Ahh, dialogue. We all know it’s the best part of a story; forget those boring descriptions and those long, dreary, travel scenes. Dialogue is the heart of the tale—it not only adds life to a novel, but to the characters themselves.

And what’s more, it’s fun. Writing dialogue is simply fun. You get to put in all those witty comebacks you’ve been saving, or really add some hints about your MC’s “epic” romance. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter, however, is the dialogue itself.

Unlike the rest of a story, dialogue is supposed to be easy to skim, and adds variety to the structure of your novel. People are instantly drawn to it. I’d rather read a few short sentences than a big block of text, wouldn’t you?

The question is, how do you write it? For those who truly don’t know, it takes more than making up some words and putting some quotation marks around them (though that’s what some writers seem to think). To make it easier, I’ve divided up dialogue into four easy categories (tone, tags, reaction, and realism), and I’ll be doing an article for each. First up is one of the most important: tone.

But wait—what is tone? Let’s take a look before we get started. In the words of the Oxford Dictionary, tone is this:

“A modulation of the voice expressing a particular feeling or mood.”

Not a bad definition, that. Basically, think of tone as you would in real life. Your mom probably adopts a stern tone of voice when she sees you up late, reading, etc. You might acquire a joking tone when you’re, well…making a joke. It’s that simple.

The tone of your dialogue is what gives it personality, both to the story and to the character who’s saying it. I’ll start off with an example from a story that I’m currently working on. It’s still in rough draft form, so it’s far from perfect, but I think it will serve the purpose I need it to.

“Who are you?”

“Who am I?” said the male. He gracefully bowed his torso; Sarn growled and jabbed her sharp at him, and he winced. A tiny rosebud of red appeared through his shirt. “Ow.”

“I told you not to move,” Sarn spat out.

He glared at her, one hand pressed against his sternum. “Then allow me to introduce myself. I’m Tor’iphos of the People – Tor, for short. Secondary character—main character in training—and brother and story-link for the Storyteller of the tale-world of Sun, to your service.” He began to bow jauntily, a rakish grin replacing the glare, but stopped as Sarn stiffened and pushed her sharp closer to his heart. Blue eyes were still. “Now, who are you? And…where exactly am I?”

Again, not the best, but it works.

When you read this, you get (or should get, if I’m doing my job right) an idea of both of the characters. It’s obvious that Sarn’s somewhat dangerous and also very suspicious—she’s not willing to take any chances on her safety. I won’t give you a detailed background on her, but this is warranted in the place where she lives.

Tor, on the other hand, is a significantly lighter character, even though he is similar to Sarn in some aspects. Even so, you can tell he’s much more apt to joke than Sarn is. His tone is lighter, and conveys a different sort of personality (I hope). It’s not the most emotional of scenes, but once I’m done polishing there should be loads of emotion in the dialogue.

The thing is, you can show a lot in the tone of your dialogue, simply by changing a few words. As another example, I’ll use one of the most infamous scenes from Brisingr—my all-time favorite book. :p Here goes.

“All the while, the man continued to beg, tears streaming down his cheeks, saying that he was too young to die, that he had yet to marry and father a child, that his parents would miss him, and that he had been pressed into the army and this was only his fifth mission and why couldn’t Eragon leave him alone? ‘What have you done to me?’ he sobbed. ‘I only did what I had to do. I’m a good person!’

Eragon paused and forced himself to say: ‘You can’t keep up with us. We can’t leave you; you’ll catch a horse and betray us.’

‘No, I won’t!’

‘People will ask what happened here. Your oath to Galbatorix and the Empire won’t let you lie. I’m sorry, but I don’t know how to release you from your bond, except…’

‘Why are you doing this? You’re a monster!’ screamed the man. With an expression of pure terror, he made an attempt to dash around Eragon and return to the road. Eragon overtook him in less than ten feet, and as the man was still crying and asking for clemency, Eragon wrapped his left hand around his neck and squeezed. When he relaxed his grip, the soldier was dead.”

I think it burned my eyes to retype that. D:

Now, what can you discern about Eragon’s personality through the dialogue here? I, for one, can’t get much. There’s not really a personality to speak of…just a murderer. Let’s see how this would look if written differently, yes?

And, simply because I didn’t know, “clemency” is an over-guilded word for ‘mercy.’ CP, why didn’t you just say mercy? But that’s beside the point—let’s get back on topic.

“All the while, the man continued to beg, tears streaming down his cheeks, saying that he was too young to die, that he had yet to marry and father a child, that his parents would miss him, and that he had been pressed into the army and this was only his fifth mission and why couldn’t Eragon leave him alone? ‘What have you done to me?’ he sobbed. ‘I only did what I had to do. I’m a good person!’

Eragon paused and forced himself to say: ‘I know…I know. I’m so, so sorry.’

‘Then why are you doing this? I never did anything to you!’

‘Because—because I don’t know how to release you from your bond,” said Eragon. “If I did, I would release you in heartbeat, I swear it. I’ll make your death painless, I promise you. Please…’

‘Why are you doing this? You’re a monster!’ screamed the man. With an expression of pure terror, he made an attempt to dash around Eragon and return to the road. Eragon overtook him in less than ten feet, and as the man was still crying and asking for clemency, Eragon wrapped his left hand around his neck and squeezed. When he relaxed his grip, the soldier was dead.”

Despite the temptation, I didn’t touch any of the non-dialogue prose. Not one bit. (I added in a ‘said Eragon’, though, which, interestingly enough, is the only ‘said’ in there. Heh.) I did, however, make some changes to what Eragon and the man said. It’s not the best, especially since I didn’t touch the rest, but I did try to convey what I thought Eragon would be going through. Conflict. Guilt. You know the drill. Do you see a difference? Unlike Pao-Pao’s bit, I really attempted to pour out as much feeling as I could. It was actually very sad; while rewriting I my heart felt heavy. I could literally feel the terror of that poor, nameless man, and the conflict that Eragon should have had…but never did.

The question is, did you?

And that, my dears, is the heart of well-written, riveting dialogue. It pulls you along right into the heart of the story, and it gives you a glimpse of the true character of the person saying it.

Wow—that was deep. I’m pretty proud of myself. For old time’s sake, let’s look at that dialogue one more time—cut to the bones.

‘I only did what I had to do. I’m a good person!’

‘I know…I know. I’m so, so sorry.’

‘Then why are you doing this? I never did anything to you!’

‘Because – because I don’t know how to release you from your bond – if I did, I would release you in heartbeat, I swear it. I’ll make your death painless, I promise you. Please…’

‘Why are you doing this? You’re a monster!’

Famous last words. Literally.

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Comment

  1. SubStandardDeviation on 8 March 2009, 22:20 said:

    Hm. Pretty good, though given the number of examples it could have had more meat to it. Some typos.

    Amazingly, Paolini actually did a good job showing the soldier’s emotions – though it’s pretty sad when a random nameless redshirt is characterized better than the main character. Your rewrite, though a bit inelegant, gets your point across.

    …now I’m tempted to rewrite that scene with sociopath!Eragon, keeping most of the dialogue intact.

  2. Ari on 9 March 2009, 01:27 said:

    Hmm, I’ll keep your comments in mind for the next one, yes? Where are the typos? >.< Sorry.

    But yes, it’s terrible when a random man who has about 300 words in the entire book has more personality than the main character, isn’t it?

  3. scary_viking on 9 March 2009, 01:41 said:

    Good point about the man’s personality. It’s visible that he doesn’t see much in terms of dialogue changes. I suppose that shows how much a few lines from a single character can make or break the power behind a scene.

  4. OverlordDan on 9 March 2009, 06:32 said:

    Great article. I’ve always loved the dialoge, lets you get into the characters heads a little bit, see how they deal with situations.

  5. Kevin on 9 March 2009, 07:56 said:

    Good stuff, but the ‘I’m SO, SO sorry’ feels phony to me. Too much. Drop both so’s and it reads better imo.

  6. SlyShy on 9 March 2009, 08:31 said:

    I wonder what people’s thoughts are on the use of stutters in dialogue. I tend to avoid them, as they seem over used to me, but at the same time they wouldn’t be used if they weren’t somewhat effectively conveying emotion, right?

  7. Gildor on 9 March 2009, 10:09 said:

    But when used with sarcasm, a second So could be used. No?

  8. SlyShy on 9 March 2009, 10:12 said:

    Yes, but we’d hardly want sarcasm in this instance. :P

  9. Kevin on 9 March 2009, 10:55 said:

    I dunno Sly, this is Eragon we’re talking about.

    Regarding stutters… good question. Deploy them, but deploy them carefully and VERY rarely, imo. I would say almost any line with them reads better without them.

  10. Ari on 9 March 2009, 18:30 said:

    For the second ‘so’, I was trying to get into Eragon’s character…ergh. It’s very hard. I have no idea how a sociopath works. So it could very well be sarcastic…

  11. SubStandardDeviation on 9 March 2009, 23:23 said:

    I have no idea how a sociopath works.

    /OT. My shot.

    All the while, the man continued to beg, saying that he was too young to die, that he had yet to marry and father a child, and more of the same meaningless excuses that had screamed through Eragon’s head a thousand times on the Burning Plains. “What have you done to me?” he sobbed. “I only did what I had to do. I’m a good person!”
    “You can’t keep up with us. We can’t leave you; you’ll catch a horse and betray us.”
    “No, I won’t!”
    “People will ask what happened here. Your oath to Galbatorix and the Empire won’t let you lie. To prevent that, I’ll have to release you from your bond.”
    “Why are you doing this? You’re a monster!” screamed the man. He made a foolish attempt to dash around Eragon and return to the road. Eragon overtook him in less than ten feet, and ignoring the man’s crying and gibbering, wrapped his left hand around the neck and squeezed. When he relaxed his grip, the soldier’s corpse crumpled to the dirt with a dull thump.
    “I only did what I had to do. I’m a good person.”

    On Stuttering: Dialogue in art should generally be free of the all the meaningless “um“s and “ya knows” that clutter normal speech because we haven’t rehearsed our words in advance, and this includes stuttering. Not to mention like ssssnakesssspeak, it’s annoying to read if overdone. Still, it can work well if done properly, just like any (most?) other mannerisms. Ex. I praised one of Sly’s WIPs for including a brief, almost unnoticeable stutter from a bewildered character. It just seemed very naturally woven in.

  12. Juniper on 10 March 2009, 11:34 said:

    Argh, that scene you rewrote makes me mad every time I read it. I hate Eragon. Little heartless twerp. Anyway, I didn’t mind the second “so”. When I read it I imagined Edward Speleers (or whatever his name is) saying the line and it sounded okay to me. A little melodramatic, yes, but that’s the fault of the person who invented the scene. cough

  13. Ari on 10 March 2009, 18:43 said:

    Thanks. I was beginning to feel really self-conscious because it seemed like no one liked this article…I’m not sure if I’ll do the rest.

  14. Nate Winchester on 11 March 2009, 08:18 said:

    I’d rather read a few short sentences than a big block of text, wouldn’t you?

    Oh the irony!

    (and well done Ari)

  15. Kevin on 11 March 2009, 10:25 said:

    Ari – do the rest!

  16. Ari on 11 March 2009, 22:13 said:

    Oh, I will. Next up is ‘tags’ – you know, saying ‘he said’ vs. ‘he sputtered out with disgust’. Heh.

  17. Sing on 18 March 2009, 06:05 said:

    oO I look into impishidea to read some articles and I see you’ve wrote one (or maybe moar Goes to stalk) Oo.

    haha, not bad, but yeah, the example dialogue was mmish.

    Well, I was reading the article when I got to the part where you quoted that segment from your OF. I was like OO… why’s ari’s OF in here??!? I had to reread it twice. Haha, well done, ari <3

  18. Loni on 5 July 2009, 07:38 said:

    The thing that I hated about that scene was how ham-handed CP was in trying to make us feel sorry for the guy. And besides, when running in terror from someone trying to kill you, who says ‘I’ve yet to marry and father a child!”?

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