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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.