How to Write Effective Direct and Internal Dialogue

The Purpose of Dialogue

Dialogue for dialogue’s sake never works. As a writer, you have to choose when to use direct dialogue, internal dialogue, or no dialogue at all.

Dialogue is a great tool to reveal information about a character or move the action along.

Take a look at this dialogue below and think about its purpose:

“Hi,” I said when I answered the door.

“Hi,” Cassie replied.

“Can I come in?”

“Sure.”

“Are your parents here?” she asked while entering my house.

“Yes”

“Oh perfect, I wanted to invite you to a campout, but you’ll need your parents’ permission.”

“Ok, let me go get them.”

 

This dialogue does not serve any purpose. We didn’t learn anything new about the characters, and there wasn’t much action—nothing really happened. If it is an important plot point, it could easily have been told in a short sentence or two: On Thursday, Cassie came over inviting me to a special campout. I wanted to go, but I needed my parents’ permission first.

Now compare that with this dialogue:

“I think you should kill her now,” the Turk said.

“The less you think, the happier I’ll be,” the Sicilian answered.

There was a sound of ripping cloth.

“I still think . . .,” the Turk began.

“She must be found dead on the Guilder frontier or we will not be paid the remainder of the fee.  Is that clear enough for you?”

“I just feel better when I know what’s going on, that’s all,” the Turk mumbled.  “People are always thinking I’m so stupid because I’m big and strong and sometimes drool a little when I get excited.”

“The reason people think you’re so stupid,” the Sicilian said, “is because you are so stupid.  It has nothing to do with your drooling.”

Buttercup did not know how long she was out, but they were still in the boat when she blinked.  And this time, without daring to think, she threw the blanket aside and drove deep into Florin Channel.

“Go in, go in, after her,” cried the Sicilian.

“I only dog paddle,” came the Turk.

“The sharks will get her, don’t worry,” cautioned the Spaniard.

“Princess,” the Sicilian called, “do you know what happens to sharks when they smell blood in the water?  They go mad.  There is not controlling their wildness.  They rip and shred and chew and devour, and I’m on a boat, Princess, and there isn’t any blood in the water now, so we’re both quite safe, but there is a knife in my hand, my lady, and if you don’t come back, I’ll cut my arms and I’ll cut my legs and I’ll catch the blood in a cup and I’ll fling it as far as I can and sharks can smell blood in the water for miles and you won’t be beautiful for long.”

Buttercup hesitated, silently treading water.

“Come back and come back now.  There will be no other warning. If you come back now, I will give you my word as a gentleman and assassin that you will die totally without pain.  I assure you, you will get no such promise form the sharks.”

 

This dialogue serves both functions: it reveals the character and moves the action along. From this dialogue, we learned the Sicilian is a blunt know-it-all who views himself above others. And we learn that people think the Turk is stupid. Then this dialogue revealed some action: while the captor’s backs were turned and they were preoccupied, Buttercup tried to escape. However, she came back when she realized the dangers of the sharks.

 


How to Write Good Direct Dialogue

 

Make the dialogue sound natural

 

In order to do this, never use dialogue as a means of exposition and never make the character overly formal.

Example of dialogue as a means of exposition:

“Well, remember, in our society, those with great skills and talents are told to limit themselves so they don’t make us too jealous,” said Kelly.

Erin replied, “Yeah. I am glad I am one of the talentless so I don’t have to try too hard to fit in. I do need to meet with the Council, the ones in charge of keeping us the same, every week to ensure that I remain one of the talentless.”

 

No one would sit and have a dialogue exchange with someone concerning information they both already know. The only point of this conversation was to reveal information about the society to the reader. This information should unfold in the course of the story, not be dumped in the form of dialogue.

Examples of overly formal dialogue:

“Could you please pass the salt over to me?”
“He and I went downtown to retrieve the elusive artifact.”

 

Real people might say instead, “Pass the salt.” Or “Me and him went downtown and got the thing you wanted.”

It isn’t natural for your characters to always speak in perfect grammar, unless of course the character is an intellectual who wouldn’t be caught dead using incorrect grammar.

 

Create instances where characters interrupt or misunderstand

 

In real life, people interrupt each other, misunderstand, or respond in a vague way. So if no one ever interrupts or misunderstands, your dialogue may be lacking.

Example: “What on earth did you think you were doing, Jill?” Jack said. “You could have burned the bloody house down. I don’t get—”

“I’m okay, really . . .”

 

In this dialogue exchange, Jill interrupted Jack and she didn’t actually answer Jack’s question, because she is preoccupied with something.

 

Insert narrative where appropriate

 

While there are times a longer exchange between characters may be appropriate, it doesn’t work to do this often. So think about how the characters are reacting to the dialogue. If the reaction is important, you should include it in terms of internal dialogue or action beats.

By blending in action and/or the viewpoint character’s thoughts, you can add more meaning to the scene.

Example of adding in viewpoint character’s thoughts:

She cringed when he came toward her. Grabbing her drink she met him half way, managing a fake smile. “I am so glad you are here.”

 

Example of blending action with dialogue:

Look at the example from The Princess Bride in the purpose of dialogue section.  There are two lines of dialogue followed by an action; four lines of dialogue then a character’s thoughts leading to an action; and then four lines of dialogue followed by an action.

 

Make the dialogue true to the character

 

If every character sounds the same, you haven’t written good dialogue, even if you follow all the above guidelines.

To vary the dialogue, think of the following for each character:

  • Does the character use any habitual phrases?
  • How polite or impolite is the character?
  • Is the character shy or more outgoing? Wordy or more succinct? Awkward or confident?
  • Are there certain words the character would never use? (vile words, complicated words, obscure words, etc.)

 


How to Write Internal Dialogue

Internal dialogue has been called “the greatest tool for gaining a reader’s confidence.” As a character reveals their thoughts, they are letting the reader into their confidence.

 

Formatting it

 

You do not put internal dialogue in quotation marks since it isn’t spoken aloud. While it used to be common practice to use italics, many criticize that approach, since too much italics can be hard to read.

“Dr Kaur caught Vic on his way out. “Mr Williams, the bereavement office is next to the outpatients’ entrance. They can help you with counselling, funeral arrangements and obtain the death certificate for you. They’re open office hours.”

That’s it. She’s gone. My fault for leaving her. Bloody fool.

 

It’s pretty obvious the new paragraph contains his thoughts, so there is no need to format it differently.

 

When to use internal dialogue

 

While direct dialogue can also reveal character, at times you may choose to use internal dialogue rather than direct dialogue to achieve this. Consider using internal dialogue when you want

  • To show the difference between what a character thinks versus what they say or do. Look back at the first example in point three of how to write good dialogue.
  • To show a character’s opinion/reaction to the scene or dialogue exchange.
  • To describe the scene around the character using the five senses.
  • To reveal information below the surface: a character’s pain, secrets, hopes, fears, etc.
  • To show how a character has grown over the course of the novel.
  • To develop and reveal a character’s motivation.

How to write good internal dialogue

  • Avoid doing it too much. If we constantly hear the character’s opinions and thoughts, we get overwhelmed. Sometimes what the character is thinking is important; other times it just gets in the way of the forward action of the story.
  • Only reveal the internal dialogue for your viewpoint character. If you give the internal dialogue for another character, this is called head-hopping. Stick with one viewpoint character in any given scene.
  • Do not use the phrase “I thought to myself” or other such similar phrases. It should be obvious when it is a character’s thoughts, no need to call it out.
  • Just like with direct dialogue, do not use the internal dialogue to info dump. It is unnatural for characters to speak about what they already know, and it is also unnatural for a character to think about their backstory or how their society works. Every now and again, if it occurs in a natural moment, a character may reflect on their backstory, but do not use this gimmick too often.

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