Writing dialogue is perhaps one of the hardest things for new writers. We must ensure the speech not only drives the narrative forward, but it must be interesting to read, with a good sprinkling of suspense and tension, without being too expository.
And neither must it merely mirror everyday speech.
Take this trivial example of two interview candidates waiting for an interview.
‘Hi, how are you?’
‘Good thanks. You?’
‘I’m alright. Been waiting long?’
‘Not too long. A few minutes.’
Continue like that and we’ll be saying goodbye to the reader.
Creative dialogue then needs to be heavily edited, it needs to serve a purpose. It should feel ordinary without actually being ordinary. Every day speech is boring. To do this playwrights use many different devices. British playwright Harold Pinter is well-known for his use of pauses, repetitions, and confusions in speech. Although they give the impression of being realistic, each of these embellishments are inserted for dramatic effect and allow the viewer a glimpse into the psychological state of the character. Describing his use of his trademark unfinished, staccato sentences, American David Mamet said that his language is ‘poetic’ not ‘realistic’ — each word is carefully chosen for their sound and effect. And British playwright Caryl Churchill made great use of overlapping speech in her plays to exaggerate the underlying subtext and thought processes of each of the characters.
We must remember that each character has a multitude of differing thoughts swirling around their heads, and they are unlikely to be privy to the thoughts of others. And even if they were, they would probably be opposed to them — conflict drives narrative. Dialogue then needs to be indirect and oblique. Rarely do people answer each others’ questions, or the flow of conversation run smoothly. Often questions are answered with more questions. Multiple trains of thought are going on. People backtrack and revise a subject. They ignore one another.
Revising the above example, we could write something like this:
‘Are you… erm…here for…’
‘What? The job? Yeah.’
‘But to be honest. Probably got it already.’
‘Telephone interview. Nailed it.’
Hopefully that is more interesting to read and raises questions in the reader. It also differentiates the characters by using their individual voices. One seems more hesitant, perhaps it’s their first interview in a while; the other is more cocky. This immediately creates a sense of tension and conflict.
As writers of prose, we have another trick up our sleeve. Subtext allows the reader to glimpse more deeply into the minds of the character than in a play. It is the story beneath the story. And one way of developing this is by making what the characters think different from what they say. Perhaps they are shy or nervous, or deliberately trying to deceive the other characters. In this way what the characters vocalise can be seen as the tip of the iceberg — with so much more happening beneath. Making use of this internal conflict will help the narrative by creating tension in the dialogue.
Take this example from Ian McEwan’s Atonement:
‘We should go in,’ Cecilia said, and still arm in arm, they began to walk towards the house. As they passed the roses she wondered if there really was anything she wanted to tell him. Confessing to her behaviour this morning was certainly not possible.
‘I’d love to come up to town.’ Even as she said the words she imagined herself being dragged back, incapable of packing her bags or of making the train. Perhaps she didn’t want to go at all, but she repeated herself a little more emphatically.
‘I’d love to come.’
The reader is allowed direct access into the Cecilia’s thoughts, but what she says appears to conflict with what thinks.
- Creative dialogue should be edited with the appearance of normality.
- Don’t litter it with exposition: ‘Oh, Donna, I’m sorry to hear that microwave you bought at that corking sale price of twenty pounds has broken after only six months, I know you’ve relied on it since Dean left and you haven’t felt the need to cook any meals by yourself.’ Include those things in the narrative, internal thoughts, or sprinkle them sparingly throughout multipe lines of dialogue if it’s important. Don’t info dump.
- Think oblique. Make the responses indirect driven by individual thoughts. So the reader may wonder: Why are they saying that? Answer a question with a question, use avoidance, change the subject.
- Make the voices individual through the use of vocabulary, intonation, and repeated speech patterns. One character may speak more elaborately, another may use more simple words, another might be a little too sweary etc. Speech helps define characters. But be careful about using too much dialect unless absolutely necessary.
- Use subtext, explore the story beneath the story. Let the narrative voice provide some conflict from the external action that’s happening.
- Read/watch plays to see how playwrights construct dialogue.
- Listen and write down conversations you overhear, and then try editing them.
Betrayal by Harold Pinter
In this scene the character Robert has found out that his wife has been cheating on him with his best friend Jerry.
Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet
Brilliant scene in which Alec Baldwin’s hard-nosed character arrives at the small time real estate agents like a whirlwind.