How To Write Dialogue In Short Stories

Dialogue is one of the most effective tools in the writer’s toolbox. When used effectively, it can add flavor and depth to a story, revealing information about characters’ personalities and backgrounds. When used poorly, dialogue can make a short story feel stilted and forced. Luckily, there are techniques you can use to make sure your dialogue reads like a natural conversation — techniques you can use to convince your reader that your characters are really talking.


Listen to how people talk

Dialogue can be challenging for many writers, so it makes sense to look at how people actually talk. Imagine a conversation you had recently — on a bus, on a street corner, or even in your own living room. Chances are, you’ll find yourself pausing and changing tenses without even realizing it — much like you’ll read in most short stories. Like so many other elements of prose, having characters speak in “real time” helps push suspension of disbelief for your reader, making it easier for them to get caught up in your story. 

Know the characters you’re writing about intimately

Before you can write your dialogue, you need to know about your characters. If you know who is speaking, what’s being said, and why you are saying it you’re setting yourself up for success in all other aspects of writing. We tend to have an easier time identifying a character’s speech patterns, if you go deeper in your character development. Making your main character’s dialogue distinctly different from the secondary characters can help your reader keep track of who is whom, and will make your characters seem more natural.

For example, let’s look at the difference between the snarky, sarcastic attitude displayed between Tyler Durden and The Narrator in Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club. When The Narrator is talking to Marla, it’s written in a very plain, matter-of-fact tone. However, when he’s talking with Tyler, there is more sarcasm and flamboyance to his dialogue lines. If he had kept the same tone when talking to Tyler Durden than when speaking with Marla, it would not read nearly as well.

Use sarcasm, humour and cursing appropriately

While it’s true that well-written dialogue for both fiction and non-fiction can improve your storytelling, it can also sink it if you use it incorrectly. An important thing to remember is that conversation sounds different when written down than it does when it is spoken aloud. People are naturally inclined to add more emphasis and detail when they are talking, while the conversation stays on-topic, and they stick to the most important information. Because of this, you shouldn’t add emphasis in written dialogue—that belongs in stage directions instead, or in the summary of what is said. The dialogue itself should stick to a single line. A “voice” is critical to effective dialogue, so be careful not to distort a character’s variant speech patterns. Another thing to remember is that sarcasm, cursing, and dark humour work extremely well in dialogue, but it can be a tricky balance to get right. You should be careful not to use these idiosyncratic types of dialogue if your characters are speaking to children, to people who do not speak them, or if they are discussing an important story event.

Fit a character’s speech pattern with their personality so you can add extras like reading skills, and music preferences to make the dialogue feel authentic. Remember to deliver an emotion by adding a smile, or an angry or sad facial expression. You can use all lowercase for the beginning great dialogue, and then capitalize only the first letter of the next word for extending powerful dialogue. And then highlight the dialogue with witty sarcastic tone and usually ending first words with punctuations for awesome shocking effect.

Use a variety of word repetition

Word repetition is one of the most natural methods of dialogue because it reflects the way people really speak. Sure, you might have read a book where the characters spoke in complimentary adverbs and worried so-forths, so why wouldn’t you use this stylistic technique in your own writing? Word repetition can be overused, even more so than cliches, and the conversations are worse for it. You don’t really want your reader to feel like your characters are robots, so it’s important to vary not just the words your character chooses to speak, but also the topics they choose to speak about. As you might expect, smutty conversations will sound different from political ones. If you want things to sound natural, you need to give them the right dosage of natural word repetition.

Dialect, by contrast, is an important tool in your writer’s toolbox because it supports characterization within your dialogue. Written dialect is not phonetic, of course, because you are using letters of the alphabet, not sounds. You would think that this would lead to stilted dialogue, but when you write dialect with the right dialectical features, you can use it in a way that makes it feel natural when your characters speak as they would naturally.

Learn something about human body language

While it might seem unnatural at first, when writing dialogue for your short story, it can be very helpful to work with the physical body of a speaker. Everything that your character can hear, so will your reader, so it’s important to use words only they will hear. Furthermore, physical body positioning will help to convey more information to the reader than random words. How is your character physically positioned? Are they leaning themselves against a wall or is someone else in their vicinity? Is your character looking at the other person? All of these things matter for how you write your short story. Beyond that, writing visually is also particularly helpful. Your intended reader hasn’t had a chance to meet or get to know your characters yet, so take the time to paint a word picture for them.

Keep in mind that you can truly take the time to visualize with dialogue. Rather than focusing on what a character is saying, try to see what they’re thinking. As they speak, you can detail the physical qualities of a particular place your characters are inhabiting. If your characters are having a conversation, you might detail the quality of the lighting. You can even detail the current qualities of objects found in your environment, whether physically surrounding you or the ones that are found inside a particular room/setting for your tale. The goal is to keep dialogue involved as well as your reader hooked. After all, creating a short story is the same process as creating the perfect meal. You don’t want the short story to suffer from being overly heavy. It should be fine and balanced so that not only are you able to capture your reader, but you still leave them mouth-watering for more at the end.

Find the conflict

As the short story writer, it is your job to ensure that the conflicts in a story have functional aims. Unlike other genres such as mystery, romance, and adventure, which can use misdirection or red herrings to hide the true goal of the conflict, the short story relies on the directness of the conflict. In order to do this, the conflict must give the characters a reason to write, and have them rise to the challenge. What a character desires, what he has to sacrifice, and what he ultimately gains are often played out in dialogue and may be the most important ingredients of craft when writing short stories.

Bring your story’s conflicts to a slow simmer. The best way to do that is to give them a simple goal. Conflict exists so that characters seek to overcome it and ultimately achieve something they desire. As characters struggle through situations, their dialogue may put them in an emotional place fraught with distress, fear, or anger. Because short stories must be concisely told, conflicts should face immediate setbacks. If they don’t, it is the author’s responsibility to create a conflict early in the story from which the characters have no hope of escape. Doing so compels the characters to work towards a mutual goal, which then allows you to show the dialogue of the conflict.

Make the characters go somewhere

Every interaction your characters have with other characters should be tied in to their overarching story. And that doesn’t mean it has to directly “advance” the plot, which can often be a limiting way to think of a story unfolding. You could, say, have a scene where one character solicits advice from another, and address things this way naturally, or maybe a minor subplot or conflict arises. What’s important is that things are happening. 

Wherever you do finally go with the story, let that destination transmit some of the energy you’re trying to capture with the dialogue. Let’s say the relationship you’re showcasing is one where one person makes the other feel insignificant, or empty — so have your characters go to a space where you can really capture this controlled, oppressiveness, where the other person isn’t allowed to speak their mind, or they shun them when they do. If you were instead showcasing a relationship where they make each other feel empowered, then find someplace where these feelings can be expressed and acted upon. Also, let this influence how one character responds to another — maybe they’ll be more receptive in one environment, or more volatile in another, or at least less inhibited. This has the added impact of making other characters with the same relationships feel different, as these will take interactions differently, or even provide a contrasting framework and perspective of what’s going on.

Avoid editorializing and explaining

If you expect your dialogue and narration to communicate the entire plot of your story, you will be sorely disappointed. Suspension of disbelief is one of the most important aspects of creating a compelling story, so don’t spoil it by forcing your readers to work too hard to fill in gaps in your plot and characterization. Further, remember that the details in your dialogue should come from the mouth of your characters, not your own. In fact, if you’re not using a specific character as your narrator, using authorial voice to explain or editorialize with exposition in your dialogue is a sure-fire way to destroy the fiction of your story.

While having characters gossip is often a great way to introduce background details about the social world of your story, always mind the presentation. Instead of giving thought balloons to each of your characters, try having them talk to each other. This will give you an opportunity to have two characters play off each other, and it’s a perfect way to inject and reveal information through your character’s conversations.

Cut unnecessary words when writing dialogue

When your reader reads dialogue, they don’t want to stop and decipher what’s being said and then re-read it in the context of the rest of the text. Plus, if you go overboard with words, you have the potential to make your character sound pompous or pretentious. The easiest way to avoid these issues is to first get into the mind of who you’re writing—a specific character or you, the author, voicing thoughts. Typically, you want to focus on your character’s emotional state rather than to let them ramble.

Moreover, every word should have meaning, or a reason for existing. Sometimes, a long sentence is a good way to vary from the normal short sentences prevalent in dialogue. With that said, if you’ve got too many longer sentences, your reader will be tempted to skim, and that isn’t going to help you improve as a writer. Instead, try to use short, simple sentences in dialogue. Whenever possible, cut the extra words in your sentences.

Beware of archaisms

No matter what period you’re writing in, you want your dialogue to feel natural for the time you’re writing in, even if you’re deliberately writing anachronistically. Most people don’t speak formally or like Julius Caesar or Captain Jack Sparrow, unless they happen to have found the fountain of youth or buried a treasure map. In addition to baffling modern readers, this type of archaism can even pull them out of the story — the mental equivalent of music that’s “too on-the-nose.” In the olden days, readers identified with the most common voice of a story — the omniscient narrator. Today, it’s the first-person or third-person limited narrator. That said, dialogue shifts tone when it uses a character’s own voice, informed by their background and personality.

Dialogue is also a handy way to indicate your character’s policing of themselves. Using puns, slang, dialect, or grammatical errors can be an effective way to indicate that your character is doing the best they can with what they know. These kinds of mistakes also automatically involve your readers in the mitigation of the mistake — you almost hope your character doesn’t spot it. This can also be a way to commemorate conscious information through the character’s mistakes, and to suggest the way that whatever your character knows is organized, then your character may have acquired it through imprecise, unfinished learning processes.

Dialogue is a contest. You’re playing dialogue catch as best you can against a moving target. In writing, you’ll catch it and miss it. But if you go back to trying to write dialogue a few times a week, you’ll get pretty good at it. Play catch with your characters — they’ll love banter as much as any real relationship between real people. The real trick is to understand what the stakes are for your characters. Have something riding on it. After all, if we played dialogue catch a million times, do you think people would still be interested in it? No. We’d know everything about the person we’re playing catch with and we’d get bored. So have your characters play catch with their deepest fears and desires, and then see if you don’t wind up with characters with whom people want to play for enjoyment for a long, long time.

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