Think of where the Conversation is going to End
Many parts of writing fiction contain the same goal. Where will it end-up and how do you get there as a writer. And, when you get their, after writing for weeks on end, will it be worth it for the reader?
The beginning, middle and end of a story creates a sense of moving forwards and covering ideas and steps in the story. The same applies to chapters and scenes. A dialogue between two characters should contain the same feeling of moving forwards with anticipation of what will be said next. What will be the response to those words and what action will the character take to counter those words. Words lead to action. And that is of utmost importance in your story.
Before beginning to write a dialogue ask questions. What will the final words in the dialogue be? What objective are the characters attempting to reach in the conversation?
Most important is, what should not be said?
Everyday speech that we listen to from real people is often full of subtext. People don’t communicate directly and frankly because they know that they may get themselves into trouble or a deeper conversation that they don’t want. So they speak in a way that indicates what they are trying to say. We have all experienced the conversation where we try to skim along on the surface of things and avoid saying exactly what should be said, and then discovered that our attempts cause the conversation to become so vague and confused that it’s embarrassing. Red faces and goodbyes, “What was that all about?”
We can’t use these conversations for writing fiction. We have to invent styles of speech and conversations that seem natural but are, in fact, very direct and honest and do lead directly to the point. The conversation must lead to a revelation or a new point of conflict that leads to action. A revelation will cause one or more characters to have to think and then act or have moment of realisation that changes everything. All of it leads to action and therefore serves to further the story and deepen it.
Writing direct speech in your dialogues doesn’t mean that the conversation should be flat and boring, like a an unemotional exchange of words between a boss and his workers.
“Finish the task.”
“Get the job done, it’s two O’clock already.”
“What? How much time do we have left?”
The first dialogue is weak and boring but reflects real life a lot more. The second dialogue is fiction and contains the same message but expresses tension about time, something about the relationship between the boss and the worker and begs questions about what they are doing and why it’s so important to finish the job soon.
They could be preparing an order for a mail order company or they could be robbing a bank. The first dialogue tells us nothing.
Dialogue expresses character
Writing dialogue is about character and what that character is saying. You must aim to create a voice that fits each character and is recognisable to the reader. The use of certain types of speech will achieve this end.
Think about tag-questions, monosyllable words and the odd word that only that character would use. Some characters might use simple vocabulary as an expression of the level of their education.
A story to read and study for Dialogue that expresses two distinct characters is John Fowles’ The Collector (Vintage Classics) .
Throughout, there are only two people involved but their conversation is so vivid and expressive. You can feel the tension build, you can tell when one of them is lying and you can feel when one of them is planning and being devious. The tone in their voices is far apart on the social scale and apart from the book being a wonderful read, it will show you how to write dialogue.
Another character may use long multi-syllabic words that express a well read person who always speaks in the formal and uses pompous vocabulary to express simple ideas. I would imagine that they are a pain in the neck to talk to and often have trouble in social situations. This type of character would also have a head full of ideas that other people don’t have much time for. His or her conversation could also be intimidating to other characters.
A character who has spent his life working at menial jobs and finds that the day to day of life is about knuckling down to the task won’t have much time or understanding for the above character. A conversation between them could be entertaining and funny or it could be stiff and embarrassing for both of them. The subtext or words not spoken create tension in the reader’s mind. The thinking reader will feel tension and know that things are going unsaid. How does a reader feel these things?
Some stories will give a reader clues and information that the characters don’t know about, or some of them at least. A conversation about something that has happened but the character only tells the other characters half the story, invents lies and skims around the subject is an example where subtext can be felt.
Telling Lies and Conflicts in Speech
More difficult, is when a conversation doesn’t smack of the truth. We sense it when a lie is being told. Often, in real life we “see a lie” through body language and words that are not in harmony with each other. Often we pick it up unconsciously and then later we feel that something is wrong, something doesn’t add up.
When we write such a scene we can also use direct speech patterns that conflict with body language. Just be careful to be clear about the body language and how it disconnects the dialogue from the characters actions to make it untrustworthy. Don’t forget to show it and not to tell it with descriptions that run into longer narratives.
The opposite is also true of body language. The conflict of body and speech doesn’t always hide a simple lie, it can also be the expression of unknown desire or needs for something that isn’t consciously known by the characters.
A few more points on Dialogue that you should use to keep your dialogues lively and real.