When I wrote my series on crafting emotional resonance, I promised a future post on crafting effective dialogue. This is another element of your writing that will elevate your scenes and emphasize the emotions your characters are feeling. So let’s get into it.
The most crucial piece of believable dialogue is to ensure that your characters talk like themselves. This comes down to a number of factors, most of which I’ve covered in my post on character voice. But to keep it brief, a character’s voice will have elements relating to the words they use and elements that influence how they use those words.
Elements relating to your characters words will include dialect, any accent, pet words, whether or not they use curse words, and the general size and bent of their vocabulary. (Do they know big words? If so, do they use them? Do they know advanced terminology only in certain fields? Etc.)
Your character’s background, interests, and overall character will also color the way they speak. Different characters will highlight or avoid different topics, use different metaphors, and simply speak more or less than other characters might.
It’s hard to divide these two categories, because they feed into each other quite heavily when used correctly. A character’s background and interests will shape their vocabulary, as well as how much they speak and with what tone, and a character’s dialect and vocabulary can tell a lot about their upbringing and values.
If you’re having a hard time with this piece and want to strengthen your dialogue, consider finding ways of listening to people from a similar background to your character, journaling from your character’s POV, or simply experimenting with different voices until you find the one that fits.
Having your characters speak in their own voices makes your dialogue believable; making sure your characters are using subtext makes your dialogue feel real.
People don’t always say what they mean, whether that’s intentional or not. Subtext is the art of communicating between the lines—whether to the reader or between characters within a scene. This can be accomplished through tone of voice, movement (both of which we’ll get to shortly), silence, or dialogue that doesn’t say what it means.
If your character cares about how they’re perceived—or is hiding something—they may put a spin on the things they say in order to shape another character’s opinion of them. They may omit information, direct the conversation toward topics in which they’re confident, exaggerate events or traits (their own or others’), or simply lie.
A character who’s slow to trust might be reticent to talk at all, or they might veil their words intentionally. If someone hits a sore spot, they might deflect the conversation. In writing, you can communicate a lot about a character by what they don’t say, not only what they do.
Tone of voice
A character’s tone can say a lot about their emotional state, their attitude, and their character. Tone can also differentiate among characters, if it remains consistent enough; your soft-spoken character can contrast naturally with the more brusque, rowdy character. And, speaking of contrast, a character with a consistent tone can be contrasted with themselves for emphasis—if that ever soft-spoken character suddenly yells about something, that ought to turn some heads.
Tone can be shown, of course, through dialogue tags. “She whispered,” “he hissed,” “he bellowed,” “she purred.” But it can also often be shown through the dialogue itself and surrounding action. It can be expected that a character sneaking around a haunted castle is speaking softly… unless, of course, her friend winces and looks around to make sure she hasn’t startled a ghost every time she talks. Being specific with your prose and action, and establishing your characters early on, will give your reader the tools they need to fill in the blanks in your character’s tone without an excess of tags.
You can add interest and subtext to a scene if your character’s tone doesn’t match their words.
“I’m fine!” Her voice was high as a chipmunk’s, and her eyes were nearly as crazed.
Clearly, whether she’s aware of it or not, this character is not fine. How can you tell? By the surrounding description of her tone and appearance. This makes the character wonder why she’s saying she’s fine. Is she unaware of her madness? Is she trying to convince herself she’s fine? Is she trying to deflect concern from others? Thus we have the subtext and interest that help to drive the scene forward.
Of course, tone and dialogue can match, and emphasize emotion in doing so. If a character is practically floating on clouds, you might emphasize their bouncing movements, include their words of encouragement to every character they pass, and let us know that their voice has a musical lilt. When matching, however, ensure that the description is necessary and adds something to the scene. If the reader can infer the character’s tone themselves and there’s no need to over-emphasize their emotion by making it really really clear, describing your character’s tone becomes redundant and annoys the reader.
Movement & body language
Some of you have probably picked up on this by now, but dialogue cannot operate effectively in isolation. Without motion, your characters become nothing more than talking heads. The reader loses their moorings in the setting and can’t latch onto the forward movement of the scene. They become disconnected from the characters, breaking the emotional connection you’ve tried so hard to build—even if only temporarily. That’s the storytelling reason for movement and body language amidst your dialogue.
The reality-based reason is that we humans communicate a lot without speaking—both consciously and, even more so, subconsciously. This, too, should differentiate your characters. High-energy characters might gesture a lot with their words; insecure characters may close in on themselves, crossing their arms or hugging one arm close to their body; frustrated characters may set their hands on their hips or wag fingers. All of these movements—not to mention the way characters direct their eyes, angle their bodies, and any other subconscious cues (several of which I discussed when I talked about showing characters’ repressed emotion)—give your readers insight into what your characters are thinking and feeling, and help moor your readers in the scene and setting (particularly when your characters interact with the setting around them, as they ought to).
Of course, there is a balance. Just as you don’t want to overuse tags, you don’t want to flood the reader with actions that interrupt the flow of a conversation, either. This is where it can help to read a stretch of dialogue aloud, offer it to beta-readers, or (if the flow is still a problem after rounds of edits) get a professional editor’s opinion.
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There you have my most critical principles for crafting dialogue. I may write a couple more posts on dialogue, one looking at how to format and punctuate dialogue properly (a common fix throughout editing projects I’ve worked on) and one offering exercises for strengthening your dialogue. Let me know in the comments if either of those posts would be helpful or of interest to you!
And let me know which point you found most helpful in this post. Do you enjoy writing dialogue, or is it a struggle? I’d love to chat with you!