Picking back up on my series on What Makes a Great Story with a discussion about dialogue and internal thought. To see the previous posts in this series, check out these links:
Openings - Part 1
Openings - Part 2

Dialogue is one of those parts of storytelling that when done right you almost don’t notice it. But when it’s done wrong it stands out like the proverbial poop in the cereal…you can’t eat around it and you can’t ignore it.

There are several mistakes in dialogue that I‘ve noticed in most stories. Generally, the dialogue isn’t natural, because it reads like the author’s prose. Just because you can write a beautiful piece of lyrical description, doesn’t mean your dialogue should be written the same way. Dialogue should be written in a conversational tone. That means that not all of your sentences should be perfectly formed/structured. Here’s an example of what I mean:

Option 1:
“So Bill, what did you do yesterday?”

"Well, John, I took a long drive in my 1995 red Porsche. I had the windows down and the cool air felt great as it blew through my hair. The smell of spring filled my nostrils as I made my way through the countryside. The road meandered around the twisting hills located 30 miles outside of town. Birds soared overhead and squirrels jumped from branch to branch on the trees bordering the highway. I found myself reflecting on the majesty that is nature.”

Option 2:
“So, what did you do yesterday?” asked John.

“I took the Porsche out for a bit and took a drive through country,” said Bill.

“Man, that must have been nice. I love spring”

“Oh, it was great. You should come with me next time. There’s this cool spot about 30 miles outside of town. It’s like being in a completely different world the way the animals behave.”

“You’re on.”

I’m hoping that most people see that the second option is a much better way to structure the dialogue between your characters. First, I removed the names of the individuals from the actual dialogue. Using someone’s name in conversation is ok but RARELY does anyone ever do that in real life (usually only in groups or when trying to grab someone’s attention). Second, let’s assume all that information in option one is somehow necessary to the story. Rather than just dump it all on the reader as the first option does, the second option gets all the basic elements across much better and is done through two characters actually interacting with each other rather than Bill just dominating the conversation. And though I included more conversation from John, I conveyed all the information in 17 fewer words while giving a bit of personality to the two individuals. Also, I feel like the tone is more natural than before.

One of the last things I do when editing a story, especially on dialogue is read it out loud. If you trip over your words, pause where you weren’t supposed to or just wince because it doesn’t sound right, then fix it. For some reason, you will always catch more mistakes when doing this.

By the way, I’m not saying option 2 above is perfect, but it more closely resembles something that you would hear in the real world.

Now, some will make the argument that when writing fantasy or a period piece, you need to write the dialog to more accurately reflect the time. And I agree with that statement to a certain point. You will mostly need to alter the words used when dealing with different cultures or levels of education between your characters.

However, the same rules apply. I don’t care if you’re writing about kings and knights, Roman soldiers, a prostitute during the American Revolution, an elf on a fishing boat, or a caveman. In all those instances, they would still have a natural/normal conversation with those they were with.

And for a little self-promotion, here is a bit of dialogue between a couple of my characters (Jonrell and Kroke) in the third chapter of Rise and Fall (you can read the first three chapters here).
“Where are Cassus and Krytien? They should be here by now.”

“You got me, Boss,” said Kroke, again cleaning his nails.

“We’ll give them ten more minutes and then we head out. They can catch up later.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Is that really necessary?”

“Is what necessary?”

“That,” said Jonrell pointing at the dagger. “How can they be dirty if you’re constantly cleaning them?”

“They aren’t. Just habit I guess. Like the way a blade feels in my hand is all.” Kroke sheathed the knife and looked up. “Don’t sweat it, Boss. They’ll be here.”

Jonrell sighed. They better.
“See, that’s them coming out the camp now,” said Kroke with a nod. He pulled out a different knife, picking at the nails on his other hand.

Jonrell shook his head and turned toward the encampment. He squinted and saw some movement but couldn’t make out more than a few shapes in the night. The distance was too great. “How can you tell it’s them?”

“I can’t.” Kroke shrugged his shoulders. “Just trying to be positive is all.”

“You’re unbelievable, you know that.”


“It wasn’t a compliment.”

Internal Thought:
Internal thought is similar to dialogue and therefore needs be just as natural. The only difference is that the conversation is one-sided (unless the character is crazy). Internal thought can be a bit trickier since it is much easier for the writer to allow his own voice to creep into the character’s thoughts than when writing dialogue (I know I’ve done this a few times myself).

One of the best uses of internal thought I’ve seen is from Joe Abercrombie. His character, Glokta, uses it quite frequently. Here is a good example of internal thought done right.

As soon as the gag was off the assassin started screaming at them in Styrian, spitting and cursing, struggling pointlessly at his chains. Glokta didn’t understand a word of it. But I think I catch the meaning, more or less. Something very offensive indeed, I imagine. Something about our mothers, and so on. But I am not easily offended. He was a tough looking sort, face pockmarked with acne scars, nose broken more than once and bent out of shape. How disappointing. I was hoping the Mercers might have gone up-market on this occasion at least, but that’s merchants for you. Always looking for a bargain.

So, who do you think is great at writing dialogue?


2 Responses so far.

  1. When you mentioned the internal dialog and it being one sided unless a character is crazy, I immediately thought of Gollum. Granted I think he actually talks out loud to himself, but the scene where he's trying to decide whether to trust Frodo or kill him to obtain the precious is great. It's been a while since I read the book, but that scene in the Two Towers is one of my favorites in all three movies!

  2. Very good scene. I agree it was definitely one of the best parts of the movies.

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