Some advice on writing dialogue

Good dialogue is witty, all the time. No line is exactly what the audience expected.

This is why, in Mass Effect, the dialogue option labels are paraphrased from what Shepard actually says if you pick them, which might at first seem like a stupid, pointless idea. I don't think it's unreasonable to think it was still a bad idea, but it would have been boring to have the player select a dialog line and then listen to Shepard repeat it verbatim, and the paraphrasing solves this problem.

Mass Effect review

I'll talk about an excerpt from a crap novel I wrote when I was 19 before and after improvements. An excerpt from chapter 1 originally read:

I hear footsteps coming up the stairs. It's Brev and three other cadets I recognize: Logan, Stef, and Sally. They move immediately but casually to surround me.

"What?" I say.

"Telra..." Brev says. "You know how you're the only cadet who's better than me?"

"Yeah... what of it?"

Blekh, right? Telra's lines are boring because they're exactly the obvious thing to say in that situation. They're the most nondescript possible way of communicating those thoughts, and that's why they suck.

After later edits:

I hear footsteps coming up the stairs. It's Brev and three other cadets I recognize: Logan, Stef, and Sally. They move immediately but casually to surround me.

"Well let's hear it then," I say.

"Telra..." Brev says. "You know how you're the only cadet who's better than me?"

"I'm surprised you're not too embarrassed to say it out loud. What of it?"

The first edit projects confidence. She assumes the obvious and prompts them to cut to the chase, instead of acting entirely passive.

The second edit is a massive improvement. It gives her so much more personality as she rubs in her superiority (she had a "might makes right" ideology) and is a little bit of an asshole.

Good dialogue is tailored to the character and the world.

The way a person communicates conveys a lot about them. For example, child characters should generally use simpler language. An urban gangster shouldn't religiously avoid profanity. It takes conscious attention to write a character who doesn't have the same speech habits as the author, but it makes their dialogue a lot more flavorful.

Of course you can make exceptions to these rules, for example it could be interesting to have an urban gangster who *does* religiously avoid profanity, but this is an explicit character trait. There should probably be some reason why such a person bothers to avoid that kind of language.

It also has a lot to do with the setting. One way this can be shown is through setting-specific idioms. In the first Mistborn book, "Lord Ruler" (the villain's title) is an expletive. (It makes more sense than Americans saying "President!" because the Lord Ruler is seen as god.) It doesn't just add flavor, it's taken advantage of for character development when Kelsier tells the others not to swear by the Lord Ruler's name because that acknowledges him as their god (even if the author botches this by having everyone continue to do it anyway).

In the second Mistborn trilogy, the expletive "Rust and Ruin" is introduced, which is a goldmine of flavor in reference to the previous trilogy. It sounds like a real phrase and is a great way of showing how their culture's been affected by the events of the first trilogy.

Good dialogue is tailored to the characters' relationship and the situation.

A common error is excessively formal dialogue. Real people - at least ones who know each other well - optimize their speech for practicality, not purity. In particular, they *use contractions*. Contractions are a fact of how the English language is spoken. It can make sense for a character to use less of them in certain situations or depending on their personality, but no real person avoids them the way some writers do.

Other forms of formal speech that are usually excessive include:

Obviously, when the character is *trying* to sound formal or grandiose, the stuff in that list is a good thing, but it shouldn't be how everyone normally talks.

Another form of informal speech is omitting the pronoun subject: "Tried. Didn't work." instead of "I tried. It didn't work".

Good dialogue is written by the characters, not by the plot.

One of the most common forms of bad dialogue - and maybe the hardest to avoid - is dialogue that gives the appearance of intentionally moving toward a specific destination that isn't either of the characters' goals. The more you show that the story wouldn't go the way it is if it weren't a story, the harder it gets to enjoy the story.

The eternal struggle of writing good dialogue without clobbering the plot is to make the characters' flow of thoughts believably end up at the desired point. This will always be hard no matter how well you know your character or whatnot.

The writer has a critical tool here: uncertainty. People will have some idea of what makes sense for a given person to say in a given situation, but there's almost always some wiggle room: more than one thought might make sense as following the previous one, or two different wordings might both sound good and be in character which could affect how the other character feels in response, or the character might have two thoughts and choose to voice them in either order, and the response to whichever is voiced first might affect how it's believable for the second part of the conversation to go. The writer can do whatever they want inside these areas of uncertainty.

There's also the offscreen timing ability: the writer can do whatever isn't unbelievable, so unless the audience knows where every character is at all times, it usually works fine to have another character interrupt or enter a conversation to cut it off at exactly the point the author wanted it at. If this happens too often it might come off as contrived but it's fine occasionally.

"Dialog tags are garbage," Yujiri angrily criticized.

I guess I should also talk a little about dialogue tags. I honestly hate the conventional ways of doing this and I wish we could just write '(character): "(line)"'. I think the only reason it's not a good idea to do that is that readers don't expect it, so they notice it, contradicting the objective of unobtrusiveness. I still want to try it someday and prove it can work. But everyone uses in-prose tags, so I have to talk about them.

There are a lot of different common ways of formatting these. I remember when I was little I thought of "(line), said (name)" as the default format (Harry Potter used it). But I hate this format. It sounds old-fashioned and like you're trying to be poetic or something (especially when you write in first person: "(line), said I" sounds awful). When I grew up it seemed like "(name) said" became the standard over "said (name)", and I like that more, but I still hate the idea of putting dialogue tags at the end of the line. Putting it at the beginning is a strict improvement in terms of clarity, and while readers don't often get confused about who's saying what, it can be really bad when it happens.

Sometimes people do put it at the beginning. Like the method I mentioned above, this is only awkward because of how non-standard it is. But I've seen some authors use it occasionally and it landed fine. The way this works best is by using a narrative statement instead of a plain tag. For example, instead of 'John said, (line)', write 'John stopped typing for a minute. (line)'. These little descriptions can add a lot to conversations, if you can think of good ones.

Sometimes authors put the dialogue tag in the middle of the line to achieve some of the benefit of having it at the beginning without it being quite as awkward. I don't have a problem with this - I do it myself sometimes - but I would ask that you put it in a place where there's supposed to be a pause, because it makes the reader imagine the character pausing over the tag.

Another common thing other writers say is that you shouldn't use dialogue tags if they're not necessary. That's very true. Since tags are treated as part of the prose, they get read as such by the reader, and so they can be obtrusive if you use them on every line unnecessarily. Generally, in a two-person dialogue you should only need a tag every fourth line or so. (The only reason you need them at all is incase the reader loses track of who spoke last.)

Also, I know I'm the one-millionth person to say this but I should talk about verb choice. Remember, since the goal is to provide clarity without being obtrusive, you should usually stick to "said" as the verb. Said is so nondescript and standard that it becomes somewhat invisible. And if your dialogue is good, more specialized verbs aren't usualy necessary: a verb like "agreed", "pointed out", "fumed", or similar should be evident from the content of the line itself. If the character is "yelling", the exclamation mark is usually enough to indicate that. Unnecessary redundancy is bad. (A major exception is whispering - this one usually needs to be stated, especially since it's not exclusive with the exclamation mark. "Respond" and "ask" are also okay sometimes since using said in those cases can make it sound like it's supposed to *not* be a response or a question.)


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