How to Use Dialogue Effectively

“They Said What?”: How to Use Dialogue Effectively

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The average person speaks anywhere between 6,000 and 16,000 words per day. That’s the word count of either a short story or a novelette. Of course, in writing, putting 6,000–16,000 words of dialogue on consecutive pages is more than likely going to make some readers toss the book into the nearest trash receptacle. (Hopefully the others donate it to their local used books store.)

The official definition of dialogue (according to Merriam-Webster) is “a written composition in which two or more characters are represented as conversing.”

Basically, it’s two people having a chat. It could be over a hot meal, an ice-cold drink, or the shattered remains of a 35,000-year-old vase from a people who no longer exist. No matter the number of people involved, dialogue is an outward expression of inner thoughts.

In fiction, dialogue ties with physical action in showing readers who your characters are and why they are that way. Here are three tips to use dialogue more effectively in your fiction writing.

Weave in Voice

Dialogue and Voice often get used interchangeably. However, while dialogue are the specific words a character uses, voice is how they speak those words.

Voice tells a reader what a character’s attitudes, beliefs, and worldviews encompass. It can also be used to hide those same things. These three aspects change over time. Some by a great margin; others, just barely. Use voice to give your readers a hint at your character’s true nature, for good or ill.

Use your character’s voice to suggest where they came from, how much education they do or don’t have, or how different life experiences have shaped their current actions. Those three aspects in particular allow you to state your character’s goals out loud, reveal them over time, or even accidently reveal them in the middle of a conversation about something entirely different.

Mix in Conflict

Author and writing coach K.M. Weiland posits that there are four types of conflict that dialogue can show for your readers:

  1. Opposing Views, No Stakes: This is merely a difference of opinion, or a different way of seeing a principle or belief and presenting it to the other person. Call it a debate or passionate argument, there’s no animosity between the two characters having said conversation.
  2. Opposing Views, With Stakes: In fiction as in life, stakes are what’s at risk if a person doesn’t achieve their goal. Theo and Keith may be arguing about whose turn it is to do the laundry. What they might really be arguing about is a power imbalance in their relationship.
  3. Opposing Goals, Low Stakes: Here’s where the story starts to get a little spicy. One character wants something that the other character absolutely will not give them. There’s just enough conflict that characters are more willing to stand their ground in their effort to get what they want. On the other hand, they’re also willing to compromise.
  4. Opposing Goals, High Stakes: A character will not be deterred at this point. Their story goal, external and internal, drives them, and they will make things physical if that’s what it takes to get what they want. Of course, the fun part is they’ll likely find that what they want isn’t what they need.

Overloading your story with a single type of verbal conflict will have one of two effects. You’ll end up slowing the pacing to a crawl, after which the reader will (kindly) set your book on their “To Be Donated” pile. Or you’ll exhaust your reader thanks to redlining the conflict for forty pages.

Mix and match your verbal conflicts, depending on the stakes of the scene. Make readers just intrigued enough, or hooked enough, that they want to know the outcome of this exchange.

Blend in Banter

There are very few moments in a novel for me that are better than watching two or more characters match verbal wits. The difference between conflict and banter is obvious, of course. Banter is teasing between characters (though it does have the potential to slide into underhanded slights that can lead to conflict).

In romance novels, banter is a way to tease out the attraction between your two protagonists. It shows that one character is paying attention to the other, especially when the other person isn’t aware.

I don’t know about you, but tooth-rotting fluff is a trope I will fall for every time. Good-natured banter builds that schmexy tension that have readers going, “Just kiss already!”

Photo by Valiant Made on Unsplash

Being neurospicy means I often struggle with the “making the words come out of the mouth” thing, especially with people I don’t know or am not comfortable around. Penning out my thoughts gives me the freedom to pick the right words for the right context.

The joys of writing dialogue, good and bad, is exploring the right words for the right character for the right context. The above tips on how to use dialogue effectively can be a starting point for your first draft or a checklist to go through as you revise your manuscript.

The goals-motivations-conflict trifecta is at the crux of every story every human has told across time immemorial. Still, it’s the dialogue between the characters involved that adds a special flavor to said story. Season your story with the right amount of dialogue, and your readers will be more than happy to reflect on your story one word at a time.

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