Notes on Craft: Helpful Tips on Writing Dialogue
by Olakunle Ologunro
It’s me again. I apologise for how long this has taken. Life happened. To be honest though, that’s the nature of life: to always happen. What matters is how we manage it, and frankly, I think I’m doing a poor job at it. But we move anyway, trying and failing until we arrive at perfection.
This letter is about one aspect of writing we must try and fail at, until we arrive at perfection. That aspect is dialogue. Dialogue plays an essential role in any form of writing you do, either fiction or nonfiction. A story cannot simply rely on narration alone. The stories will have characters, and it’s only natural for these characters to have conversations about what they are going through, the beauties of life, and perhaps something as mundane as what they had for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Even if these characters have speech impediments and cannot verbally express their desires, they can communicate through sign language or other means, and this helps move the story forward.
Dialogue can be used to reveal things the readers (and even the characters) do not know.
Dialogue can also show character. Through the way they speak, their choice of words, one can deduce their educational status, their philosophy of life, their dispositions. If they stammer, dialogue should be able to reveal it. If they are nervous, afraid, or flirty, dialogue should be able to reveal it.
Dialogue can also show age. A teenager can be portrayed to use ‘like’ in sentences. For example: “And I was like, oh my Gosh, you did not just say that. Like, can you imagine.”
Dialogue can be used (and should be used) to express emotions: anger, joy, disgust, surrender, etc. If the dialogue is effective, you do not have to rely on dialogue tags like: “You are mad!” Anuli shouted angrily. Because the actions preceding and the dialogue would have shown that to the readers. In fact, you should avoid using any other dialogue tag other than ‘said.’
So, what do you look out for when writing dialogue? What tips are helpful?
For starters, here’s what I do:
- I try to know who the characters are. Knowing them means I can understand the kind of things they would say, and how they would say it.
- I read the dialogue out loud. This way, I test it to know if it is something a real person would say.
- Sometimes, I don’t read it out loud. I turn it over and over, cut out parts that I consider unnecessary. How do I know parts that are unnecessary? Return to 1.
- I listen to people. Take not of how they speak, the words they use, the breaks between choosing the next word. And since fiction imitates life, well…
So, how does one get better? Practice. Practice. Read how writers use dialogue, and then practice some more. Here are more helpful tips:
- Avoid unnecessarily long paragraphs of talk.
- Ensure that each character has a unique voice or style of speaking.
- Include details that may or may not have anything to do with speech. For example:
“Good morning, Mama,” the girl said.
Mama sized her up with her eyes.
“What is good about the morning, Raluchi? Tell me, what is good about the morning when you are yet to pay me what you owe?”
“Squad” by Linda Musita is a story I like for how it uses dialogue. There are two characters in conversation, and Linda Musita depicts them perfectly such that we are able to tell distinctly who is who. What is more? Linda Musita eschews the dialogue tag ‘said’. This goes a long way to show you that there is no “one size fits all” approach to writing dialogue. Master the rules, then bend them the way you want.
See you soon.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Olakunle Ologunro is a Nigerian writer. His work has been published in Brittle Paper, Agbowo, the Queer Africa anthology, and the Gerald Kraak anthology for work that provokes thought on the topics of gender, social justice and sexuality. He is an alumnus of the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and a finalist for the 2020 Adina Talve-Goodman Fellowship from One Story Magazine. He won the inaugural Kreative Diadem Prize for short fiction.