Writing Better Dialogue

dialogue

As a playwright, the thing I focused on the most in grad school was dialogue. 

Whether you’re writing a play, a story, a film, a poem, etc., you can reveal so much about a character simply by the way she talks and the things she says. Here are just a few things to think about when you’re writing dialogue.

Subtext

In real life, people don’t always say what they mean. So why would your characters? This is a big one for playwrights. I always think about this scene in Annie Hall when talking about subtext.

One of the keys to writing better dialogue is to understand what the subtext is in the conversation. One good exercise is to go through each line of dialogue a character says and answer the following questions:

1. Why is this character saying this?
2. What does he really mean?
3. What is he trying to accomplish in the conversation by saying this?

Voice

The way a person speaks is as unique as his or her fingerprints. If you go to a coffee shop and listen to people speaking, you will quickly realize that everyone has a different tone and a different way of speaking. Everyone has their own way of phrasing things. So should your characters! The way a character speaks can reveal her cultural background, where she is from, how much education she has had, and many more aspects of who she is as a person.

One thing I like to do when I’m revising is to go through and make sure that each character has a unique sound. In playwriting workshops, my professors always told me that you should be able to look at a line of dialogue and know who is speaking just by reading the actual line. This helps to make your characters sound distinctive.

I would say this is a good exercise for fiction, too. Also with fiction, there’s a whole other level to play with if you’re writing in first person. Does your narrator speak the way he thinks? Perhaps he uses a lot of explicit words in his inner dialogue but tries to present himself as being proper when he is speaking. Already, you have told us a ton about who this guy is just by the tone of his dialogue versus the tone of his inner dialogue.

Exercises

Here are a few exercises that are good for focusing on dialogue.

  • Eavesdropping – Go to a public place like a coffee shop or the mall. (Airports are GREAT for this!) Sit in one place and listen to the way people are speaking as opposed to what they are actually saying. Pay attention to dialect. Do they pronounce certain words differently? What can you infer about them just by listening to the way they speak?
  • Playwriting 101 – Try writing a short scene (2 – 4 pages) with two characters where each person wants something different from the other person. Don’t use any stage directions. When you are finished, go back and write out the subtext of each line of dialogue. This exercise will be great for fiction writers, but even if you’re an experienced playwright, it’s always great to sharpen your tools.

17 thoughts on “Writing Better Dialogue

  1. Followed you over here from Twitter. Great post! Very good advice. It’s interesting to write in science fiction or fantasy because you often get the opportunity to create a unique patois for your characters, and that lends itself to some truly startling pieces of conversation.

    Thanks for the advice, it’s great to hear someone mentioning subtext, it’s so often overlooked.

  2. Thanks for reading!

    I haven’t written much fantasy or science fiction but I’m sure it’s a lot of fun to invent completely new dialects, accents, and ways of phrasing words. The possibilities are endless!

    And I’m always thinking about the subtext. Sometimes even in real life. “Sara, that barista just asked you if you wanted whipped cream on your latte. THERE IS NO SUBTEXT.” “Yeah, but what did he really mean?”

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  4. Great posts. Not only practical and filled with uncommon “common sense” but also guided by your wisdom related to your craft.

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  7. Sara, I actually started doing that exercise of listening to people talk when I was in college, but back then, I would try to write as much of it down as well, so that I could get a little more insight later into what words were used, how they were used and the like. I still try to just sit and listen whenever I get a chance. It really, truly does help in being able to hear your character’s dialogue better.

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