Dialogue is an essential tool of the novelist, but too many either don’t know how to write it or may not understand all that well written dialogue can do for their story. This is going to be a two-part blog post because there is just that much to say about the topic.

Dialogue is used by writers to:

  1. advance the plot,
  2. to develop character

Advancing the plot

The most obvious use of dialogue in a novel is to advance the plot. People talk, things happen. Easy as that.

However, unless you’re writing a script for television or theatre, you need to have more than just dialogue. You need internal dialogue—what the point of view character is think. You need to have description (where are these people who are talking). And you need to have some action—it doesn’t need to be a lot of action, people don’t need to be throwing fists or running for their lives, they could merely be sitting around a dining table eating.

Another extremely important thing to think about here with any type of dialogue is that it’s got to sound natural. Read your dialogue out loud after you’re done writing the scene. Do the words trip off your tongue? Do they sound as if anyone might say them? Or do they sound stilted and awkward? Actually listening to the dialogue you write will help a great deal.

Mostly dialogue is learned by listening to others talk, but another good way to learn dialogue is by reading plays.  We don’t always speak in the same way that we write – even when writing dialogue.  Too many ‘um’s and ‘ah’s, too many elipses and ‘m’ dashes can get annoying.   (Elipses are used when someone’s speech trails off, ‘m’ dashes are used when someone is cut off mid-sentence.)


To Develop Character

Dialogue can tell a reader where someone is from.

A hedgehog poked his head around the door of the forward cabins. “Ahoy, there’s a full armory here, lads – swords, spears, knives, everything an army could wish for.”

“Gurt loads o’vittles, too.” Dinny chuckled. “Oi tell ‘ee, gonffen, liddle boats make oi sick, hurr, but this’n’s a noice big shipper. Oi’ll call ‘er Wuddshipp. Harr, that be a foin name.”

Mossflower, Brian Jacques

With accents in dialogue, you need to be really careful. If you have a major character speaking like Dinny (above) your reader is going to get pretty tired of translating that into normal English after a while. It’s fine to have a minor character speaking that way, but try to keep those strong accents to a minimum among your main characters.

What socio-economic class they are.

From Brazen and the Beast by Sarah MacLean

He came to a stop against the wall of a nearby tavern, scattering the collection of men outside.

“Oy!” one called out, coming for him. “All right, bruv?”

Whit came to his feet, shaking out his arms, rolling his shoulders back, shifting his weight back and forth to test muscle and bone—ensuring all was in working order before extracting two watches from his pocked and checking their clockwork. Half-nine.

“Cor! I ain’t never seen anyone right ‘imself from such a thing so fast,” the man said, reaching out to clap Whit on the shoulder.

We know for certain that the man speaking isn’t from the highest echelons of society.

Even what job they have:

“Mind showing me your B and C’s? Naomi asked. Ellis lowered his chin and stared at Naomi. Something happened inside with Cal. Something that pissed her off and made her suspicious. Hence her testing him: making sure he knew cop lingo as a way of checking if he was real or just wearing the suit. B and C’s. Badge and creds. Ellis reached for his French Berluti wallet.”      The Book of Lies, Brad Meltzer

Characters are developed through their dialogue – either through what they say, or what they don’t say, or what is said about them by others (assuming that the one speaking is a trustworthy source:  if the villain tells a secondary character that the hero is not to be trusted, we know that the villain is just saying that to further his own ends).

Of course, not all of your characters should speak the same way. One trick is to come up with a word or two that one character – and only that character – will use a lot; you might also come up with some words your characters will never use (profanity, for example).

Example: In PC Cast’s House of Knight series, the protagonist, Zoey, likes to drink “brown pop”. Not Coke, not Pepsi, not cola or soda, but always “brown pop”. It is a phrase that only she uses, no other character in the story calls it that.

Next week we’ll go over:

  1. to show conflict, (show vs. tell)
  2. to impart information to the reader succinctly,
  3. to make the reader a part of the action.
  4. Determine the pacing of the story