A while back, I came across the following question:
How do you write so much dialogue without it getting boring?
Conversations and dialogue are perhaps the biggest parts of my stories. It’s where things happen – in the interaction between the characters. I write a lot of conversations, and I’ve put a fair bit of thought into how I do it and how to make them work.
This article is split into three parts. First, I’ll mention some general advice that I’ve found to be helpful. Next, I’ll explain the method I’m using. Finally, I’ll go through an example of a conversation I created using this method.
The most important thing to consider when writing a conversation is, by far, whether or not it’s clear who’s speaking. If your reader is uncertain about who’s saying what, it’ll pull them out of the story, and then it doesn’t matter if the rest of your words are glowing drops of pure genius.
I’ve come across two pieces of advice that go a long way towards maintaining clarity, and which I try to stick to as much as I can:
- Only have one person speaking in each paragraph.
- When someone is speaking, don’t mention anyone else in the same paragraph.
It may help to view a paragraph as a single unit of reader attention. Within the paragraph the reader’s attention is focused on one thing happening, or one object being described. If more than one thing happens, or more than one object is described, consider splitting the paragraph into two.
The above is in no way an absolute rule, and you will come across plenty of cases where you’ll want to go against it. Try your best to avoid doing it with people talking, though.
If a paragraph starts with person A talking, your reader’s attention will be on person A and what they’re saying. You can probably end the paragraph with person B talking, but you’ll have to make it very clear to the reader that there’s a change. Often, it will be easier to just give person B a paragraph of their own to talk in. That way your characters won’t have to fight over the reader’s attention.
Identifying Who’s Speaking
There are three ways to identify who’s speaking in a paragraph: tags, beats, and context.
Tags are the most obvious ones. They’re words like said, yelled, or whispered, in combination with the name of the speaker.
“Hello,” said person A.
Beats are only slightly less obvious. They’re descriptions of actions performed by the person speaking.
Person B looked up and smiled. “Hello there.”
Context is the really tricky one. It requires your reader to be familiar with the people taking part in the conversation so that they can be identified by what they’re saying.
“Well then person B, shall we?”
Another example of context is when two people are talking back and forth, taking turns speaking:
“Hello,” said person A.
Person B looked up and smiled. “Hello there.”
“Well then person B, shall we?”
“Sure thing, let’s go.”
There we go: a tag, a beat, and two versions of context. I find that mixing it up and using all of these methods for identifying the speaker works the best. Do make sure that there’s always at least one way of identifying who’s saying what, though. You don’t want your reader to have to stop and guess.
As I mentioned, I have a lot of conversations in my writing. I found early on that I wasn’t able to just start writing and then wing it. My conversations veered off in all the wrong directions and ended up being about all kinds of really interesting things that had no bearing whatsoever on the actual story.
It got pretty messy.
Eventually I came up with a method for writing conversations that works for me:
- Outline the conversation topics (Flow).
- Write the things the characters say (Lines).
- Add beats and tags and everything else (Identifiers).
Before I even start on the first point, I know what the purpose of the conversation is. I know the state of the story when the conversation starts, and I know what the state of the story needs to be when the conversation is over. The steps above make sure that I get there.
The conversation flow is a description of what the characters are talking about – not what they’re actually saying. In this part I also figure out the characters’ emotions during the conversation. If someone is angry, I note that. If their anger subsides later on, then I’ll note that too.
This way I get to consider the bigger picture, without having to worry about the little nitty-gritty details. I can make sure that the topics that need discussing are brought up, and I can make sure that the reactions of the characters align with their personalities.
I don’t need to worry about who stands where or who wears what.
At this stage I write down just the words the characters say. I may add a note that describes their feelings at the time they say it, but no more than that.
If you’ve ever been in an online chatroom, this part looks a little like that. I include the name of the character and the words they say. I use smiley’s and abbreviations to denote emotions, but not in any great detail. They’re just there to help me keep track of what’s going on between the people speaking.
Once I have the lines written, I copy them into a new text document and add a few blank lines between all of them. This is to separate the lines from each other, making it easier to treat each one as a separate unit.
Then, starting at the top, I add in the beats and tags and everything else I need in order to bring the conversation to life.
When doing this, I’ve found that the following advice works well for me:
- Avoid mixing beats and tags.
- If using more than one beat, only use the name of the speaker once.
- Try to avoid using more than two beats.
- Try a little harder to avoid using more than three beats.
- When using identification by context, try and stick to shorter lines with only a few words.
These aren’t rules, so don’t be afraid to break them. I do – all the time (okay, maybe not all the time, but often enough).
Now that I’ve explained the theory of how I plan and write conversations, it’s time to show you how I do it in practice. This example is taken from my current work in progress, and is a short excerpt from a much longer scene.
The characters in the scene are Emma and Trula. Emma is the main character in this story, and she has been sent to Kuulis Wood to ask for help with a problem bothering her own village. Trula works as a serving girl at the Kuulis Wood inn.
The two women are roughly the same age and are fairly similar. The main difference (in the context of this example) is that Trula wears her hair in a long black braid that she likes to pull in front over her shoulder.
Emma and Trula don’t know each other, but spoke briefly in the previous chapter.
Here’s what’s happening during the conversation. Note how nothing’s mentioned about what Emma and Trula are saying, only what’s happening and their opinions about it.
Emma sits alone at her table, having just finished her meal.
Trula shows up with two glasses of whiskey and asks if she can join her. She sits down without waiting for permission and pushes one glass over.
Trula begins by asking about the journey. It must have been a long day, etc., and Emma must be tired.
These are the actual words that the characters speak to one another:
Trula: Hey girl, mind if I join you? [sits down without waiting]
Emma: Sure thing, go ahead.
T: Here [pushes a fresh whiskey at Emma]. You must have had a long day. Rastebo is quite a ride, isn’t it?
E: Well, it’s not so bad. The roads were fine and it didn’t snow all day. [trying to seem unbothered]
T: Sure, sure, but still. You’ve been on the road all day. It’s okay to be tired.
E: I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t, but it’s not that bad. I’ll last a while longer. There’s rock under these feet.[confident]
T: And apples in her cheeks. [big grin]
E: [giggles] Oh you ain’t that bad yourself woman. Cheers
This is the final conversation as it turned out after adding identifiers to the lines.
“Hey girl, mind if I join you?” Trula set down two small cups on the table, pulled out the chair opposite Emma and sat down. Grinning, she leaned forward with her elbows on the table and raised an eyebrow.
Emma looked at her and frowned. Eventually she shrugged. “Sure, no, go ahead.”
“Here.” Trula straightened up and pushed one of the cups over to Emma’s side of the table. “You must have had a long day. Rastebo is quite a ride, isn’t it?”
With a sigh, Emma pushed her bowl of stew to the side and reached for the cup. It had been a long day. It really had. “Well, it’s not so bad.” She lifted the cup to her face, and it’s rough surface warmed her hand. “The roads were fine and the weather was nice.”
Once more the fumes invade her nose. [this is a reference to an earlier scene]
Hot whiskey. She let her head fall back, closed her eyes and let the aromas have their way with her. That was the best part – almost better than the taste. The breath that escaped her came close to a moan, but she just couldn’t muster up the energy to be embarrassed about it.
“Sure, sure, but still,” said Trula. “You’ve been on the road all day. It’s okay to be tired.”
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t.” Emma opened her eyes a fraction and gazed across the table. “But it’s not that bad.” She smiled, sipped her whiskey, and let out another satisfied breath. “I’ll last a while longer. There’s rock under these feet.”
“And apples in her cheeks.” Trula grinned, and raised an eyebrow at her as she too sipped her drink.
Emma’s face heated up and she giggled. “Oh you ain’t that bad yourself woman.” To have a braid like that, long and black and thick. She’d love that. And so shiny too. “Cheers!” She held her cup out.
You will notice that not everything Emma and Trula says is exactly the same as in the original lines. That is fine. The overall conversation is the same, and if it turns out that different wording works better, then change it up.
It’s the same with feelings and emotions. They also may not be exactly as shown in the conversation flow. That is fine too. What’s important is that the conversation has some life to it, that you can identify who’s talking, and that it gets to where it needs to go.
So why go through the work of writing out the flow and the lines if I’m not going to stick to them?
Because doing so gives me an understanding of the situation that I need to describe, and a framework within which to work. I’m not just flailing wildly, trying to get to an unknown destination.
I’m also not deviating too far from the outline. I change some details, but overall, I stick with what I’ve planned.
When writing conversations I find it helpful to plan them out in three stages:
- Conversation Flow – what the characters are talking about and how they feel about it.
- Lines – the words the characters say.
- Identifiers – what the characters do while they talk.
Use the flow as a guide for creating the lines, and the lines as a guide for the identifiers, and you’ll end up with a conversation that is full of life and purpose.
What’s your favorite advice for writing dialogue or conversations?
What’s your take on beats? Do you find that you use some beats more often than others? Which ones?
At the beginning of this article I say not to mention anyone but the person who is speaking in the same paragraph. Then, in my own example, I mention Emma in paragraphs where Trula is speaking – twice. What’s up with that?