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How to write effective dialogue. Show don't tell.

I’m obsessed with giving the audience something they don’t see coming, Jordan Peele.

The most interesting plot and structure, filled with ups and downs, twists and turns, won’t matter much to readers unless your characters are believable, relatable, and memorable. Memorable characters have motivations, backstories, and goals, face great obstacles and challenges, and strive to overcome their past wounds, inner conflicts, and external obstacles.

Dialogues are what characters say in the story. They are capable of affecting them in both minor and profound ways, what they do as well as what they feel. Creating memorable and deeply meaningful characters, crisp and witty dialogues, and brilliant plots are the basic elements of the art of storytelling. If you're going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all, Joseph Campbell.

If you're going to have a story, have a big story, or none at all, Joseph Campbell.

Show don’t tell

Sometimes a little bit of telling is not bad. It could be necessary, a craft that should be honed, encouraged, and revered, and it does work.

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense, J. K. Rowling.

Showing is the use of specific details, vivid sensory description, dialogue, and so on, to create a picture in the reader’s mind, to show what’s going on rather than just explaining it. It invites the reader to visualize the scene and experience the emotions themselves. It draws the reader deeper into the story.

Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass, Anton Chekhov

  Telling: Andrew was scared and terrified of the dark.
  Showing: "Good night and sweet dreams, sweetie," Mum said, kissed him on the forehead and left the room. 
  Immediately, Andrew's body became completely tense. He breathed quickly and felt a cold shiver running down his spine. He huddled under the covers and tightly gripped the sheets with both hands.
  1. Don’t spoonfeed your readers. They do not deserve it. They are not stupid spectators, they should be active participants in your story.
  2. Use dialogue.
      Telling: He was very hungry, but keep on climbing.
      Showing: "Keep climbing," he told himself.
      "Cheeseburgers," his stomach replied.
      "Shut up," he thought.
      "With fries," his stomach complained.” Rick Riordan, The House of Hades
    
      Telling: Simone was smoking without knowing how to do it and we were so annoyed about that unpleasant odor.
      Showing: “Are you still doing that crap?" I ask.
      "You can't even do it properly," Eileen says.
      "Just a matter of practice," Simone says.
      "Wow! Practicing how to poison yourself and make your breath reek like the fart of a seagull!" Eileen cries.
      Randa Abdel-Fattah, Does My Head Look Big in This?
    
  3. Appeal to your readers’ senses.
      Telling: A hurricane was relentlessly pounding into her home and she thought that it would be her last day alive.
      Saying: The sound of the wind was high-pitched and deafening. All the windows and walls were shaking violently like jelly. Then, the power went down and darkness took over.
      The night was getting colder and colder, she coughed, then coughed again.
      "That's the end!" she thought when she saw part of the roof being flown away by the wind and rain started pouring in and flooding her house.
    
  4. Eliminate passive voice from your writing.
  5. Resist the temptation to explain everything and get bogged down in unnecessary details.
  6. Create a rich setting.

    The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomitted the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light, J.R.R. Tolkien.

  7. Use dialogue to show what you want to convey to your readers, e.g., instead of telling about a character’s traits, thoughts, or feelings, show them by their words and actions.
      Telling: Zaphod Beebleblox was an incredible despicable and narcissistic human being.
      Saying: "If there's anything more important than my ego around, I want it caught and shot now," Zaphod Beebleblox.
    
  8. Use showing to be subtle with the general story’s theme, e.g., loneliness.
      "She had never entirely let go of the notion that if she reached far enough with her thoughts she might find someone waiting, that if two people were to cast their thoughts outward at the same moment they might somehow meet in the middle," Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven.
    
  9. Use of figurative language and silences.

    “How are you feeling today, pal?” Peter asked him. An awkward silence seemed to drag on almost forever. “Not very talkative today, are you?” Peter insisted with the same effect than talking to a pet rock. His friend’s life was a rollercoaster, traveling and unravelling through peaks of sheer excitement, then dropping into the deepest and darkest abyss of anguish and despair, Anawim.

How to write effective dialogue

  1. Dialogue should sound natural and authentic. Keep it real.
  2. Be concise, be wary of the amount of text you have per page, don’t say the same thing multiple times, avoid name calling (how many times did you say a person’s name in the middle of a conversation?), filler words, and repeating some words and phrases - cut it to the bone!
  3. Use your dialogue to reveal backstory, but don’t over do it.
      “We are not eating on this pizzeria, are we?” Martha said.
      “Oh, well. I thought that... Still having nightmares?”
      Martha frowned and gazed away. “Not so much anymore, but there are so many damn places to choose from.”
      “You’d think after all these years…”
      “I do not want to talk about it, period, what's wrong with you?”
    
  4. Avoid the information dump. You don’t have to tell absolutely everything, let some ambiguity leaves room for your readers’ imagination to be active and run wild with ideas.
    Mr. Creedy: "Why won't you die?"
    "Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof."
    V for Vendetta
    
  5. Use dialogue to reveal your protagonist’s personality, qualities, values, real character, and inner conflicts. Blend dialogue with descriptive narration.
    Yvonne: “Where were you last night?”
    Rick Blaine: “That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.”
    Yvonne: “Will I see you tonight?”
    Rick Blaine: “I never make plans that far ahead.”
    [...]
    Major Strasser: "What is your nationality?" 
    Rick Blaine: "I'm a drunkard." 
    Captain Renault: "That makes Rick a citizen of the world."
    Casablanca
    
  6. Be subtle. Dialogue is not always a direct, open, and sincere interchange of words and ideas. Many of our words have double (or even triple) meanings, we sometimes ignore or refuse to answer some questions and come up with different questions, or just remain silent.
      “Have you never heard the saying ‘you attract more flies with honey than vinegar’?” 
      “Why would I want to attract flies?” 
      “Never mind.”
      Roshani Chokshi, The Gilded Wolves
    

Bibliography

  1. The Novel Smithy
  2. Well-Storied, Story Structure.
  3. reedsyblog, Story Structure: 7 Narrative Structures All Writers Should Know.
  4. Save the cat.
  5. Learn to write with Jerry B. Jenkins
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