Cottonwood Rust

Speaking of Which:

Writing Realistic Dialogue (Part 1)

Dialogue is one of those things that is easier said than done. It’s all too easy to find oneself, having written a conversation or two into your prose, reading over and marveling at how awkward, unnatural, or wordy it sounds. It may seem easier to just skip dialogue altogether and stick with descriptions and summaries. However, dialogue done right, seen from authors like Aldous Huxley and Alice Munro, can be memorable and engaging, witty and thought-provoking. Over the next two blog posts, we’ll hash out the principles of dialogue and how best to make your story’s conversations sing.

Defining Dialogue

Prose can be classified within two main categories — exposition and dialogue. Exposition makes up the voice of the author or narrator directly, relaying the setting, describing the characters, and giving explicit insight into motivations and rationale as the plot progresses. Dialogue is the direct voice of the characters, metaphorically untouched by the interpretation of the author. It encompasses direct quotations, indirect speech, and paraphrase.

The purpose of dialogue is simple — to characterize your cast and relationships, making them breathe in three dimensions rather than be confined on the page. Dialogue is an opportunity for you as an author to convey information related to backstory, plot development, exposition, mood, and setting while simultaneously characterizing those involved in conversation. Through the conversations you choose to relay to readers, characters develop distinct voices and believability. Regardless of how you decide to craft your dialogue, any conversational scene should advance the plot, uncover details on the characters’ relationships or motivations, and reveal other relevant information.

Sending a (sub)Text

When setting out to write dialogue, your first task is to have a goal. By the end of the conversation, how will the plot be advanced, or what new detail will be uncovered? Unlike in daily life, each conversation included in your story must have a distinct purpose, told in a concise way. With your goal in mind, consider what your characters want to have happen. This desire, or motivation, will be guiding them throughout the scene and must align with your goal. 

While these goals and desires must be crystal-clear to you as writer, wield the concepts of text and subtext as you construct your dialogue to craft realistic, engaging discussions. When, truly, are we saying exactly how we feel, or asking exactly what we want to ask? Reflect on the relationship and dynamics between your characters, keeping in mind who has more power or knowledge, then lean into tension, irony, and suspense through implication and intrigue. By leaving most of the conversation “unsaid,” you are avoiding the risk of boring the reader with an “information dump,” and the reader learns by the end of the scene not only the outcome of the conversation’s goal, but more about the characters’ relationships with one another, the next point in the plot, etc. This keeps the reader thinking critically by asking them to interpret the conversation through the lens of your characters.

In order to attain this concise and interesting discourse, cutting unnecessary lines is critical. Areas that can be removed or truncated include greetings and pleasantries (which may entail starting in the middle of a conversation), repetitive information (unless it is a tool to forge dramatic irony), “ums” or “uhs,” and anything that does not meet the goals of dialogue stated above. Read the passage below from Hemmingway’s Hills Like White Elephants for an example.

“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”

“And you really want to?”

“I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you really don’t want to.”

“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”

“I love you now. You know I love you.”

“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”


Check back in with us next week as we transition from content and subtext to tags and action beats in our discussion on dialogue.