Create Effective Dialogue by Asking the Right Questions

Image: from a worm's eye view, a couple wearing dark hoodies are seen sitting at the edge of a brick sea wall, turned to face the open ocean, under a heavily-clouded sky at early evening.
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Today’s post is by editor Tiffany Yates Martin (@FoxPrintEd).

Given most of us speak an average of 16,000 words a day, it seems as if writing dialogue should be effortless and natural.

But dialogue in story isn’t like dialogue in real life, which can meander or be riddled with empty filler, circumlocutions, and verbal tics. Story dialogue is more like concentrated orange juice: It gets rid of all the extraneous material and boils down communication to its essence.

To create effective and efficient dialogue that serves the story, you’ll need to ask yourself a few basic journalistic questions: the why, when, what, how, and how much of what your characters say.

WHY are your characters speaking?

Dialogue adds wonderful immediacy to a story, but if it’s not used purposefully it can feel superfluous. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every single word your characters speak should be deliberately chosen to serve the story in some purposeful way.

Does the dialogue advance the plot or story? Are the characters—or you as the author—trying to communicate a specific idea or information? Or perhaps to conceal it—to misdirect, obfuscate, or distract?

Does the dialogue offer essential context for the characters or story, or reveal a key plot point, or further the character arc? Are the characters speaking to fill silence? Out of nerves? Out of a desperate desire to connect? To mask what they are feeling? To alleviate discomfort—their own or someone else’s? To please someone else or curry favor? Out of habit? For the sake of politeness?

Good dialogue often multitasks, serving more than one of these purposes to create layers of meaning in story.

WHEN do they speak?

When your character speaks and doesn’t speak is an effective way to convey personality and relationships, further character development, advance plot, raise stakes, manage pace, and create suspense and tension.

What does the long silence after your character is told someone loves them reveal about their situation or relationship? What do readers know about the person who whispers constant commentary to their companion during a solemn occasion like a wedding or funeral or church service? Or the one who cracks a joke at just the right moment, or at the most inappropriate time?

How does it further the story and raise stakes and suspense when a character being interrogated refuses to speak—or inadvertently blurts an incriminating piece of information just when it seemed they were in the clear? What does it convey or mean for the story if a character witnesses a wrong and fails to speak up—or does speak, risking the wrath of the wrongdoer?

What your character doesn’t say is often as important and revealing as what they do—and when they choose to speak and choose to be silent can paint a vivid picture of who they are, what they want and why.

WHAT do they say?

In life we often speak without thinking, and your characters might also, but as the author you should choose each word with deliberate purpose. How does it move them closer to their goals—or throw up an obstacle? How does it show readers who they are or what they’re feeling or thinking?

What to say will be a function of why your character is saying it—and why you as the author are having them say it. If the scene’s narrative purpose is to advance the story while showing two characters’ relationship, for instance, then your dialogue will focus on those areas, as Jonathan Tropper does in this brief opening excerpt from This Is Where I Leave You:

“Dad’s dead,” Wendy says offhandedly, like it’s happened before, like it happens every day. It can be grating, this act of hers, to be utterly unfazed at all times, even in the face of tragedy.

“He died two hours ago.”

“How’s Mom doing?”

“She’s Mom, you know? She wanted to know how much to tip the coroner.”

We get a lot of info in this excerpt just from the dialogue: that these two are siblings; that their father has just died; that the narrator’s first reaction is to worry about his mom, which indicates something of their relationship; a little bit about what their mother is like from Wendy’s comment about tipping the coroner—which may or may not be a joke, given what the narrative portion tells us is characteristic of her.

Subtext in the dialogue tells us even more: This is how the conversation starts, so we also may infer that Wendy is direct and doesn’t candy-coat anything, and that these two are in touch frequently enough and/or have a close enough relationship that there is no need for introductory pleasantries at the beginning of a call, even one like this. The narrator also seems to react rather calmly to what could be shattering news: That might indicate that Dad’s death is not entirely unexpected, or that the protagonist isn’t close to his father, or that he is a level, nonreactive person…or an unemotional one…or a tightly controlled one. We don’t know yet—this is just one piece of the puzzle that begins to come together as the scene—and the dialogue—progresses.

But the characters’ words aren’t casually chosen. Tropper is using dialogue to introduce the inciting event, several of the main characters (the narrator, Wendy, Mom, and to a degree Dad), and a bit of context on their relationship and history—plus set up the entire story premise. That’s a lot of multitasking for four lines of dialogue.

HOW do they say it?

Like everything related to character, the way a person speaks is an amalgam of countless factors in their upbringing, background, situation in life, personality, experiences, etc.

Does their verbiage reflect the regionalisms of their hometown, for instance? What does their vocabulary and word choice say about their background or socioeconomic level or education or personality? How do their reference points or language reflect their background. For instance, does a painter use artistic metaphors and references, notice more aesthetic details, speak in more flowery or descriptive language?

Do they speak quickly or slowly, and why? Do they articulate or elide their words, and what is that a function of? Are they prone to verbosity or more taciturn? Do they choose their words carefully or vomit out everything that crosses their minds? How loudly do they speak and why? What tone do they use—sarcastic, apologetic, measured and calm, brash? What verbal tics do they have and what does that say about the character?

Do they speak straightforwardly and get right to the point, or circle around it until they finally say what they mean? Do they speak forcefully and confidently, haltingly, carefully and deliberately, completely off-the-cuff and stream-of-consciousness? And how does the way they speak change depending on their situation or whom they are talking to?

Considering all these factors not only helps you create believable but effective story dialogue; it’s also the key to making sure your characters don’t all sound alike.

HOW MUCH do your characters speak?

Balancing dialogue with narrative is part of the skill of using it effectively, but there are no hard and fast rules. It’s different for every author, every character, and every story.

Dialogue is a great way to dramatize character interactions and bring the story directly to life in front of our eyes, but too much of it can start to feel overly talky, or as if we are reading a screenplay. It can also feel distancing to readers—much of human communication happens below the surface of the words, in story as in real life, and relying only on dialogue leaves readers blind to the richness of the rest of the scene and character dynamics.

But too much narrative without dialogue can also make a story feel distant. Describing everything keeps readers one step removed from the action, as if we’re hearing about it secondhand rather than living it along with the characters directly, and can bog a story down in verbiage and stall momentum.

A good rule of thumb is to think about the purpose of a scene. For instance:

  • Scenes meant to reveal or develop character or relationships may come to life more vividly in dialogue rather than just narrative description. Introspective “processing” scenes may benefit from more narrative exploration of the characters’ inner lives, context, or situation.
  • Fast-paced, active scenes may move at a stronger clip if they incorporate lean, snappy dialogue amid the action (and thus create more white space on the page); slower, more reflective scenes might be better suited to narrative description.
  • Lighter or humorous scenes generally benefit from more dialogue; serious or dark scenes might be better conveyed through more narrative.

Where you do use dialogue, asking “how much” is also a good way to avoid the risk of soliloquies. Character dialogue that goes on too long can feel preachy, info-dumpy, or just plain dull, risking reader interest. (Picture the blowhard at the party who holds court in an endless monologue, while his audience desperately looks for ways of escape.)

Strong dialogue brings your story and characters to life and draws readers intimately, immediately into the scene. Asking yourself the these questions whenever your characters speak will help you make the most of every word of this powerful element of story.

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