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Back to Basics: Dialogue

For this Back to Basics mini-course, we’re talking about dialogue. Each Back to Basics course includes a challenge at the end to help you experiment. Let’s look at the basics.

Dialogue is a very important component of stories, one that may seem simple at first but is more complex the more you think about it. At first you might think: it’s just people talking, but it isn’t just conversations. Dialogue is another important tool to move your story along. It can help to reveal more about your characters, as well as help get readers attached to your story. But if you have wooden and unrealistic dialogue, then it risks ruining the immersion for readers. So how do you pull off good dialogue? Here are a few tricks:

1. Figure out your character’s voice

It’s probably the most important rule: voice in this sense means how the characters sound. Each character should have their own distinct style of speaking. If one character has a Southern accent for example, then their dialogue should be able to reflect that through word usage and sentence structure. By giving different characters a unique voice, it helps to differentiate them.

2. Make every line count

An important thing to consider about dialogue is something that I mentioned earlier: it’s not just characters talking. Yes they have conversations, but those conversations should be achieving something. Dialogue should be able to move the plot forward. One example of this is if a character is relaying information to another (exposition). In Star Wars: A New Hope, Obi Wan does exactly this when explaining the concept of the Force to Luke. This concept of the Force not only is revealed in dialogue but also described in great detail. The Force becomes a staple of Star Wars not only for its incredible importance to the overall franchise but also to Luke directly in the movie as another form of guidance for the protagonist. This example highlights how dialogue should be able to help reveal new things to the characters and the audience. Dialogue can also reveal new insights into the characters and/or their personalities. It should not just be two characters talking to create filler. Every line of dialogue should have its own purpose.

3. Play around with dialogue tags

This rule has a lot more leeway in it than the others. A lot of the time as a writer you’ll want to avoid the trap of constantly having “he/she/they said” after every line of dialogue. It’s wise to try and change up your dialogue tags every so often. There are lots of different ways to do this. If you want a character to be angry, instead of saying ‘he said’, you could try, ‘he screamed’. You could also add a little more description after saying he screamed to further show their anger. If you ever feel stuck trying to figure out what word to evoke: don’t worry because there’s plenty of help. This blog post from Reedsy contains a list of over 270 different words that can be used in many different scenarios to replace ‘said’. However, I also want to point out that ‘said’ isn’t inherently a bad word to use. Sometimes, the perfect word to use is just going to be ‘said’. So while you should definitely try using different words in your dialogue tags, you don’t need to eliminate the word ‘said’ from your toolbox. Try to find a bit of a balance between using said and other words.

Now that you know a little bit more about dialogue, let’s try the challenge!

Challenge: write a scene using only dialogue. You can choose to include a few tags but try to avoid narrative.

  1. A police interrogation

  2. An argument between a couple

  3. A job interview

Thanks for joining us for this Back to Basics course. If you tried this month’s challenge, let's talk about it in our forum or on social media using #WWB2B. You can submit your scene for feedback through the Back to Basics page. Thank you, and I will see you in the next course!



About the Author: Izhan Arif is a Teaching of English major at UIC who loves to write in his spare time. Izhan is also a very big fan of comic books and comic book TV shows and movies, he hopes to write his own comic books at some point as well.


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