Writers don’t have trouble finding their own voice, but what about when you need other voices, as in character dialogue?
A conversation between two or more characters is almost as much about what they don’t say as what they do.
A writer must paint the scene with words and then find the right words for the character dialogue.
This is when two incredible forms of writing collide into a “must-read” copy.
- What is Dialogue?
- How to Write Dialogue Between Two Characters (or More)
- How to Write Dialogue Between Two Characters that Stands Out in 4 Easy Steps
What is Dialogue?
Dialogue is what one or more characters say in written materials. It’s the back and forth of conversation to advance a plot, express emotion, or build conflict.
Sometimes it even solves conflicts. It’s a conversation tailored to the art of the written word for reader immersion into the story.
Creating good dialogue between characters is the difference between reading someone’s resume and interviewing them in person.
You learn the personality, speaking patterns, accents, beliefs, and fears.
In the classic novel Rebecca, when Maxim de Winter says to the soon-to-be new Mrs. de Winter, “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool,” he conveyed much more than a marriage proposal. He asserted dominance and ownership.
Those words also whittled down a timeline to a particular era, as certainly, no woman would tolerate a man proposing to her that way in the 2000s.
Dialogue does have to respect the many ways we communicate, which isn’t always just two people conversing in convenient locations.
- Phone Calls: Careful language since the characters can’t read facial expressions. How one would speak on a phone call while making dinner might be different than sitting on their bed with music playing.
- Text Messages: Authors writing modern-day novels or books must acclimate to the technology that plays a growing part in the way we, as humans, communicate with each other.
- Video Calls: “You’re muted” became the literal calling card of the pandemic world as people worked from home and held numerous meetings virtually. FaceTiming can happen in a crowded store, walking down an empty street, or even just before someone shuts the lights off at night.
- Characters Writing Dialogue: Some stories are told by the letters the characters write to each other. It’s still dialogue, but you’re writing what the characters write. Confused? Let’s look at this line Noah wrote to Allie in the adored story of The Notebook;
“The best love is the kind that awakens the soul and makes us reach for more, that plants a fire in our hearts and brings peace to our minds. And that’s what you’ve given me. That’s what I’d hoped to give you forever.” – Noah’s Goodbye Letter to Allie in The Notebook
How to Write Dialogue Between Two Characters (or More)
One of the great tragedies for some authors is when a book turns into a movie, and the main characters are shown in movie previews.
Those who haven’t read the book are given visual information instead of being able to explore their imagination through the writer’s words.
Anyone can write dialogue. Skilled writers can produce good dialogue. A blessed few can create excellent and engaging dialogue. The litmus test of strong character dialogue includes:
- Advancing the plot: Case in point – two characters meet at the coffee station. In real-world situations, there’s small talk that really means nothing. The “hello,” “how are you,” and “I’m fine, thank you” can be left out of the written dialogue. They speak when it matters to the forward motion of the story.
- Revealing a layer of the character: How much did we learn about Aibileen in The Help when she told two-year-old Mae Mobley, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” Much of Abileen’s dialogue was solemn and submissive, yet we saw one of a few moments inside her heart with this sincere exchange. It also hinted at her lack of grammatical prowess without directly saying it.
- Establishing, enforcing, or redefining the characters’ relationship: Dialogue can convey admiration, obsession, indifference, and dislike, setting a better stage for two people. It can also portray a relationship shift, going from lover to ex-lover, friend to enemy, or stranger to friend.
Bad Dialogue: You’ll Know It When You See It
50 Shades of Gray became one of the best-selling books of the 2000s, but dialogue divas cringe at some of the conversations between the characters.
From Christian’s cringe-worthy statements such as, “You’re going to unman me, Ana,” to Ana’s repeated referral to “down there” when discussing intimacy at an erotic level, the story was as popular as it was picked apart by critics.
Bad dialogue will stick out like a weed. Great dialogue will stand out.
How to Write Dialogue Between Two Characters that Stands Out in 4 Easy Steps
There are steps to writing dialogue that go beyond the words of the character dialogue.
From creative storytelling to grammatical accuracy to prose perfection, there’s a reason the second set of eyes (or more) helps writers crank out copy that resonates.
1. Know Your Characters
In writing fact or fiction, you need to know the innermost qualities, fears, and successes of your characters. Even when the answers are hard to come by, as Dr. Hannibal Lecter said in Silence of the Lambs, “Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.”
You need to know what clothing your character would wear, how they would confront conflict, and if they are prone to emotional outbursts. A trained CIA agent isn’t going to cry because someone broke up with them.
2. Punctuate Dialogue Correctly
Grammar and punctuation rules are hard and fast until you get to the few exceptions to the rule. This can make a single comma a controversial point. It helps to start with the basics and work from there.
- Punctuate Inside Quotes: As a general rule, the punctuation mark always goes within the quotes.
- CORRECT: “How are you?” he asked.
- INCORRECT: “How are you”? he asked.
- INCORRECT: “How are you,” he asked?
- Use of Single Quotes: If a quote contains a quote, use single quotes to separate them. Treat the internal quote as its own sentence with capitalization rules.
- CORRECT: “My mom told me ‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,’ and that’s why I can’t sit still when you’re around.”
- INCORRECT: “My mom told me “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” and that’s why I can’t sit still when you’re around.”
- INCORRECT: “My mom told me Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and that’s why I can’t sit still when you’re around.”
- To Capitalize or Not Capitalize?: Smooth character dialogue also must follow the rules of capitalization. Every sentence starts with a capitalized letter, as do proper nouns. You don’t need the character tag to be capitalized unless you start with the speaker’s name.
- CORRECT: “I loves Harpo. God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me,” said Sophia, with fire in her eyes.
- CORRECT: “I loves Harpo. God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me,” Sophia said, with fire in her eyes.
- INCORRECT: “I loves Harpo. God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me,” Said Sophia, with fire in her eyes.
2. Use Appropriate Character Tags
The challenge with a conversation between two or more characters is that the reader can apply their own perceptions and biases to the conversations. This is why a character tag must go beyond “she said” and “he replied.”
Let’s break down the simple sentence, one you might be familiar with, “I wish you all a long and happy life.” Leaving no character tag can leave the interpretation of the message open to a reader’s imagination. Now here are some of the ways a character dialogue could unravel.
- “I wish you all a long and happy life,” she stuttered with a tear falling down her face as the life drained from her eyes. It was time.
- “I wish you all a long and happy life,” he hissed as she gathered up the few belongings within eyesight and stormed out.
- “I wish you all a long and happy life?” she inquired with a confused look on her face. She had never led a prayer before.
- “I wish you all a long and happy life,” he muttered while walking away for what he knew was the last time.
Of course, avid readers know that was the last line of the emotional journey of The Lovely Bones, where a young girl who had been brutally murdered addressed her audience.
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3. Dialogues vs. Dissertations
While some writing experts would advise you should never have a character dialogue go longer than three sentences, there might come a time when you need someone to speak at length in a conversation between two or more characters.
It’s not a monologue because it does involve two people conversing, but it can be long and tedious if not presented correctly. While written for the stage and then on the big screen, who would’ve cut down a single word of Col. Nathan R. Jessup’s “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH…” dialogue in response to being questioned in a military court?
- Break up paragraphs: Just because someone is speaking at all once, you don’t have to present it in one long block. Break up the paragraphs to make the dialogue easier to read.
- Give the character a break: Let them take a sip of water or let out a hefty sigh to break up the monotony of a long speech or presentation.
- Add in brief other character dialogue: Another character can easily proclaim “Amen!” in the middle of a speech or interject a “but…” into a controversial extended dialogue.
4. Whittle Down the Words
Going back to character dialogue needing to advance the plot or reveal something, simple things like “Hi, how are you?” aren’t necessary if it doesn’t give revealing information. Let’s look at this exchange in Nicholas Evans’ The Horse Whisperer.
Tom Booker: “Is she going to be long?“
Grace: “Probably, she’s on the phone 23 hours a day.”
Tom Booker: “What does she do?”
Grace: “She’s an editor. Just in case she hasn’t told you, which she probably hasn’t, I don’t want to be a part of this. Okay?”
He didn’t ask what happened to Grace, as the reader already knows. He didn’t make small talk, as it’s not his style, and it wouldn’t propel the story forward.
What did we learn?
- Grace’s mom is a workaholic.
- Grace is bothered by this.
- Grace doesn’t want to be there.
Example of Dialogue Between Two Characters
Learning how to write dialogue between two characters is akin to learning a dance. They move in cadence and consistency while revealing plot information along the way.
Here is an example of dialogue between Peeta and Caesar in The Hunger Games when Peeta reveals he has a crush on Katniss.
“Handsome lad like you. There must be some special girl. Come on, what’s her name?” says Caesar.
Peeta sighs. “Well, there is this one girl. I’ve had a crush on her ever since I can remember. But I’m pretty sure she didn’t know I was alive until the reaping.”
Sounds of sympathy from the crowd. Unrequited love they can relate to.
“She have another fellow?” asks Caesar.
“I don’t know, but a lot of boys like her,” says Peeta.
“So, here’s what you do. You win, you go home. She can’t turn you down then, eh?” says Caesar encouragingly.
“I don’t think it’s going to work out. Winning…won’t help in my case,” says Peeta.
“Why ever not?” says Caesar, mystified.
Peeta blushes beet red and stammers out. “Because…because…she came here with me.”
Consider what you learn about the characters in this snippet of dialogue when Peeta reveals this long-held secret love for Katniss. It’s a pivotal moment in the novel.
There are so many tips and tricks to creating a conversation between two or more characters. A well-placed en dash can reveal an interruption or train of thought challenges.
Overusing dialogue can leave a lot of white space on the page, and a lack of dialogue can be bricks of writing that allow little character development.
A great way to improve character dialogue is to read the conversation out loud and see how it plays when the words hang in the air. We’ll leave you with this quote from famed author William Faulkner.
“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” – William Faulkner