I cannot tell you how to write dialogue. There are some standard rules and basic principles attached but in the long history of writer’s writing dialogue for their characters, there is a spectrum of style and usage. This is not an instructive attempt by me or “how to” post. Instead, it’s more about how I have come to learn to write it.
A story without dialogue is…well, let’s just say not impossible to write but in my mind difficult and not really necessary especially in fiction. Readers dive into fiction to experience the lives of the characters in the narrative. The best way to do that is through the dialogue (external and internal) and actions of the characters. I cannot for the life of me think any modern story would be a fun read if dialogue were removed.
(Actually, something tells me Tolkien could have done this but the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings would have been a fantasy history rather than an epic. See the multiple appendices for Middle Earth for reference.)
When I started out, my dialogue writing was less than stellar (as it should have been by an eighteen year old with no experience). It has taken years for me to learn the discipline to do so. And I’m far from being what I’d like to be when it comes to dialogue. I think my current venture into writing the film treatment/screenplay for my movie idea will help since dialogue plays a huge role in the telling of the story (no interior monologues included and all visual storytelling methods are used).
It’s easy for me to say all my characters in the beginning of my writing journey sounded the same (that’s just an easy way to describe it). What I mean by this is, I did not understand how to write the “voices” of different characters very well but that’s because I did not have the practice or skills of diving deep into the characterization of each speaking person. In my mind, this was not an important element. Back then, I just wanted to write and create new worlds. Start at the beginning and work my way to the end to see what I come up with. The voices of characters was sort of tossed in the side bin labeled “consider adding later”.
Characters who do speak in the story have to be differentiated by a number of things. Where were they born? What were their experiences growing up? What was the culture like in which they lived? What is the extent of their education? What religion, if any, did they practice? What are their dreams? What are their fears? Did they suffer from any abuse or disabilities? All of these factors shape people into who they are!
Now, you can go over those questions and easily say, “A writer has to know all of those for each speaking character in order to write dialogue?! That’s crazy!” Yes. Yes, they do and yes it is. Maybe this is why non-writers are so mystified (I embellish a bit by using that word) that writers (especially fantasy writers) can create so much and hold of it in their heads and write full epic stories from start to finish. We’re not wizards ourselves, I assure you (or are we?). What we possess is a strength in creativity that is just different. I can easily admit I’m mystified (I do mean to use that word in this case for myself) at the creativity and ability of artists who paint, sculpt, sketch, compose, etc. It’s something I envy and wish I could do!
When I start writing the main point of view character and begin to have them speak, I learn so much about them. I wish I could explain it in a way that is academically profound but the truth is, I learn who they are as I write the words coming out of their mouths. How they speak to others is just as enlightening! Developing a relationship between them and family, friends, strangers, and/or enemies is part of the magic. It’s writing interactions between my characters that gives me the most joy. I could not write scenes upon scenes where dialogue is absent. Some writers can and I applaud them but I need to write dialogue for the sake of keeping my characters and their journeys progressing forward.
Differentiation between characters and giving them their own voice in the story is difficult and takes practice but it can be done well and in a way that stands out to the readers. This is important and I stress that to anyone who wants to write or has recently tackled the art of storytelling. I cannot tell you how to master this but I can tell you it’s worth mastering. There are plenty of resources out there that can help and I encourage looking for them, studying them, and putting those methods to use. Stories should be vibrant in their descriptions and in their use of dialogue.
Call to Action: Listen to people and how they talk. Pick a few you know and really keen in on the differences from you and from those you know well. It’s amazing the little nuances people have in the way they speak that makes them an individual.