The Four Fundamental Aspects To Writing Great Dialogue (Part I)

Pretty much every writer appreciates that dialogue is an essential element to story-telling; after-all, it is how the characters converse with one another. If done well, the dialogue in and of itself can make for a wonderful and engaging read. However, relatively few writers know how to write engaging dialogue, how to do it correctly, and how to do it well. Thus, this and the next blog piece discusses the four fundamental aspects to writing great dialogue.

In this first blog piece, we shall look at the first two of the four fundamental aspects to writing great dialogue. These consist of:

  1. The components that form dialogue; and
  2. The context within which the dialogue exists, and highlighting the situation facing the characters.

1 – The Components That Form Dialogue

Writing dialogue has three components that must be followed (lest the writer look like an amateur at his/her own craft). These components include:

  • Each new speaker gets his/her own quotation marks and indented paragraph;
  • All punctuation during the speech goes within the quotation marks; and
  • Have words that go after the quotation marks (when and if any are needed).

Most of these, writers will be aware of from reading. Still for the sake of clarity and fairness, we shall assess these bullet points by using an extract from the psychological thriller, When She Returned by Lucinda Berry.

Extract

the four fundamental aspects to writing great dialogue - first extract comes from Lucinda Berry's book.
The extract comes from Lucinda Berry’s brilliant and thoroughly enjoyable psychological thriller, When She Returned.

The extract is from chapter 6, from Meredith’s POV. Meredith is Scott’s second wife. Scott’s first wife, Kate (also a POV character), disappeared 11 years before the start of the narrative. But now Kate has shown up again, putting Meredith in an awkward situation (to put it mildly).

In this extract, Meredith and Scott are on their way back from the police station, having spoken to detective Marcos.

“I know Marcos warned us about how different she would look, but he should’ve been more specific,” I said. “I mean, he couldn’t have said, ‘Hey, by the way, she’s going to like an eighty-year-old woman?’ I’m pretty sure that would’ve been helpful for everyone.”

“Maybe he wanted us to be shocked.”

“Really.”

He shrugged. “Maybe. Who knows? I have no idea why they do anything that they do. You’re about to see what I told you about all those years ago.”

How The Extract Shows The First Two Bullet Points

From this, we see that every time a person speaks, a new line is started and indented. In addition, the speaker gets his/her own quotation marks.

Also, the extract highlights that when a character speaks, all the punctuation within the speech goes within the quotation marks. That is regardless of what punctuation is used.

What The Extract Shows Regarding The Third Bullet Point

After the first sentence comes to a close (via a comma and an end quotation mark) there are the words I said. Nevertheless, I said is only used once. This is because the conversation taking place is only between two people: Meredith and Scott.

Therefore, there is no need to keep saying I said, he said or she said at the end of each quotation in this instance. This is because it’s obvious who’s talking.

What The Extract Does NOT Show Regarding The Third Bullet Point

the four fundamental aspects to writing dialogue - example from Hannah Ross' book
Paths of the Shadow, the amazing fantasy novel by Hannah Ross, whom I had the privilege of interviewing last year.

When three or more characters converse at the same time, the writer invariably has to specify which character is doing the talking. The above extract is between two people, so it cannot be an example to explain the point. Instead, I will use an extract from the fantasy book, The Paths of the Shadow by Hannah Ross. In Chapter 5, Jadine, Kelena and Tyra are talking before Jadine’s wedding (and the chapter is from Jadine’s POV).

“There is still a little while before we have to go downstairs,” said one of her cousins, a perky slim girl named Tyra. “Shall we uphold the tradition and tell some tale of your famous namesakes?”

“I was not aware I had any famous namesakes,” Jadine said.

“What of the girl who was the closest companion of Queen Thasiella?” Kelena spoke up for the first time in the course of the morning. “The one who threw herself down trying to prevent the queen from taking her own life?”

“Oh, her,” Jadine replied, carelessly. “I always thought her a bore.”

“She was a true friend,” Kelena said, solemnly, “true and loyal.”

From this extract, we can see why it is vital to state the names of the person who is talking when three or more people are involved in a conversation. It gives clarity to the reader, avoids confusion, and enables the narrative to flow.

2 – The Context Within Which The Dialogue Exists

The second of the four fundamental aspects to writing great dialogue revolves around the context within which the dialogue exists. As can be seen from the two extracts, above, dialogue is not just quotation marks and punctuation within those quotation marks. It is so much more than that.

Every conversation between characters takes place in a unique situation. The words before and after (and sometimes even during) the quotation marks are crucial. They enable the dialogue to work, be appropriate for the conversation, and highlight the situation facing the characters.

Extracts 2A and 2B give examples of what I mean. They show how the dialogue works within the context of the situation that the characters are in.

Extract 2A – Chapter 1 from Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song

Extract 2A comes from early on in Blood Song, when Vaelin’s father treacherously drops him off at the Sixth Order, condemning his young son to a life of servitude.

There was a snort behind him. Vaelin turned to see his father riding away, the charger quickly swallowed by the mist, hooves drumming on the soft earth, fading to silence.

“He will not be coming back, Vaelin,” said the long faced man, the Aspect, his smile gone. “You know why he brought you here?”

“To learn many things and be a brother of the Sixth Order.”

“Yes, but no one may enter except by their own choice, be they man or boy.”

A sudden desire to run, to escape into the mist. He would run away. He would find a band of outlaws to take him in, he would live in the forest, have many grand adventures and pretend himself an orphan… Loyalty is our strength.

The Aspects’s gaze was impassive but Vaelin knew he could read every thought in his boy’s head. He wondered later how many boys, dragged or tricked there by treacherous fathers, did run away, and if so, if they ever regretted it.

Loyalty is our strength.

“I wish to come in, please,” he told the Aspect. There were tears in his eyes but he blinked them away. “I wish to learn many things.”

The Aspect reached out to unlock the gate. Vaelin noticed hands bore many scars. He beckoned Vaelin inside as the gate swung open. “Come, little Hawk. You are our brother now.”

Explanation For Extract 2A

The dialogue in Extract 2A works and is appropriate for the situation as it is backed up by the words before, during and after the quotation marks. Our central protagonist, (young) Vaelin, has been dropped off at a monastic, warrior order. We feel Vaelin’s (desperate) desire to turn around and run away. Indeed, we feel Vaelin’s fear of joining the Sixth Order, as it is for life and so he must leave behind everything he previously knew.

While what he says is contrary to his feelings, we understand why he says them. In many ways, it shows his courage. Yet, take away the text before, during and after the quotation marks, and the dialogue would look wooden, strange and like Vaelin had no feelings at all.

Extract 2B – Chapter 2 (‘Questions’) from The Blade Itself

A piece of fan art depicting our mutilated antihero and POV Character, Glokta Dan Sand.

As his watering eyes adjusted to the brightness he recognized Glokta sitting opposite him, and his face suddenly filled with hope. A sadly, sadly misplaced hope.

“Glokta, you have to help me!” he [Salem Rews] squealed, leaning forward as far as his bonds would allow. “I’m falsely accused, you know it, I’m innocent! You’ve come to help me, yes? You’re my friend! You have influence here. We’re friends, friends! You could say something for me! I’m an innocent man, falsely accused! I’m-”

Glokta held up his hand for silence. He stared at Rews’ familiar face, as though he had never laid eyes on him before. Then, he turned to [his assistant, Practical] Frost. “Am I supposed to know this man?”

The albino said nothing.

“It’s me, Rews!” hissed the fat man, the pitch of his voice rising steadily towards panic. “Salem Rews, you know me, Glokta! I was with you in the war, before… you know… we’re friends. We-”

Glokta held up his hand again and sat back, tapping one of his few remaining teeth with a fingernail as though deep in thought. “Rews. The name is familiar. A merchant, a member of the Guild of Mercers. A rich man by all accounts. I remember now…” Glokta leaned forward, pausing for effect. “He was a traitor! He was taken by the Inquisition, his property confiscated. You see, he had conspired to avoid the King’s taxes… The King’s taxes!… We may or may not have known each other once, but I don’t think you and my assistant have been properly introduced. Practical Frost, say hello to this fat man.”

It was an open-handed blow, but powerful enough to knock Rews clean off his seat.

Explanation for Extract 2B

For similar reasons to Extract 2B works well too. Here, our antihero, Glokta Dan Sand, is interrogating (torturing) Salem Rews into a confession. Glokta takes a sadistic pleasure in what he’s doing. It’s an act, like theatre, for him as his interrogatee suffers pain and pleads his innocence.

Again, though, take away the words outside of the quotation marks and the scene would not work. We might get an understanding for Salem’s predicament from the dialogue. But we would not get the same degree of understanding for Glotka’s character. This is because so much of what he thinks and feels is not said.

End of Part I

We will discuss the remaining two of the four fundamental aspects to writing great dialogue next week. For the moment, I would like to thank you for reading the first half of the four fundamental aspects to writing great dialogue. I hope you have enjoyed it and found it useful.

Paul

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