Dramatic Dialogue

Steps to Great Conversation Dialogue

Dramatic dialogue breathes life into a story. The creative writing tips on this page show how to write dialogue that captivates readers.

Creative Writing Tips on Dramatic Dialogue #1: Writing Dialogue

Dialogue in a story is different from real-life talk. If we were to record a normal conversation we'd find it filled with idle chatter, incomplete thoughts and broken sentences. Most real-life conversations would be too tedious to read.

Written dialogue has to capture and hold the attention of readers. If your characters ramble on, the way people do in real life, you'll lose your audience. So cut out the flab: words that don't serve any useful purpose, sentences and paragraphs that cause the story to drag.

Creative Writing Tips on Dramatic Dialogue #2: Writing Good Dialogue

Effective dialogue is not an exact reproduction of real-life speech but rather a condensed form that cuts out verbiage while retaining the flavor of authentic, natural speech.

Good dialogue imitates the natural rhythms of everyday speech; it contains nuances, overtones and original turns of phrase that bring out the individual personalities of characters.

Creative Writing Tips on Dramatic Dialogue #3: Purposeful, Dynamic Dialogues

Good writers manipulate dialogue to achieve an intended effect; for example to:

a. Reveal character or motives; see Creative Writing Tips #4
b. Individualize speakers; see Creative Writing Tips #5
c. Convey important information; see Creative Writing Tips #7
d. Highlight crucial moments or build suspense; Creative Writing Tips #8
e. Move the action forward; see Creative Writing Tips #9

Creative Writing Tips on Dramatic Dialogue #4: How to Write Dialogue that Illuminates Character

With dialogue you're letting your characters speak for themselves; you're showing their personalities, motivations and feelings.

Narration keeps readers at a distance, dialogue allows them to identify and feel with your characters.

Let's find out how Charlotte Bronte has done this. Here's the scene where a saucy heroine stirs up jealousy in her blind lover, with the motive of rousing him from his self-pity:

"But his brain? That is probably rather soft? He means well: but you shrug your shoulders to hear him talk?"

"He talks little, sir: what he does say is ever to the point. His brain is first-rate..."

"Is he an able man, then?"

"Truly able."

"A thoroughly educated man?"

"St John is an accomplished and profound scholar."

"...His appearance - I forget what description you gave of his appearance - a sort of raw curate, half strangled with his white neckcloth, and stilted up on his thick-soled high-lows, eh?"

"St John dresses well. He is a handsome man: tall, fair, with blue eyes, and a Grecian profile."

(Aside) "Damn him!" (To me) "Did you like him, Jane?"

"Yes, Mr Rochester, I liked him: but you asked me that before."

From Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

Creative Writing Tips on Dramatic Dialogue #5: Conversation Dialogue Differentiates Characters

Give your characters their own distinctive voices. As in real life, the differences in diction, nuances and speech patterns will differentiate your characters and reflect their individual personalities. This contrast in voices also adds to the dramatic tension in the story.

Here's how Jane Austen delineates her characters by giving them distinctive voices:

"Oh! Single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!"

"How so? How can it affect them?"

"My dear Mr Bennet," replied his wife, "how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them."

"Is that his design in settling here?"

"Design! Nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes..."

"They have none of them much to recommend them," replied he; "they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters."

"Mr Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves."

"You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least."

"Ah! You do not know what I suffer."

From Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Creative Writing Tips on Dramatic Dialogue #6: Dialect in Conversation Dialogue

With dialect, a little goes a long way. You don't want to put readers off with strings of unintelligible words. Just a light touch will do - a few well-chosen phrases to bring out the flavor of the dialect.

Here's a delicious exchange between father and son; note how the author has caught the cadences of the dialect:

"Don't you give me none o' your lip," says he. "You've put on considerable many frills since I been away. I'll take you down a peg before I get done with you. You're educated, too, they say - can read and write. You think you're better'n your father, now, don't you, because he can't? I'LL take it out of you. Who told you you might meddle with such hifalut'n foolishness, hey? Who told you you could?"

"The widow. She told me."

"The widow, hey? And who told the widow she could put in her shovel about a thing that ain't none of her business?"

"Nobody never told her."

"Well, I'll learn her how to meddle. And looky here - you drop that school, you hear? I'll learn people to bring up a boy to put on airs over his own father and let on to be better'n what HE is. You lemme catch you fooling around that school again, you hear? Your mother couldn't read, and she couldn't write, nuther, before she died. None of the family couldn't before THEY died. I can't; and here you're a-swelling yourself up like this. I ain't the man to stand it - you hear?"

From Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Creative Writing Tips on Dramatic Dialogue #7: Dramatic Dialogue Conveys Critical Information

Use dialogue to convey important information in an interesting way. Short paragraphs of dialogue, in which characters ask and give information, are easier to read than long narratives.

Dramatize the dialogue; inject feeling into the giver and receiver of the information. Build suspense by having the speaker withhold the information or delay giving it. Like this:

"Were any other lives lost?"

"No - perhaps it would have been better if there had."

"What do you mean?"

"Poor Mr Edward!" he ejaculated. "I little thought ever to have seen it! Some say it was a just judgment on him for keeping his first marriage secret, and wanting to take another wife while he had one living: but I pity him, for my part."

"You said he was alive?" I exclaimed.

"Yes, yes: he is alive; but many think he had better be dead."

"Why? How?" My blood was again running cold. "Where is he?" I demanded. "Is he in England?"

"Ay - ay - he's in England; he can't get out of England, I fancy - he's a fixture now."

What agony was this! And the man seemed resolved to protract it.

"He is stone-blind," he said at last. "Yes, he is stone-blind, is Mr Edward."

From Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

Creative Writing Tips on Dramatic Dialogue #8: Dramatic Dialogue Highlights Crucial Moments and Builds Suspense

Dialogue dramatizes: it creates living scenes, taking readers right into the thick of the action. The way characters speak - what they say or leave unsaid - lend an air of excitement, even a sense of mystery, to the story. Like this:

"Water, water!" cried D'Artagnan. "Water!"

"Oh, poor woman, poor woman!" murmured Athos, in a broken voice.

Mme Bonacieux opened her eyes under the kisses of D'Artagnan.

"She revives!" cried the young man. "Oh, my God, my God, I thank thee!"

"Madame!" said Athos, "madame, in the name of heaven, whose empty glass is this?"

"Mine, monsieur," said the young woman, in a dying voice.

"But who poured the wine for you that was in this glass?"


"But who is SHE?"

From The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas

Creative Writing Tips on Dramatic Dialogue #9: Dynamic Dialogue Moves the Plot Forward

Dialogue moves the action forward quickly. What would take a long passage of narration to describe can be accomplished in fewer words and with greater impact through dialogue.

Look again at the scene in the previous section - Creative Writing Tips #8 - where D'Artagnan finds his dying lover. So much is conveyed through the short snatches of dialogue, both from what is explicitly said and what is implied.

Creative Writing Tips on Dramatic Dialogue #10: Dramatic Dialogue Makes Sparks Fly

Think of your story in terms of a stage performance: how do your characters sound? Choose words for their dramatic impact: their emotional overtones, imagery, sound and rhythm.

For more Creative Writing Tips on how to choose and use words with dramatic impact, go to Creative Writing Tips: Success Secrets of Top Authors and Figurative Language: Examples of Imagery

Creative Writing Tips on Dramatic Dialogue #11: Reader-Friendly Dialogue

Keep dialogues short and to the point. Begin a new paragraph each time a different character starts to speak. Short paragraphs create lots of white space and make the page look more inviting to readers.

Avoid long speeches; they pack a page with type and make it difficult to read as there is no rest for the eyes.

If you're tempted to write long passages of dialogue, ask yourself whether the story really needs it. Most of the time, the writing can be condensed. On the rare occasion when a long speech is absolutely necessary, break it up into short paragraphs interposed with narrative or with another character asking questions or offering comments.

Creative Writing Tips on Dramatic Dialogue #12: Mixing Dialogue and Narration

Dialogue on its own does not always give the complete picture; stories also need narration to round out the scenes. Use narration to describe and explain characters and their actions.

Create dramatic tension with the right balance of dialogue and narration. Like this:

"This is where the robin flew over the wall," she said.

"Is it?" cried Colin. "Oh! I wish he'd come again!"

"And that," said Mary with solemn delight, pointing under a big lilac bush, "is where he perched on the little heap of earth and showed me the key."

Then Colin sat up.

"Where? Where? There?" he cried...

"And this," said Mary, stepping onto the bed close to the ivy, "is where I went to talk with him when he chirped at me from the top of the wall. And this is the ivy the wind blew back," and she took hold of the hanging green curtain.

"Oh! Is it - is it!" gasped Colin.

"And here is the handle, and here is the door. Dickon, push him in - push him in quickly!"

And Dickon did it with one strong, steady, splendid push.

From The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

For more Creative Writing Tips for the fiction-writer, go to Creative Story Writing Tips I: Steps to Write a Book; Creative Story Writing Tips II: How to Write a Story; and Creative Story Writing Tips: Conflicts, Cliffhangers and Climaxes

Return from Dramatic Dialogue to Creative Writing: Write to Win Hearts

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