I Swear I’m Qualified For This
(Thank you to @PocketGhosts for the art!)
There are very few things that I feel like I’m good at. Yes, that includes writing, despite it being my main form of creativity. That said, within the broad canvas of writing as a skill there is one thing that I would consider myself pretty alright at, and that’s Dialogue and Voice. So here's some tips on them!
It’s real easy to think that writing dialogue in a story just requires you to write people the way they talk in real life. This is actually not a good process to writing strong dialogue, and that’s because listening to someone talk versus reading what they’re saying has two very different energies. You don’t want to mimic human speech too closely, because human speech is messy. People “um” and “ah.” They talk over each other, and reiterate the same points multiple times. They are, oftentimes, incomprehensible when they speak.
Most importantly, we are not in fantasy or sci-fi universes where we are protagonists of a story — at least, as far as I’m aware. Dialogue in storytelling generally needs structure. It needs to either address the plot, or add characterization, either to the character speaking, the character or characters being spoken to, or the world the characters inhabit. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t mimic the way people talk at all — that’s where “Voice” comes in, and we’ll be getting to that.
So how do you write good dialogue? “Practice,” is obvious, isn’t it? So is “read more.” I’ll try and give you advice that’s a bit more practical. When you’re about to write a scene of dialogue, think about what will be talked about, and why it’s being discussed before you start. How will the conversation start, and how will it end?
For example, here’s a quick scene between my characters Asha and Toni, after studying together.
It seems like it’s just small talk that leads into a transition to another scene, but I went into it wanting to set up a few things.
- Toni is a hard worker. This is an aspect of characterization that will matter going further into the story.
- Asha is nervous about Toni meeting Venus. This serves to explain Asha’s feelings about both characters, and what Venus is like as a person. If I want it to be, it can serve as foreshadowing for a potential disastrous meeting between Toni and Venus in the future.
- Asha has a crush on Toni. This is because she’s gay.
There’s a start and end to the conversation, and it comes together with a “why.” Even minor pre-planning can help you write dialogue that’s snappy and concise.
Another strategy I use is to make sure that dialogue doesn’t turn into “talking head syndrome.” THS is what happens when two characters
“Have a conversation.”
“Do you see what I’m saying?”
“It’s a back and forth.”
The problem with this is that it becomes extremely stale to read for long periods of time. You want to break your dialogue up with actions that the characters take as they talk, or thoughts that the characters might have as the conversation goes on. These are stop-gaps that help the conversation become more readable, and breath life into the characters as well. Here’s another sample I’ve written that takes advantage of this strategy.
You can see that this is technically a back and forth between a series of characters, but there are punctuations of action that improve the flow that comes with reading the conversation.
This isn’t to say that rapid-fire dialogue doesn’t always work. You just want to make sure you’re using it properly. It can be very useful, for example, when a tense conversation is happening, or when two characters are fighting. The back-and-forth there can add impact to your writing.
So you know how to write a scene of dialogue. But how do you make your characters not all sound alike? This can actually be really difficult to pull off, even for me, when I’ve been writing for a while. If you’re not character, your characters will stop having their own voices and start sounding like you, the author. Or they’ll all start sounding like your protagonist, even!
To offset this, it comes down to making a character with a strong sense of…well, character! The more time you take to flesh out your characters, the easier it will be to take on their voice when you need to. Come up with their backstory in detail. Hell, interview them yourself until you find a voice you like! It can feel weird to do, but it can really help in the long run. Voice is where a character’s “human side” comes to life. Think of their personality and how that would effect the way they enter a conversation — or if they’d start a conversation at all.
Now, for one extremely weird tip: I act out my scenes in my room sometimes, complete with the actions I want to write them doing as they talk. I play each character, speaking their scenes aloud like a miniature movie. Again, it’s strange to hear, but doing it in person it can actually be really helpful to make sure you don’t lose your characters’ Voices as you write a scene out.
And that’s the advice I’ve got! I thought it’d be cool to write more semi-casual pieces that talk about my writing process. If you liked this let me know! I will try writing more.