Let’s face it: character dialogue can be difficult to write.
It raises all sorts of writerly questions and insecurities, including but not limited to: How do I make the speech believable? How do I express the character’s voice and make it distinct from the others? Is ‘said’ really ‘dead’? (it isn’t, but that’s a topic for another time). And where the f*** do all those speech (quotation) marks, commas, and full stops (periods) go anyway? (another topic for another time!)
Some aspects of dialogue, such as punctuation, can be sorted out in the editing phase.
However, there is a writing hack which can be used in early drafts to help build characters’ interactions and voices, without being distracted by the additional ‘fluff’ that comes from writing prose-based speech.
The answer: write your dialogue as though it’s for a film or TV script.
WHY SCRIPT-BASED DIALOGUE?
Scripts for visual media are intentionally bare-boned and contain only the most essential information needed to help the director, actors, producers etc bring the story to life.
In a novel, detailed additional information relating to setting, atmosphere, action etc has to be included within the prose. This brings many advantages over visual media in telling an enthralling story, such as the ability to include characters’ internal thoughts. However, it also brings disadvantages. The depth and intricacy of a novel’s prose inevitably makes it more difficult to tease apart individual elements of the story and view them as a whole.
Writing dialogue in script form (at least in earlier drafts) helps the author develop their characters’ voices and speech patterns, and helps them craft interactions between characters, without being distracted by extraneous prose and punctuation.
HOW DOES SCRIPT-BASED DIALOGUE WORK?
Instead of typing the full prose, dialogue tags and punctuation around a conversation, you just write the skeleton of the conversation itself. This makes it easier to see the flow of the discussion and conflict, identify differences in character speech patterns and voice, and ensure the dialogue is functional and makes sense when all the ‘fluff’ is absent.
To demonstrate: I’ll use an example based on a real-life conversation I had with my (then) five-year-old son, when I showed him a picture of me aged twenty.
5: Mummy you look so different!
5: I mean, you look so young there and now you look so different
5: I wish you’d had me when you weren’t really old
Me: I’m in my thirties!
When writing this exchange I could have ‘set the scene’, added dialogue tags, punctuation, and additional description. In fact, after additional rounds of editing, this exchange would be further enhanced by including facial expressions, character actions etc. However, in the early stages of working out a story, these might ‘muddy the waters’ around the conversational exchange itself, and make it more difficult to see the dynamic between the characters and their individual speech patterns.
While simplifying things, this technique also allows for some flexibility. I added a pause partway through because it clarified the flow of the exchange. This technique also allows you to add your thoughts on character tone, and add any actions or facial expressions which are concurrent with their speech. At this stage it doesn’t have to be neat, more a way of getting down any other thoughts you have about the exchange so that you can edit the prose at a later stage.
Please note that this technique is more suited to earlier drafts of your story. However, it is so helpful as a tool to better understand your individual characters and their relationships, and to make sure your dialogue flows, makes sense, and packs a punch where needed. Dialogue tags and punctuation can be added later, but this technique helps you get to the heart of the exchange first.
One caveat I want to stress: descriptions, character quirks, concurrent actions etc are important and will need to be woven into the exchange during editing. People in both fiction and real life don’t hold smooth, perfectly spoken, back-and-forth exchanges in white rooms in which nobody moves, fidgets, or gives unconscious signals through facial expressions and body language (or not usually!) It is important not to forget these, and indeed add them in brackets if they occur to you when you are ‘scripting’ your characters’ dialogue.
Writing dialogue as you would for visual media is a handy way to see the dialogue without the distractions of description, dialogue tags, and punctuation. It also has the flexibility to add additional information (e.g. tone, actions, flow) should it be needed. This technique should be used in an early stage of drafting to help the writer better understand their characters, their voices, and their relationships.
WRITING HACK SERIES
This is part of a series of blog posts featuring writing hacks which will instantly improve your writing!
BEFORE YOU GO…
What do you think of the writing hack outlined above?
Please feel free to comment on the article and/or contact me if you have any questions!
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Disclaimer: generative AI
I do not use generative AI to produce or inform my blog, my images, or my fiction. All of my content is generated by the chaotic firing of my own (human) brain! (I have access to some images through my Wix subscription). I do not consent to the use of my content, images, or fiction to train generative AI models. Please contact me to discuss permission and compensation if you wish to use my content in this way.