Words Can Light Fires: How to Write Riveting Dialogue

This is a sample chapter from Making Myths and Magic: A Field Guide to Writing Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novels by author Shelly Campbell and editor Allison Alexander—coming 2022!

Making Myths and Magic is a comprehensive resource for speculative writers and includes chapter topics on brainstorming, outlining, hooking readers, adding tension, playing with SFF tropes in new ways, writing myths, songs, riddles, and prophecies, and more. Add it to Goodreads here!

Dialogue is one of the common reasons manuscripts get rejected. It can be a tricky aspect to nail down, but when you do, it will level up your writing like nobody’s business!

Real vs. Fictional Dialogue

Have you ever received advice that you should go to a coffee shop and listen to the people around you to learn how to write dialogue? This is good advice. But perhaps not for the reason you think. For example, here’s a snippet of a coffee shop conversation:

“Hey.”
“Yo!”
“How are you?”
“Survivin’. You?”
“I’m doing all right, thanks. Have a seat!”
“Okay, thanks. Whatcha drinkin’?”
“Hmm?”
“That coffee?”
“Oh, yeah. Cappuccino. Um, hey, I bumped into your sister yesterday.”
“Oh, really?”
“Yeah, we were in the same line at the grocery store. Listen, she told me you were in trouble.”
“She likes puttin’ her nose in my business.”
“Can I help?”
“Nah.”

The positives about this dialogue: there’s a potential mystery buried in here (what trouble?) and a little tension (character two doesn’t seem to appreciate their sister much). However, it would need to be tweaked for a book. In real life, people talk about mundane things, use a lot of ers and ahs, backtrack, rephrase, repeat, and pause while they try to figure out that one word they can’t remember. Sometimes, the point they’re trying to get across makes sense to them but to no one else. You will be hard-pressed to find a character asking “How are you?” as a greeting in one of your favourite novels, because that adds nothing to the story.

However, here are some insights we can take from real-life dialogue, things you can pay attention to when you visit that coffee shop:

  • People speak in unique ways. Most speakers have pet phrases or words; some have words that they would never use (perhaps they avoid swearing or hate the word “moist”); some people use contractions more than others, like the second speaker in the above example.
  • People don’t address others by their first names as often as you might think. Particularly if it is a one-on-one conversation, there is often no need to address the other person by their first name.
  • People speak in jargon. If you have two gamers holding a conversation with each other, they might use words like “RPG,” “Dot,” “ADC,” “AFK,” “KS,” etc. (yeah, we gamers like our acronyms). Two astronauts, however, might use completely different lingo.

Your characters shouldn’t all sound the same. In fact, if you take away their dialogue tags, readers should be able to guess who is talking. Consider the following dialogue from Firefly’s episode “The Train Job.” If you are familiar with the characters and the show, try to guess who’s speaking.

Speaker #1: “All right, but what about the authorities? I mean, we’re sitting here with stolen Alliance goods. Won’t they be looking for us?”

Speaker #2: “They buzz this canyon, we’ll hear them long before they ever see us. I figure we’re good for…”

Speaker #3: “Won’t stop. Won’t ever stop. They’ll just keep coming until they get back what you took. Two by two, hands of blue. Two by two, hands of blue.”

Speaker #4: “How’s about you shut that crazy mouth? Is that a fun game? Now, I’m in ruttin’ charge here, and I’m tellin’ you how it works. We don’t get the goods to Niska on time, he’ll make meat pies out of the lot of us. And I ain’t walkin’ into that.”

Speaker #5: “Is this Adelai Niska you’re talking about?”

Speaker #4: “Now how would a Shepherd know a name like that?”

Speaker #5: “As I’ve heard it, he made a deal with the Captain. If the Captain’s not there to finish it, if Niska finds out he’s being held, and may speak as to who hired him—I think we’re better off being a little late.”

Even without seeing the scene and hearing the actors’ voices, viewers who are familiar with these characters will likely be able to guess who is talking. Speaker #1 is someone with a more refined dialect than the rest—this suggests Simon (formerly a wealthy doctor), Shepherd Book (a well-spoken priest), or Inara (a registered Companion). This person is also concerned with authority and being discovered, which is a key concern of Simon’s, because he’s always worried about River’s safety. Speaker #1 is, indeed, Simon.

Speaker #2 is a little more ambiguous. They aren’t speaking with perfect grammar (they say “They buzz” instead of “If they buzz”), and using the word “buzz” itself is slang that not everyone on the ship would use. They’re speaking with authority as someone who is used to being chased. Their point is related to ships and searching. Speaker #2 is Wash, the Serenity’s pilot.

Speaker #3 is talking in nonsense or riddles, so that’s obviously River.

Speaker #4 snaps at River and tells her to shut up. There’s only one member of the ship who would do that: Jayne. He also speaks in an unrefined dialect, using words like “ruttin’” and “ain’t.”

Speaker #5 is using complete grammar and knows something surprising. Shepherd Book’s past is a mystery, and he often comes up with unusual tidbits of knowledge or experience.

Both the way these characters talk and what they are saying give clues as to who they are. The dialogue in your story should do the same (though we still recommend including dialogue tags for ease of reading). People are not interchangeable; your characters shouldn’t be either.

The purpose of fictional dialogue is to drive the story forward, heighten tension, and/or reveal character. The example from Firefly achieves all three. Plot-related, the crew are deciding what to do because two of the crew members—Mal and Zoe—are stuck on a planet with the feds. Tension is high as authorities might be looking for the stolen goods they have onboard the ship and the man waiting for them is incredibly dangerous; they’re taking a risk by making him wait, but they’d also be taking a risk by leaving Mal and Zoe behind to deliver the goods. We also have River babbling about people with “hands of blue” who never give up—disturbing. In regards to character, we have Jayne yelling at River and claiming he’s in charge with the captain gone (instant tension, and typical of Jayne’s character), and Book mentioning he knows Niska (another random tidbit that relates to the Shepherd’s mysterious past).

It’s amazing how much seven lines of dialogue can accomplish!

When working on sections of dialogue, ask yourself what would happen to the story if you deleted the entire conversation. If the story would be exactly the same, then the dialogue either doesn’t need to be there or it needs reworking.

Dialects and Accents

Dialect is a way of speaking associated with a language, country, or social class, including elements like pronunciation, grammar, and spelling. Accent refers specifically to pronunciation—the way people say certain words, vowels, or consonants.

Some authors point out specific accents in their characters by using phonetic spellings. This can be done well, but should be attempted with care, because it runs the danger of inauthentic caricatures and harmful stereotypes. Plus, phonetic spellings can be incredibly distracting to the reader. You should also carefully consider your reason for focusing on one character’s accent and not another’s. Keep in mind that everyone has an accent—even you. If you are only using phonetics for accents you don’t consider “standard,” double check that this doesn’t imply the characters are inferior, ignorant, or less intelligent than others.

When writing dialects, less is more. For example, if your Scottish character says, “Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye,” will your non-Scottish readers follow? If your dialogue is riddled with phonetic spellings, will anyone follow? Charles Dickens tended to use phonetic spellings for his uneducated characters, such as the following sample from Bleak House:

“…there wos other genlmen come down Tom-all-Alone’s a-prayin, but they all mostly sed as the t’other wuns prayed wrong, and all mostly sounded as to be a-talking to theirselves, or a-passing blame on the t’others, and not a-talkin to us.”

If you’re like us, you have to go over that a few times to get the gist of what is being said. And, while we admire Charles Dickens’ prose in general, we question whether drawing attention to lower caste characters in this way is helpful or harmful. If this is accurately depicting the way people talked, is that a problem? Or is it contributing to harmful stereotypes?

In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling uses phonetic dialect, also known as eye dialect, for one of the most beloved characters in the story—Hagrid:

“They didn’ keep their gold in the house, boy! Nah, first stop fer us is Gringotts. Wizards’ bank. Have a sausage, they’re not bad cold—an’ I wouldn’ say no teh a bit o’ yer birthday cake, neither.”

Hagrid’s dialect is easy to read and contributes to his character, though it is a little over the top. The small changes to the words (i.e. fer instead of for) and the syntax variations point to a West Country English accent. While the dialect might get tiresome to read if Hagrid was a main character, his appearances are sporadic enough that it comes across as a loveable part of his character (at least, we think so).

In contrast, Fleur Delacour’s accent is much more heavy-handed and feels like a cliche. Some French readers have commented on how annoying it was to read the stereotypical “z” instead of “th” sounds: 

“An ‘air from ze ‘ead of a veela… One of my grandmuzzer’s.”

Rowling even contributes to the stigma by having other characters make fun of Fleur’s accent and nickname her “Phlegm.” Fleur is a fascinating character, who goes from being extremely arrogant to gaining some humility as an adult. However, all her dialect accomplishes is a constant screaming of I’M FRENCH, which distracts from her character rather than adds to it.

Terry Pratchett also uses eye dialect in his Discworld series. In The Wee Free Men, the fey folk known as Nac Mac Feegles speak with Glaswegian accents:

“Crivens! It’s a’ verra well sayin’ ‘find the hag,’ but what should we be lookin’ for, can ye tell me that? All these bigjobs look just the same tae me!”

“Not-totally-wee Geordie doon at the fishin’ said she was a big, big girl!”

“A great help that is, I dinna think! They’re all big, big girls!”

“Ye paira dafties! Everyone knows a hag wears a pointy bonnet!”

“So they canna be a hag if they’re sleepin’, then?”

In the article “Narrative Function of Language in Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men,” Judita Ondrušeková explains how Pratchett’s dialect functions, practically speaking: 

“The Scottish dialect is present in this exchange: clipping of the -ing suffix in words saying, looking, fishing and sleeping and instead the accent clips off the final sound ‘g’ (sayin’, lookin’, fishin’, sleepin’). Pratchett also highlights the Scottish emphasis on ‘r’ (verra), which is more rhotic. Another set of words changed by pronunciation are prepositions ‘to’ and ‘down’, or in the dialogue ‘tae’ and ‘doon’. The Scots change the form of their auxiliary verb ‘don’t’ into ‘dinna’. The syntax of that sentence is helpful to the reader, as they would be able to connect the meaning to the context of the exchange.”

Note that Pratchett writes comedic fantasy, so over-the-top dialect works. It’s fun and silly. But, in many cases, using eye dialect is distracting and runs the danger of othering non-native speakers, so keep that in mind if you try it.   

If eye dialect isn’t for you, there are other ways to highlight a character’s culture through dialogue:

1. Use regional slang. 

In North America, we call it a washroom or bathroom, but in the UK, it’s the loo. Australians say “fair dinkum” to confirm the truth of a statement. Canadians call a forest “the bush.” You can use regional slang to highlight your character’s origin. 

This can be especially fun in sci-fi and fantasy, because you get to make up the slang! Your character’s dialect could be related to the region of the world they come from or their race. Do elves use words that dwarves don’t? Do goblins have a “special” word for humans? Do aliens from specific planets use certain terms?

The TV show Farscape utilizes slang particularly well, with certain species using words that others don’t. For example, Chiana, a nebari, uses the words blez (meaning “chill out”), cacking (meaning “dying”), “keep it in your caftan” (meaning “be patient”), dag-yo (meaning “cool”), draz (an expletive), and many more. The other species also have their own lingo. For example, D’Argo, a luxan, says, “You are a real pain in the eema!” Zhaan, a delvian, says a chant as a religious prayer: “Kay’me maia kosa Visha’meel maia kosa ah Khalaan ah Khalaan.” Rygel, a hynerian, uses fa-pu-ta as an expletive: “Darn it! Some fa-pu-ta is going to pay for this!”

2. Try out the sci-fi curse word trope.

Speaking of expletives, sci-fi has a history of getting creative with its swear words. Farscape has frell (among others). Battlestar Galactica has frak. Star Wars: Rebels has karabast. Firefly has gorram.

Sci-fi and fantasy also tend to use special (often derogatory) terms to reference certain people groups. For example, mudblood (someone who is muggle-born) in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, Skaikru (people who came to Earth from the Ark) in The 100, toaster (cylon) in Battlestar Galactica, prawn (a member of the alien species Poleepkwa) in District 9, muties (mutants) in The Gifted, and nadsats (teenagers’ dialect) in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. 

When coming up with your own slang and expletives, consider how the word might have developed organically. Slang doesn’t just come from nowhere. It might be a combination of two words (e.g. mud and blood in mudblood); an abbreviation of a longer word (e.g. muties or mute are short for mutant); reminiscent of another word (e.g. frak is suspiciously close to other swear words we Earthlings are familiar with); or based off a word from another language (e.g. nadsats is based on the Russian suffix for teen).

On building slang into his fantasy novel Hope and Red, Jon Skovron writes:

“Some word choices were fairly obvious to me. The book takes place in the Empire of Storms, which is an archipelago. The sea is a huge part of everyone’s life, and the climate is often overcast and damp, particularly in the large, urban island of New Laven. It would make sense, then, when selecting a word to describe something unusually good or pleasing, to have it be the opposite of their dreary daily existence. So if something is great, they say ‘That’s real sunny.’”

Try not to get too cutesy with your slang, but insert it thoughtfully and organically.

3. Use snippets of their native tongue.

If Common (or whatever your main character speaks) isn’t a character’s first language, they might occasionally revert to their native tongue when speaking. This could include random words from their language interspersed into their dialogue, but in real life, people don’t do this that much unless they can’t remember the word for it in the second language.

More realistically, a character might revert to their original language when they are angry, upset, or excited. Or, they might mutter to themselves in their own language. 

In Firefly, characters speak both English and Chinese, pointing towards a future that has blended these two cultures. Joss Whedon made this choice because the two cultures are great superpowers in our world, and he imagined what would happen if they came together. 

When the characters in Firefly speak Chinese, it’s often during moments of crisis or heightened emotion. For example, when Zoe goes off to a dangerous meeting, Wash says, “Zhu tamin ya min. Zhu yi,” which means “Watch your back” or, more literally, “This is damn dangerous. Pay attention.” Characters also tend to curse in Chinese.

4. Play with grammar and syntax.

Different languages work in wildly different ways. For example, Russian and Latin lack articles such as a, an, or the. French has nouns with grammatical gender. Alaskan Yup’ik has thirty degrees of demonstratives (English only has two—this and that). Korean has various pronouns that mark the degrees of politeness and formality between the people talking. In some African languages, changing the pitch at which you pronounce words changes the meaning of the sentence. 

English generally places the subject of a sentence first, the verb second, and the object last. But some languages switch around this order. Perhaps the most famous character from sci-fi and fantasy whose syntax is unusual is Yoda from Star Wars. Instead of subject–verb–object (e.g. “You still have much to learn”), Yoda’s sentences are usually ordered as object–subject–verb (e.g. “Much to learn, you still have”). Yoda’s dialogue isn’t always consistent, however. 

You can also play with how characters use contractions. In Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen, which features a variety of aliens from different cultures, the character Panca uses contractions in places that aren’t intuitive for English readers:

“You’re moving forward very, very fast for someone who went through’s much as you did… We can all’ve second chances… Machines’re simple, talkative, honest… Humans’re the sum of experiences…”

These small changes to her dialogue make her voice unique. She feels like she is from another culture, simply by putting a few apostrophes in unusual places!

In regards to why she made those choices, Essa told us:

“There are countless ways to play with punctuation, pacing, and spelling in order to make speech sound alien or fantastical while still using English. I wanted Panca’s dialogue to suggest an accent without being so unconventional that it pushed the reader away. The middle ground I chose was to have her omit articles and contract as much of her speech as possible. Sounding so colloquial also helped her personality feel more intimate.”

For more inspiration, The Mass Effect video game series has numerous examples of unique dialects. In the games, most aliens speak their own language, but almost everyone uses a translator that allows them to understand and communicate with each other. Still, translators can only do so much—sometimes grammar and even tone comes across as unusual to an English speaker. 

The Elcor speak in monotone, which would make it difficult to understand their emotions (or even whether they are asking a question or making a statement), except they precede every bit of dialogue with declarations that clarify their intent or feeling. When you approach Harrot the Elcor, a shopkeeper, he says, “Tentatively excited: Welcome, human. What can I get for you?” When you question him about a deal he made, he says, “Suspicious: If I had made such a deal I would certainly not be inclined to discuss it.” If you threaten him into doing what you want, he says, “With barely contained terror: You drive a hard bargain, human.” (Sometimes, we wish English-speaking humans would precede their dialogue with statements like these!)

The hanar speak with each other using elaborate patterns of bioluminescence that translators interpret, and their syntax is unusual. Hanar only refer to themselves in the first person with family or people who are very close to them. They most often refer to themselves as “this one” when you interact with them. Their dialect is polite and formal, even when they are annoyed. For example, when a hanar tried to warn others about a danger, and those people didn’t listen, they say, “This one tried. This one was ignored. This one’s efforts fell on obstructed auditory senses.” They also have two names: a face name for strangers and a soul name for intimates. 

See how syntax, grammar, and dialect can be entrenched in culture? Fascinating! Study how syntax and diction work in other languages, glean inspiration from franchises you love, and you will gain some ideas for how to make a character’s dialogue stand out in unique ways.

Dialogue Tags

Less is also more with dialogue tags. Said might seem boring, and you may feel it’s necessary to spice up your dialogue with tags like “shouted,” “murmured,” “explained,” or “announced.” But said’s boringness is actually its biggest advantage. Said is quiet. Said is unobtrusive. Said is the silent ninja that no one notices. It draws the attention to the dialogue instead of to itself. And that’s usually what you want.

We’re not saying to never use other dialogue tags. But use them sparingly. Let’s analyze this snippet from Storm Front by Jim Butcher:

“‘All right, then,’ [Marcone] said, smoothly, and as though nothing had happened. ‘I won’t try to force my offer on you, Mister Dresden.’ The car was slowing down as it approached my building, and Hendricks pulled over in front of it. ‘But let me offer you some advice.’ He had dropped the father-talking-to-son act, and spoke in a calm and patient voice.

‘If you don’t charge for it.’ Thank God for wisecracks. I was too rattled to have said anything intelligent.

Marcone almost smiled. ‘I think you’ll be happier if you come down with the flu for a few days. This business that Detective Murphy has asked you to look into doesn’t need to be dragged out into the light. You won’t like what you see. It’s on my side of the fence. Just let me deal with it, and it won’t ever trouble you.’

‘Are you threatening me?’ I asked him. I didn’t think he was, but I didn’t want him to know that. It would have helped if my voice hadn’t been shaking.

‘No,’ he said, frankly. ‘I have too much respect for you to resort to something like that. They say that you’re the real thing, Mister Dresden. A real magus.’

‘They also say I’m nutty as a fruitcake.’

‘I choose which “they” I listen to very carefully,’ Marcone said. ‘Think about what I’ve said, Mister Dresden. I do not think our respective lines of work need overlap often. I would as soon not make an enemy of you over this matter.’

I clenched my jaw over my fear, and spat words out at him quick and hard. ‘You don’t want to make an enemy of me, Marcone. That wouldn’t be smart. That wouldn’t be smart at all.’”

Most frequently, Butcher uses said or no dialogue tag at all. He also uses adverbs sparingly. In the first paragraph, he adds “smoothly” to point out how calm Marcone is and later uses “frankly” (though both adverbs could be taken out and the lines would work just fine). Adverbs are most effective when the tone of what is being said is unclear. For example, if a character is being sarcastic, you could add something like dryly or crossly.

In the second paragraph of the text, Butcher doesn’t use a dialogue tag at all. Instead, he inserts some of Dresden’s thoughts. This works well because a) we know there are only two people in this conversation, so the dialogue tags are there more for convenience than necessity, and b) adding personality and voice is always a plus.

In the third paragraph, Butcher points to who is speaking by describing what Marcone is doing—he “almost smiled.” This is a nice alternative to a tag. You can achieve imagery and point to who is speaking all in one go. Butcher could have added an adverb here, like “Marcone said ominously.” But Marcone’s words themselves are ominous. It doesn’t need that adverb for readers to be aware of that.  

The sixth line of dialogue doesn’t have any tag or description. By this point, it’s been back and forth enough, plus we’re familiar with Dresden’s voice, so it’s not necessary. “They also say I’m nutty as a fruitcake” is classic Dresden—definitely not something Marcone would say. 

Finally, Dresden spits out a line of dialogue. The spitting, instead of just saying, is more powerful because Butcher uses alternative tags sparingly. If Dresden spat and muttered and shouted every other line of dialogue, this wouldn’t mean much. But it packs a punch because of all the saids that have come before.

When using dialogue tags, make sure that they are physically possible. For example, can someone snort, laugh, or sneer a line of dialogue? Remember, you can always just include an action tag followed by dialogue (e.g. Goron’s face twisted into a sneer. “I don’t think so.”). As long as the action tag is paired with the dialogue, the reader knows who is talking.

 

If you know dialogue is an area you can improve on in your writing, examine some of your favourite books with a critical eye. Ask yourself what the dialogue is accomplishing, how the author uses dialect, whether you could determine who is speaking without the dialogue tags, and why the conversation makes you want to keep reading.

A fun exercise in dialogue writing is to take a scene from a TV show, write out the dialogue, and then add in narration as though you were converting the script into a novel. Taking apart dialogue and putting it back together can help you understand how it should function, and, before you know it, you’ll be writing banter, emotional conversation, and meaningful talk like a pro.

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