How to Write: Fictional Dialogue

Since completing NaNoWriMo, I’ve been receiving periodic emails from the local meeting group. One such email invited me to attend a Toil and Trouble: Dialogue Workshop led by Tom Leveen, a local author of young adult fiction with 22 years of live theater experience. Beyond his experience in the fields of writing and acting, Tom truly believes in helping other achieve their dreams and live up to their potential – a great quality considering his books are aimed at teenagers.

Many writers find dialogue to be the most difficult aspect or storytelling, so this was a fun and unique class aimed at improving dialogue and polishing fictional writing technique. On top of that, it was absolutely free. I’m still on the fence about editing and revising my NaNoWriMo novel, but in the case I do, this information will be highly beneficial.

So what did I learn? Here are some key points:

  • The root of dialogue means “two logics,” so dialogue should involve a conflict that actively moves the story towards a resolution.
  • If your character wants a glass of water on page one, we will read 1,000 pages to find out if he gets it. A character’s wants much be tangible and actionable.
  • Every time there is an entrance/exit, relationships change. For example, if two teenager girls are gossiping about someone, the topic and tone will shift when that other person walks by. Also take into consideration where the character is coming from and their subsequent attitude.
  • Every line of dialogue is a win or loss, and each indicates conflict (which is the heart of the plot). When editing a manuscript, it’s helpful to mark “wins” and “losses” to ensure that there is a healthy balance.
  • Along with words, people also communicate through blocking, which is motivated by emotional responses. Actions can signify one’s agenda or motive just as well as words.
  • Double- and triple-check for internal logic in dialogue tags. For example, you can’t hiss “go away!” but you could bark “no!”
  • Don’t typecast characters; choose a reaction opposite from what’s expected from time to time; have the character do something “out of character.”
  • Placing the same line of dialogue into a new setting can change the tone and meaning entirely, creating something entirely new.
  • Your protagonist can guide you, but don’t let them take the reins.
  • In freighting situations, there’s no time to think of eloquent wording. Yelling “run!” is more realistic than shouting “there’s a massive dog racing towards you and it might be a good idea to run away.”
  • The sole purpose of punctuation is to indicate the length and type of a pause to the reader.
  • Ticks, cadences, and accents are risky to do right, can be offensive, and are often difficult. If necessary, they should be used in moderation.
  • Catchphrases are good when used sparingly because they serve as a distinction, something that makes a character unique.
  • A character’s upbringing, location, and emotional state will influence their dialogue.
  • If you can’t write a compelling story, nothing else matters. First worry about the story, then go fix everything else once you’ve finished your first draft.
  • When it comes to publishing, be more conservative and know the rules when starting out. If you want to take risks, wait until you’ve made a name for yourself.
  • Clarity is GOD.
  • Use dialogue to help reader relate the characters.
  • Give characters a unique voice through their vocabulary. Does the character use four letter words or are they a walking dictionary?
  • Improve your dialogue by listening in on others’ dialogue.
  • Incorporate “fabulous realities” into your story – those things you see and hear in everyday situations that stick out and that you’d love to write down and save for a future story.
  • Accuracy and research are important to a story. If you know nothing, start with children’s books and build up from a basic understanding. Write about what you know. Don’t be a slave to research because, ultimately, the story is what really matters.
  • Combine original ideas with inspiration from others’ literature, as well as other mediums.
  • When writing from the perspective of the opposite gender, women traditionally ask questions, whereas men make more statements. Don’t fall into too many stereotypes and clichés, but they are a good start.
  • Sharing your work with a few other people is a good way to gauge how realistic your dialogue is.
  • If you haven’t been in the same situation as your character, rely on emotional memory and think of similar memories you’ve had that trigger the same emotions.
  • When it comes to revision, begin with broad strokes, then move on to internal logic and the smaller details. You should be able to summarize your  plot into one sentence.
  • Keep your readers interested by writing your book, committing to your idea, and being honest with your readers. However, when you pitch your book, appeal to what the publisher wants.
  • Editors and agents are rooting for writers because they want up to write the best book and they want to represent us. They’re simply looking for a good story, so write them a good story.

The story should end on a different plane that it begins; it should progress and develop

Recommended Books and resources:

Thanks to Tom Leveen for the wonderful workshop! Be sure to check out his young adult novel, Party, and soon-to-be-released novel, Zero .