Making Dialogue Work

Dialogue is one of the hardest working tools we have because we ask it to do so much. It has to convey information, develop and move the plot, increase tension and conflict all while sounding natural.

Perhaps most importantly, dialogue must engage the reader through revealing our characters. It brings them to life and shows their personalities, their quirks, their goals, and their fears.

The most effective and real dialogue comes when we know our characters as intimately as possible. Whether our story is plot-driven or character-driven, we have to invest the time in writing biographies, character analyses, Meyers-Briggs assessment, journals, interviewing them, and experimenting with how they speak, act, think, and feel. And they’ll still surprise us.

In my first novel, Journey to Riverbend, I had a problem with the story arc of my female protagonist, Rachel. She was a former prostitute who received Jesus. She was also striving to open a dress-making business in a town where many were hostile to her because of her past. It wasn’t until I interviewed her that I learned Rachel was a feisty, determined young woman with numerous questions about her new-found faith, anxieties about her future, and wondering if love could ever be part of her life.

And I discovered her voice changed depending on her situation. She had a business voice she used with customers and an almost child-like awe when she talked about her faith. At times her prostitute “don’t mess with me” voice came into play. When the mayor attempted to get too familiar, Rachel stopped him cold with the whispered line, “I’m making dresses for your wife. I can make her look like a laughing stock while convincing her she looks like Queen Victoria.”

With these new insights, Rachel’s dialogue became stronger, more connected to her emotions at the moment, more realistic. It revealed more of her personality, her dreams, her fears.

Rachel came to life through her dialogue.

Make the time to know your characters. They’ll reward you with stronger personalities and become people that readers will keep turning pages for.

How has dialogue allowed you to develop your characters even further? What have you learned about your characters through dialogue that surprised you?

5 Replies to “Making Dialogue Work”

  1. Great post. Reading my dialog out loud while walking around the room makes the body-mind connection kick in. I get into character and I realize if the ‘voice’ is off in a characters dialogue.

  2. Loved your post, Henry. Great dialog isn’t always “on the nose.” Sub-text allows a writer to talk about a mundane topic, but the reader knows they’re talking about another situation. Screenwriting books are a great source to learn more about sub-text.

  3. The thing that surprised me the most was not what they (my characters) said, but what they wouldn’t say, and I still needed to convey to the reader somehow, not to mention to the other character.

  4. I like to use dialogue to help me get to know my characters better. I’ll write a scene and let them talk through it, and sometimes they surprise with hidden pieces of their personality I didn’t know anything about. That’s when they turn into real people.

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