Two people talking

Let’s Talk About Dialogue!

I’ve heard from many people that dialogue can be hard to write. I’ve always found this to be a puzzling thought. Why would this be hard to write? After all, if you know how to talk, you should know how to write dialogue! Just write what you hear!

But it’s not quite as simple as that. After all, there’s all these pesky rules of grammar, the idea of “show don’t tell,” and other aspects that writers try to adhere to. But their dialogue always comes out stiff or formal. Their characters have no life. What are they doing wrong?

Well, I have a little secret to share with you. Dialogue allows you to break the rules a bit.

Think about it – when someone is talking, they don’t have a “backspace” key in order to correct their mistakes. There’s no way to edit your coffee order or your pick-up line after you’ve said it. When most people speak, they aren’t focused on the rules of grammar. They’re focused on communicating.

Now that isn’t to say that your dialogue should be riddled with spelling errors or (ugh) abbreviated instant messaging chat. But most people really don’t care if they finish their sentence with an adverb or preposition. They frequently speak in sentence fragments. Sometimes, if a person has a stutter or is tired, what they are saying may make no sense at all. (In fact, it almost seems like a sport to point out and make fun of dumb things politicians say!)

By setting aside some of the rules of grammar, your dialogue can become more organic and believable. This can be a hard thing for writers to grasp. “But… grammar rules… I don’t….” Trust me, you can stick with all the grammatical rules in the sections without dialogue. But within the quotation marks, it’s OK to let up a bit.

I mentioned it above, but another rule that frequently comes up is “show, don’t tell.” This is a simple concept, but difficult in execution. Basically, rather than outright telling your reader what you want to portray, you demonstrate it using actions. Dialogue lets you bend the rules a bit in this regard, though! Here’s an example of telling:

King Fred ruled the land with an iron fist. The peasants were forced to work night and day until they dropped from exhaustion.

There’s nothing really wrong with those sentences, but they’re not very moving, either. We’d like to figure out a way to “show” this, though, so the reader can become more immersed in the world.

Well, one of the best ways to do this would be through dialogue! There are a couple ways that this can be done through your characters. One way is the “as you know” approach, where one of the characters is restating something that the listeners should already be aware of. This can work in some instances, but overuse of it can be awkward. I tend to prefer the “I’m new here” approach.

“So, who is King Fred?”

The filthy man with the patched clothes gave Mary a confused look. “Paul, did she say she don’t know who King Fred is?”

The other peasant – the one with bandages all over his hands – nodded. “She did, Peter. Where did you say you was from?”

“A long ways away.” Mary stated uncertainly.

Paul nodded slowly. “Must be. King Fred says he owns all the land from sea to sea.”

“Works us like dogs, he does.” Peter hoisted another shovel of mud out of the pit. He panted as he thrust the shovel down again. “Been working like this since suppertime last night.”


“Don’t know, and it’s not our place to ask.” Paul threw his own load of dirt out of the pit. “He wants holes dug, we dig holes. Askin’ questions is the best way to get locked up ’round here.”

As you can see, we’ve been able to portray the same information in both sections. But the second one goes a longer way about it, and helps to actually flesh out the scene, too. You’ve also probably noticed that I violated a few grammatical rules in my dialogue, too. But it flows well, and helps to illustrate the nature of the characters.

When used properly, dialogue can be an immensely useful tool. The challenge is learning to use it properly. I recommend that you start by listening to people around you – how do they talk? What mannerisms stand out to you in the words they use? How does their speech change when they get nervous, or excited, or sad? Take plenty of notes about what you observe, and think about ways to incorporate that into your style.

Until next week, keep on writing!

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