“Hey you! Yes you!”: Writing Dialogue

“Hey Meg, what’s your favorite part of writing a book? Is it when you get to make things magically explode?”
“That’s fun, but hmm… I don’t think that’s my favorite.”
“Is it when characters look longingly at one another?”
“OH! That’s great. Have you read my best friend Sabaa Tahir’s book AN EMBER IN THE ASHES? She’s great at that.”
“You’re not best friends with Sabaa Tahir, Meg.”
“You have to reach high sometimes.”
“I think that’s too high—”
“—To answer your first question, my favorite part of writing is writing DIALOGUE!”

Like all aspects of writing anything ever, dialogue can be extremely messy and difficult to accomplish. Dialogue adds nuance to a scene and, usually, some form of communication is typically needed—especially if your characters need to assemble a group to go save a magical kingdom or something of the sort. What you choose depends on the story you plan to tell and who your characters are. Communication includes many forms!

No matter the form of conversation you choose, there are still tips and tricks you can use to make dialogue better. When I was in undergrad, I took a screenwriting class, and I’ve always remembered what that teacher emphasized: Dialogue should always communicate your characters’ wants/needs.

“I want Sabaa Tahir to exchange writing playlists with me.”
“Great goal, I want you to finally choose a player in Mario Kart.”

While this example is silly, it’s pretty clear. Someone (not necessarily me) wants to be friends with Sabaa Tahir, but the person’s friend wants to play a game. This example is also extremely direct, and you do not need to be that direct with your characters—emotions and plots can be super messy! Let’s look at another example:

“Are you sure you want to add that song to the playlist?”
“I guess so. Does it matter?”
“It’s a good song, people will like it. Go for it, why are you hesitating?”
“Ugh, this is stupid, I’ll finish this later.”

In this case, the first person is going through something that has nothing to do with adding a song to a playlist, but that’s what the conversation is about. The context is less exposition heavy—the first person isn’t saying, “I’m anxious and upset about the conversation I had this morning with the college counsellor.” Rather, the doubt the character feels comes out in a completely different context.

What also makes dialogue interesting is when the wants/needs between two or more characters do not match up. When wants/needs/desires do not match up, this misalignment creates tension. Maybe the two characters talk it out and their thoughts align. Maybe they don’t.

“I’ve told you countless times that I don’t want you to go. It’s dangerous.”
“The Order of the Magical Thing needs me, Ma. I can’t ignore them.”
“Sure you can, you say ‘no’ and say you have to fish.”
“I’m not going to live the same boring life you did! The world is depending on me!”
“If you leave, you’re never allowed back into this home!”

Here is a conversation between a parent and a child where, for the sake of this post, I’ve made it pretty clear how these characters’ wants differ! The parent wants the child to stay and the child needs to save the world. Rooted in the dialogue is tension and then an ultimatum that will impact the main character’s decision and, most likely, take the story in a specific direction. (Hopefully the one you want!)

Moreover, be conscious as you write that conversations can reveal or withhold information and both impact not only character relationships but also plot. Think ROMEO AND JULIET and if Romeo and Juliet had had a particular conversation before the end of the play:

“Hey Romeo, when I drink that thing, I’ll look dead but I’m not. Don’t do anything rash, thanks.”
“Okay Juliet, that’s smart and I’m glad you told me what the plan is. I’ll be sure to know that you’re not dead, and I won’t stab myself.”

Needless to say, that conversation does not happen, and because that conversation does not happen, ROMEO AND JULIET becomes a tragedy instead of a comedy where they get to run off into the sunset, leave Verona in the dust, and then a Shonda Rhimes show cannot begin. The friars know what’s up, except they learn it too late and apparently getting around in Verona is an Event. Because the adults didn’t discuss the plan in detail with one another, no one can warn Romeo OR Juliet before it’s too late and they’re both dead. We know they could have been saved.

Additionally, layering conversations makes them more interesting (and fun) to read, but also lets you move your story forward without sacrificing your pacing. This concept isn’t to say that you’ll never have to cut a conversation from your book—that’s going to happen because that’s how writing works.

Here’s an example I’ve written out of dialogue with a flirtatious tinge to it that still moves the plot forward. Character 1 wants to read a certain book that will reveal new information helpful to the plot. Character 2 wants the book, too. They both dislike one another (or do they?)

“What are you doing here?”
“I didn’t realize the library was off limits.”
“It’s not, but it’s generally for students who actually care about school.”
“Why are you looking at me like that? I like books.”
“That remains to be seen.”
“Wait, is that the book Prof mentioned? About the history of the school?”
“Clever and cute? Look at you, finding exactly what we need.”
“Hey— I didn’t say you could sit here—”
“This is the book I was looking for. Truth and adventure! Some crap that is. I bet that’s why you enrolled, isn’t it?”
“I’m trying to do charms and there are plenty of open tables that you could sit your boisterous self at.”
“The librarians love me. Top rated student three years running, I think I’ve gotten a detention from each of them.”
“You think everybody loves you.”
“I know one body that does—don’t lie. So, hey, what’s this say anyway? Is this that spell?”

In this example, I’ve layered different sources of tension: the fact that the characters do not like each other. That maybe something of a flirty nature happened between them in the past, except now they’re not remotely on the same page about it. That there’s magic. That they’re at a school that values truth and adventure, yet they’re looking for a specific truth that has been withheld from them. Adding in body language and descriptions to the scene will make the dynamic between the characters even clearer.

To wrap up:

  1. Dialogue should communicate your characters’ wants/needs—either clearly or veiled.
  2. Tension exists when characters’ wants/needs do not match up.
  3. Communication includes many forms: use what works best for your characters and story.
  4. Withholding information, either as the author or a character keeping a secret, impacts the story at every level.
  5. Layer conversations so they accomplish as much as they can in one scene.
  6. HAVE FUN! You have fun writing while your characters argue, perfect.

Hopefully some of these suggestions will help you utilize dialogue revisions or help with conversations your characters haven’t even had yet!


“Stop trying to sound so fancy.”

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