He said, she said


The mastery of good dialogue is one of the most important skills that a writer can have; if you’re a screenwriter, then writing good dialogue is the single most important thing you need to learn.
As I have mentioned before in my post about the golden rule of “show, don’t tell”, dialogue is the most immediate form of action you can possibly have in your story; it shows the reader who the characters are by letting them express the way they choose to react to a situation, the words they choose to say, they way they choose to say them, and the ones they choose NOT to say.
The first thing one needs to know about dialogue is that it is not a conversation. It has to sound like a conversation, but it is by no means one. Do you know how long the average, typical conversation usually lasts? It lasts an average of twenty minutes. That’s TWENTY minutes. That’s twenty pages of script, or close to forty pages of paperback!! If every dialogue took up that much of what you are writing, everyone would write 350,000 words of manuscript, and every movie would last four hours. But that’s not the case, of course. Conversations are this long because they are repetitive and unplanned. People do not edit themselves for dramatic effect when they talk to each other. But that is precisely what you need to do when you write dialogue. You need to create the impression of conversation while conveying information that is edited for best effect and comprehension.
If you remember what I said about the scene, it must serve to advance the story in some shape or fashion; since dialogue is an integral part of the majority of scenes, it must also advance the story in exactly the same ways:
–  Supporting or advancing the causality: the revelations made to the story during dialogue are the most efficient ones; the reader has the impression of witnessing the very moment of the revelation, and that impression is extremely conducive to the impression of being inside the story that fervent readers love.
–  Defining character: Every dialogue should strive to do that. Characters reveal their true colors by the reactions they have to certain situations, and their language. It should be noted that their personality is also revealed by what they choose to omit; the choice not to say something, or to imply it, is exactly as important as the choice to say it.
–  Credibility is also enforced by dialogue; if you have some explaining to do about the way your world works, for example, in science-fiction and fantasy, the best (and most engaging) way to do this is through dialogue. Also, the motivation of a character to take a certain course of action is best explained in dialogue; it is much more convincing to be able to judge a character through his actions than to have an omniscient narrator TELL us that a character believes or feels so-and-so.
–  Establish tone: In addition to all the rest, your dialogue serves to establish and support the tone of your scene. The mood of your characters and their state of mind are revealed through dialogue; people do not speak the same way when they are emotional as when they are not.
More than anything, the bottom line is that dialogue is not a conversation; it is a power struggle. It is usually two characters having opposing views, desires or needs; and they use the resources they have to draw on to try and win. These resources can be their cleverness, their directness, their aggressiveness, etc., and go into the ultimate outcome of the struggle, which is used to support your premise, to illustrate the nature of the relationship between the two characters and to reveal something about the personality of the characters by which resource they draw on.
Just as it’s not the best idea to have huge blocks of texts for description, your dialogue is best read when peppered with actions. It should be clear who is speaking by the way the characters express themselves, but you can help comprehension with the actual structure of the text. By putting actions done by characters every so often, you not only clarify who is speaking by making the person who speaks the subject of the last action before the actual dialogue.
Besides, it is crucially important to include these actions, instead of just writing “he said” or “she said”; a very large part of the information conveyed in dialogue is not understood by the actual words that are being said. The breakdown goes something like this: 7% of the meaning is conveyed by the words: 38% is the tone of voice and 55% is body language. As you can see, we tend to concentrate a lot on the actual words when we should be concentrating on the way they are being said, starting with the tone in which they are said; it goes without saying that if a character says something angrily, or shouts, or whispers, or has a voice which is quivering with sorrow, it should be mentioned. But the thing that gives the most meaning to our words is body language. Body language is expressed in a number of ways:
–  Facial expression;

–  Posture;

–  Gestures. The many different tics and gestures we have while talking say a whole lot about our mental state: folding one’s arms, scratching, picking a scab, licking one’s lips, tapping a foot or finger… There is a number of books out there that speak of body language and emotion. Go to the library and look them up!

It’s extremely important to remember that your dialogue should sound like speaking. It shouldn’t be written in the same language as your narration; people don’t speak the way we write. That is not to say, of course, that everyone uses the same level of language when they speak; most people will structure their phrases differently depending on their education, or their language of origin. The best way to ensure that your dialogue sounds like speech is to always read it out loud. Do it to your critique group. Read it to your spouse, or your cat, or yourself, but READ IT OUT LOUD!!! You will hear right away if something does not sound right, which you would not have caught otherwise.
The very best thing that you can do when you struggle with dialogue is to become more observant. Listen to conversations. I mean it; go in a public place. Get the earphones out of your ears when you ride the bus. Go to a restaurant or a fast-food joint by yourself, and pretend to read the paper, when really, you are listening. Pay attention to the way people speak, the way they phrase things, the way they react, their particular idioms. Compare many people’s speech pattern. Make up a question that requires a minimum of explanation (for example, “describe your happiest memory” or “what do you think of Hollywood blockbusters”) and ask it of people around you; compare the way they speak. Do they use long phrases to mean just one thing? Do they use as few words as possible? Do they avoid words, instead using onomatopoeias and gestures? Do they use very familiar language and bad grammar? Do they make up words by transforming nouns into verbs?


Finally, read and listen to great dialogue. A lot of television shows have fantastic dialogue. Personally, I highly recommend anything by Joss Whedon. But always remember: if “show, don’t tell” is the golden rule of action and exposition, “always read your dialogue out loud” is THE golden rule of writing good dialogue.

8 thoughts on “He said, she said

  1. This was a very helpful post for me to read right now. I am about half-way through a working draft of a novella and I’m finding that I’m focusing primarily on the dialogue and very brief descriptive gestures. I chatted with a former theater professor and when I indicated there was thus far little action, he asked if would really work as a play (which I’d hope it would). He indicated that scripts which are too “talky” can lead to boring theater. Now, I’m wondering if what I’m writing so far would actually translate more readily into a screenplay.

    At any rate, I’m going to finish it first as a novella – I’m confident in my ability to speak to a reader. Then, when I finish the working draft, I can consult with “experts” who can advise me about adapting it into other forms.

    Thanks for the post.

    1. Hey there! Thursday’s post will be about narration. Let me know if it answers some of your questions. I find that a dialogue-heavy story is usually much better and easier to both tell and follow than the contrary. A good story does not necessarily need to be action-heavy; there are plenty of minimalist stories in which little seems to happen, but as long as something happens emotionally to your characters, it’s interesting. I will soon be doing a few posts that talk about structure. You might want to have a look at those and see if you have the makings of a dramatic story. If you do, then you should be in business. And if you still need help “translating” your story into other mediums, drop me a line at icecreamforzombies@gmail.com . One of my degrees is in film studies, and another one is in sequential art; I know all about adaptation into other medias, and I can probably help you out.

  2. WOW, this was helpful. After many nano’s, I’m just now grinding to a halt in my growth as a writer because in all my struggles for word count, I write too much. Conversations drag. Action scenes are few and far between. I can go on and on and on about how someone feels without actually moving the story. Most of all, I struggle with long conversations that end up being “he said, she said, he said, I said, she said, he said.” Like many things I’m now discovering, I really just need to make it shorter and more succinct. Trim the excess fat, so to speak, and write “unrealistically” to get the point across in fewer words.

    One thing I’ve been experimenting with to test myself is writing a story with a traditionally “silent” character, like R2D2 or many video game main characters. You can tell that they speak because the people around them react to what they say. Something that may read like this…

    ‘No, this is important! The dark lord is back, and [other information we already know]!’ I said.

    He looked aghast at me and said, ‘HUWAAAAAAH?! That cannot be!’

    ‘I can be, and it is! What does it mean?!’ I asked. ‘You must know something!’

    ‘Yes, I do….’ He said, ‘It means [something that moves the plot forward]!’

    Instead, it reads…

    With a grave expression, I explained. He looked aghast at me. ‘HUWAAAAA?! The DARK LORD is back?! Do you know what that means?! That means [something that moves the plot forward]!’

    When it’s just the passage of information the reader already knows, it works rather well as an exercise. Not sure if I’d write a whole book like that or not.

    1. Hey there! Thanks so much for the kind words!

      The second passage is much better indeed! It can get difficult to make dialogue efficient because we tend to learn how to do it well by mimicking conversation, which can tend to drag without us noticing.

      I just wanted to point out that, if you ever have any other issues, I’m always glad to receive requests and questions for blog posts. It motivates me to keep posting! So if you ever have a writing-related question or concern, please feel free to comment about it on a post and/or email me about it, and I’ll write a post!

      1. Will do! Hm…there is one thing. I get to around the middle of the novel, and I get to a horrible place where “I need to have certain things introduced before the end” etc, but “I don’t know exactly what I’ll need until I write the end” and “I have an idea about the end but what comes before it will affect it” but “I don’t know what comes before it because I don’t know the exact end I’m leading up to.” Quite a paradox. Could you write a post about that?

  3. I can try! It is a conundrum. Have you tried outlining with post-its yet? If you haven’t, I recommend checking out my post from last November (I haven’t updated a whole lot since then, it shouldn’t be terribly far down) called “Structuring your novel with the post-it method”. It might help you with that! But I definitely will try to come up with something!

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