The Basics of Dialogue

Updated: Mar 3


So, you want to write dialogue. Maybe you’re looking at your current project and you’ve noticed that it’s narrative-heavy. Maybe you’re trying to make your characters three-dimensional. Maybe you heard something funny in a real-life conversation and want to weave it into your story. In any of these cases, utilizing dialogue can make your project more complex, giving your audience an insight into your characters and their conflicts that narrative just can’t provide. But where do you begin? Once you understand how dialogue works within your piece, you can further understand how your narrative functions. Let’s jump into the nitty-gritty details and learn about dialogue!

So what is ‘dialogue’? Simply, it is a conversation between two or more characters, and is used in almost every literary work that has ever been published. This can be broken down into ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ dialogue, which is best described as inner being your character talking to him/herself in their head, while outer is your character talking to other characters. Seems simple enough, right? On the surface, yes...but it’s so much more complicated than what you would initially think.

I have to interject quickly here: dialogue should not be confused with narrative! While narrative could be thought of as a conversation between the author and the audience, it is used to provide thoughts, action, foreshadowing, background, description of setting or character...it’s essentially everything in the scene except for dialogue. Therefore, dialogue is not narrative...do not treat it as such!

The reasons why authors use dialogue vary, but each type of dialogue plays a specific role within their piece. Dialogue can be further broken down into four basic categories within literature:

  • Directed dialogue--a way to use dialogue to direct the tension and emotion within the scene, without relying on the narrative to push the plot along. This type requires the heaviest use of dialogue, so description should be kept to a minimum, letting the audience focus on the interaction between the characters. Just let your characters do the talking...literally!

  • Interpolated dialogue--a way to use interpolation--interruption--to help emphasize your dialogue. Here, the narrative starts to leak into the dialogue; the character is interrupted by action, or by another character, or by a memory, and the narrative acts as a sort of frame which provides background or context to what the character is saying. BUT...this is still pretty dialogue heavy, so don’t limit yourself by going overboard on the narrative!

  • Misdirected dialogue--this is all about subtext and tension. The characters are not fully answering each other, or are inherently misleading the conversation. This is where the audience realizes ‘oh, they’re not really talking about xyz’, but the characters may not have caught on quite yet. This can be used as a way to ‘shake up’ your scene, or as foreshadowing for a big reveal. It’s as important here to talk about what the characters are NOT saying--maybe through gestures or other non-verbal communications--as what they ARE saying, so dialogue and narrative should be used the same amount in the passages.

  • Modulated dialogue--narrative-heavy dialogue, which provides context and additional information for the audience. A character may say something which triggers a memory, leading to a flashback grounded in the narrative. The dialogue is mainly a delivery system for the narrative, so it should be used sparingly.

So, what does all of this mean for you, my captive audience? It means that once you are aware of these different types of dialogue categories, you can utilize them to make your writing more compelling! How? Glad you asked!

  • Want to introduce a character? Use modulated dialogue to provide history, or directed dialogue to showcase character traits. Is the character hiding something? Use misdirected dialogue to hint at a sneaky nature.

  • Want to provide characterization through dialogue? Use directed dialogue to showcase differing opinions, or misdirected dialogue to create a complex conversation dripping with tension and double-meanings.

  • Want to showcase a character’s inner conflict? Use modulated dialogue to move easily between the spoken conversations and inner thought processes. Use interpolated dialogue to show a triggered memory or to provide context to bridge the gap between the inner and outer worlds.

However, this is a lot of ‘why’, without any ‘how’; but educating yourself in the intricacies of writing can help you to build a better skill set that you can draw from while writing.

We all know that dialogue can be tricky to add to any work, so how can you do this in your own projects and have it work well for your plot? We’ve asked you for your opinions on what is most problematic when trying to write dialogue. In our next blog post, we will address your concerns and give you helpful hints to make writing dialogue easier.

In the meantime, good luck, and happy writing!

About the Author: Once upon a time, Emily was introduced to the works of Stephen King. She became intrigued by the fact that ink and paper and imagination could be combined to create monsters that haunted her dreams. A passion for the written word was born. She first started dabbling in writing by penning fanfiction; but with the help of various English teachers, she branched out into more contemporary, original pieces.​

Emily is currently pursuing a degree in Writing. She lives in Michigan with her husband and three small children. In those rare moments where she is not writing, she can be found taking pictures of her family, going on adventures around the state, knitting, or reading with a hot cup of coffee in hand. She has recently embarked on a quest to read some of the greatest literature known to man. Emily has just finished Infinite Jest, and realizes that her TBR pile is now much larger than she would like to admit.

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