Dialogue in writing


I was cruising the boards just now and came across a familiar question. It was about dialogue, how to format it, and also how to create it.  After reading the post I decided to write an entry about dialogue.

First off what is dialogue? The dictionary definition according to Mirriam-Webster online is:

: a written composition in which two or more characters are represented as conversing
a : a conversation between two or more persons; also : a similar exchange between a person and something else (as a computer)


b : an exchange of ideas and opinions <organized a series ofdialogues on human rights>


c : a discussion between representatives of parties to a conflict that is aimed at resolution <a constructive dialoguebetween loggers and environmentalists>

: the conversational element of literary or dramatic composition <very little dialogue in this film>
: a musical composition for two or more parts suggestive of a conversation
Ok, so the first definition states it is written composition of two or more characters talking. It seems simple enough but I know what the next question will be: How do I write this?
Here’s a very brief example of dialogue:

“Mickie you disappoint me,”

She looked at the wall the prescribed six inches above his head. “I’m sorry, sir,”

Patton rubbed the bridge of his thin nose. “I don’t get you. Command has eyes on sending you through the command program and you act like it’s the plague.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said, “but as you know, I’m serving my required two years. I don’t, at this time, wish to make Fleet my career.”

Patton closed his eyes and sighed. “You have no idea what you’re possible of,”

“No, sir,”

“You could be one of the best starship captain’s I’ve ever seen,” Patton said. “Yet you ignore your talents. Let me tell you one thing, Mickie: you’d make a piss poor civilian.”

Mickie is the POV character of the conversation but I didn’t include enough of the exposition for you to see that. However, with that said, let’s break this down.

1. Captain Patton says “Mickie you disappoint me,”

This is the section that starts the conversation. Just because Mickie is the POV character doesn’t mean she needs to start the conversation. Note how the line runs without a tag. Tag’s are invisible and useful to help the reader tell characters apart when multiple are in the discussion. However, here we have only one and Patton instigates the conversation.

2. Mickie’s looking at the wall is an action that happens before she speaks, thus I put it where it was. To place it at the end of the line would say that her behavior came after her statement, which didn’t happen. Because Captain Patton is lecturing her, the response comment sensibly would be short and concise. This is a place where people get lost with dialogue. How long or short the line is written comes from the scene itself. Slower scenes can use longer lines. Fighting scenes and tension type situations would use a smaller one.

3. As above, Patton starts to rub his nose and does so the entire time he’s talking, thus the action is put before. The next step is, since he is the one in control of the conversation, comes his next statement. This is where the crux of the conversation comes to light and the reader finds out what the conversation is about. Dialogue, much like exposition, is a case of showing instead of telling. By letting the conversation develop naturally, events are then shown to the reader, which allows him or her to immerse themselves into the story.

Once those were settled, then the conversation moves on. While putting the words on paper isn’t difficult, creating realistic conversations between two people is. Dialogue is a section where the use of slang and sentence fragments aren’t a deadly sin. Most of us don’t talk with great grammar, so not all dialogue needs to match the same level your exposition does.

A few things to keep in mind with dialogue:

1. Have one POV character. Don’t make the reader “head jump” during the conversation. What the other characters are thinking can easily be shown by their statements without having to switch POV. If you feel you need to, then a line break is necessary.

2. Actions done before they speak need to go before the quotation marks. Now, this doesn’t mean do Breath in Breathe Out (BIBO) writing where every little detail is shown. Only put in the actions that are key to your scene. Furthermore, if the actions are after the statement, then they go at the end, and if during the middle, then in the middle.

3. Keep it realistic. Don’t be afraid to use slang or sentence fragments. That is how we speak in daily life, thus characters will too. If your MC is someone who’s sarcastic, then don’t shy away from letting their statements be sarcastic.

Hopefully this will help in writing dialogue. Happy writing.

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