for reading this post I have created a free book for you to download. How to Journal is a handy guide to journaling and I hope it helps you get started. You can find your free book at the top of the page.
Good luck with your writing,