General Advice / Examples / Grammar Tips
When people ask me how to write dialogue, I always have trouble trying to figure out what to tell them because dialogue is one of the aspects of writing that comes most naturally to me. A lot of writers talk about how a character will grab hold of them, or demand that the story go in one direction instead of another, as if the character were controlling the writer. Dialogue is a little like that for me. When I'm writing dialogue, I know what I need to accomplish with a conversation, but I never plan out exactly what the characters are going to say. I let the scene carry me, and I try to write each character reacting as naturally as possible. I start with one line of dialogue and I picture who would react, in what way. So in some sense, it's me letting the characters talk. Of course, there's more control to it than that since the characters aren't real, so it's all coming from me but at the same time it's hard to describe or quantify in a way someone else could understand.
I'll just give some general advice. This is the stuff I think is necessary for me to write dialogue that's in character and natural. These aren't hard and fast rules, they're just my own basic ideas.
First...one thing my screenwriting teacher told us. Characters aren't real people. Drama isn't real life. The vast majority of a normal person's life is tedious, and the majority of what people say isn't really important. When you're writing a character, or a story, you're trying to build tension, include conflict. There's a structure to plot that isn't the structure of daily life. Basically all that goes to say, every scene and every conversation you include should have a purpose within the story. You want people to relate to your characters and your plot, and you want things to seem natural and effortless...but drama isn't natural. It's artificial. That's why your dialogue isn't in the story just for the purpose of killing time or hearing people talk. Your dialogue should further the story or the characterizations. If it doesn't, it's extra padding that doesn't need to be there. Also...when you're writing fanfic, you want the characters to sound like the characters on the show, not the way your friends sound. If you tape record a person talking and then listen to how the Buffy characters talk, there's a difference. These aren't just any people, they are very specific people who talk specific ways. Which isn't to say you can't be inspired by everyday conversation...things others say can be modified to fit a certain character, or perhaps they already fit, just don't allow yourself to forget who it is you're writing.
Piece of advice number two. I just said how important purpose is, but don't let your plot and your intentions as an author overpower the characters and their voices. There should be a purpose behind your dialogue, but you can't allow that to dictate character actions or words. Don't force a character to say something they never would just because you need it to get your plot moving. If your plot doesn't work with the characters being in character, your plot doesn't work. That's why I don't plan out dialogue before I sit down to write it. I may think of a couple key lines. And I will certainly know this is the conversation where Buffy realizes Angel's hiding something (or whatever it is in the specific conversation). Then I let the reactions come to me. If I can't get from point A to point B with the characters reacting naturally, then I need to rethink things. I'm a firm believer that characterization is more important than plot. You should never drag your characters to a place they wouldn't go just to fit a plot you think would be cool. Instead see if the plot would work with different characters, or if it would work with added scenes or slight changes, or whatever you have to do. Change the plot, not the characters.
Next. Know your characters. None of this will work if you don't know who your characters are and what their voices sound like. In order to keep the dialogue in character, you MUST know who the characters are to begin with. Think about your friends. If someone asked you...what would your best friend do if she was asked a question, or if she was in this situation or that...you'd be able to answer. Or at least guess. It should be the same with the characters. You should be able to imagine their reactions to different situations and different people. You should know them well enough that you can imagine their voices and their cadences, and see the hand gestures they might use while they're talking. You should be able to see why they might react to one person one way, and differently with another. Buffy, for example, is going to act differently when she's talking with Xander than she is when she's talking to Angel or Giles.
This aspect of writing dialogue is different when you're doing fanfic, as opposed to original fiction. In some ways it's easier because the characters are already there. All you have to do is learn who they are. And you can do that by watching the episodes...noticing how they talk, expressions they use that are uniquely *them,* things they say that are different from the way the others talk. And you can go to the episodes to see how they've reacted in the past in the type of scene you're trying to write. If you're writing a fight between Xander and Willow you can go watch Innocence and see how they interact in that fight, what kind of words they're using, how the dialogue changes when they're happy with each other, when she's yelling at him, when she's less explosively mad. You don't want to duplicate a scene from the show, what would be the point? But you can apply what you see of the characters to your story. Of course, in some ways original characters are easier because no one can tell you...this is out of character. It's your character, you get to decide. With fanfic, characterization is so important because the readers KNOW these characters. They were already created by someone else, you're using something that already exists, and if you're going to claim you're writing this specific character, you need to really write that character. With original fiction you get to make the rules, but with fanfic, the rules are there, it's up to you to follow them. If something rings false, the readers can call you on it, and they should.
What show you're writing for also determines the tone of your dialogue to some extent. If you're writing for a show like La Femme Nikita where the mood is pretty constantly dark, and there's not a ton of humor, then your characters are going to speak one way. If you're writing for Buffy, humor is a very integral part of who the characters are. Even in the dark, angsty episodes like Becoming 2 or Helpless, there is humor. Of course sometimes a joke would be out of place. It's a balance, and something that again, watching the show to try to notice when people are joking and when they aren't will probably help you figure out. Not everybody has Joss' sense of humor, and it's very hard to capture that aspect of the characters. But you should be aware of it, and try to incorporate it as best you can.
There are different ways to write dialogue. Some people prefer to keep it minimalist with just the lines of dialogue and maybe a *he said* or *Willow answered.* Others like to include the actions of the people involved in the conversation. I think if you can manage it, including actions is a good way to deepen the characterization and help the reader picture what's going on. Of course, you don't need an action every line, and in fact I think that could become tedious. But people don't usually stand completely unmoving while they talk, so some sense of movement helps build the scene and the sense of reality. Sometimes body language speaks as loudly as words, or can change the meaning of the words completely. If someone says something that sounds confident, but is nervously tapping their toe against the floor or sweating or something, then you know there's more going on than they're saying. Remember when you're trying to find your character's voice that the body speaks too.
Try not to use generic dialogue. The characters you're writing are unique. Their voices are unique. If you took away all the names and the indications of who said what, people should still be able to tell who's talking, or at least have a vague idea. If you're writing interchangeable dialogue, that could be anyone, then you're not getting inside the character you're trying to write. Of course people say things that someone else could say. That's why we use the dialogue format so people can tell what's going on. But if all your characters sound the same, there's something wrong. The other side of this is the danger of just picking one easy little quirk of a character and using that excessively. For example, Giles' stuttering in the early seasons, or Tara's stuttering now. Using that when appropriate...which is mainly when they are uncomfortable or under stress is definitely a good idea. But overusing it, having them stutter every time they have a line, is a bad idea. It's turning your character into a two dimensional parody of who they are. Characters have nuances, just like people.
Here are a few examples from my own fic, to try to give you an idea of what I'm talking about. I'll try to explain to you why I consider one clip bad dialogue and the other good.
This is a scene in Nights Like These between Buffy and her mother:
"Where have you been?" her mother asked.
"I was out," answered Buffy tiredly, in no mood for a fight.
"I have been worried sick. You have a curfew you know."
"Well I'm sorry. I don't have a watch. I lost track of time. It won't happen again." Buffy turned to climb up the stairs, but stopped when her mother's angry tirade began.
"Don't you DARE go upstairs, Buffy Summers. I am NOT through with you yet. You will turn and face me when I talk to you, and you will show a little respect. I am sick and tired of dealing with your teenage angst. You are going to shape up or pay the price. And you are going to stop sneaking around behind my back." Buffy opened her mouth to protest but her mother cut her off. "I saw you with that boy, the one you said goes to the college. Angel. I saw you kiss him on the doorstep. What is wrong with you? He is WAY too old for you." Buffy briefly considered telling her mother exactly how much older Angel was but decided against that kamikaze plan.
"I am old enough to take care of myself, Mother. I will date whoever I want. Besides you don't even know Angel. He's a very sweet, kind person."
"You are not old enough to take care of yourself. As long as you live under my roof, you'll do as I say. And I forbid you to date that boy." The pair's voices were getting louder and louder as tempers flared.
"You can't stop me," screamed Buffy. "I love him, and he loves me!"
"You're being childish. You don't even know what love is. You're too young to know."
"Why is everyone telling me that today? How do you know what I feel? You make me sick!" Buffy screamed. "Get out of my way. I'm going to my room." She roughly pushed past her mother and entered her room, slamming the door behind her. She could hear her mother scream from behind the door.
"You are grounded, young lady. You are to come straight home from school every day for a week. And no phone! No going out with your friends, and no Bronze!" Buffy threw a pillow as hard as she could against the wall, sending feathers flying.
I don't think Buffy's mom is terrible in the scene. She's definitely over the top, and I would tone it down with less yelling if I were writing this scene today. But other than the fact that it's a bit much, her lines are okay to me. However, there's really nothing in any of the Buffy lines that screams...Buffy. Her lines are generic things daughters say to their moms. "You make me sick." "I'm old enough to take care of myself." And it's okay if Buffy is having a typical fight with her mom, but there should still be something in the lines that says...this is *Buffy* having a fight, not this is a girl having a fight. Also. The pacing of the scene is off. Buffy goes from upset to screaming in two seconds flat. If she were a different character, that might be okay. But Buffy usually deals with her mom as calmly as she can, and even when her mom was always accusing her of things and not trusting her in the first two seasons, it wouldn't escalate or get out of control the way this does. They fight, but they rarely degenerate to screams this way. If there were a better reason for her lashing out than the fact that she's tired, it's possible it would work. But there isn't. This is a problem in several of my early fics. I didn't know how to write a fight that built gradually. I would jump right into the screaming, and that really doesn't work or feel right.
Next is a very similar scene from High Noon, which shows that context is important in whether the dialogue is in character. Even though almost the same things are happening here as the Nights scene, and there's the same sort of heightened, yelling tone, it works better because because of the context. There was no reason for Buffy and her mom to be in a screaming match in Nights, but here Buffy is under the control of the Anointed One, so there's a reason for her to escalate things this way. It also means she's not completely Buffy, so she's supposed to be acting out of character because she's being influenced by his evil. Also there's more of a context for Joyce's anger because this is at the end of a series where she's been dealing with a lot of Buffy sneaking out and breaking her being grounded so their relationship is already on shaky ground.
"Where the hell were you last night?"Joyce practically screamed. "You never called me! I waited and waited. I almost called the police! And don't even tell me that you just came home late. You didn't come home at all last night. I want to know where you were."
"I was at Willow's," Buffy lied. Her mother's face tightened as she got even angrier, if that was possible.
"I called Willow's. You weren't there. Don't you dare lie to me, young lady!" Buffy tried to feel worried or care at all about the fact that her mother was going to kill her. She couldn't seem to give a damn. *Why should I listen to her anyway?* she wondered. *I could kill her with a flick of my wrist...so why should I let her order me around?* Her eyes narrowed. Her mom wanted the truth? Well, then Buffy would tell the truth and see how much her mother liked it.
"I was at Angel's," she said honestly.
"Buffy, you know it's against the rules for you to spend the night alone with a boy," Joyce began. "Especially without telling me first! Just what were you thinking?! Or were you thinking at all?!"
"Yeah well, I don't really care about the stupid rule," Buffy interrupted.
"Maybe you'll care if I ground you!" Joyce answered. She hesitated as a thought struck her, "Buffy, are you having sex?"
"I won't care," Buffy said, coldly answering the first question. Her voice lowered to a hiss as she answered the second. "And that's really none of your business, is it?" Hatred sang through her as she contemplated her mother's total lack of anything resembling a clue, despite the fact that she somehow thought she had the right to interrogate her daughter on every detail of her life. Her hand tightened into a fist, and the image of her own hand flying into her mother's face entered her mind with brilliant clarity. She could almost smell the blood that would spray from her mother's split lips, almost hear the smack of fist on flesh. She shuddered at the intensity of the mental image and forcibly uncurled her hand. *Just get to your room, before you kill your mother,* she told herself, panic raging against fury in her mind.
"I don't appreciate this attitude, Buffy," Joyce tried again, almost shaking with fury. "You are way out of line, and you are in big, big trouble."
"I don't appreciate this whole conversation!" Buffy yelled. "Get out of my way so I can go to my room, dammit!"
Of course, Buffy and her mom isn't exactly my favorite relationship or my forte so you can probably find flaws with that scene too. *g*
Here's a Buffy and Giles scene with a more normal tone from Nights Like These. This one actually started very similar to the Buffy/Joyce scene. It was a screaming match that escalated too quickly and came out of nowhere. A friend commented that it wasn't like Giles to get into screaming matches in the middle of a graveyard, and I agreed. I toned it down, leaving most of the words the same, but turning it into a more calm disagreement.
"Angel?" he asked. "You're dating Angel?"
"Yeah, so?" Buffy asked belligerently.
"So?" Giles asked, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. "He's vampire," the Watcher said, his tone clearly implying that this was something Buffy should have considered herself.
"Thanks for the newsflash, Giles. I can take care of myself too you know."
"Buffy, you can't become personally involved with a vampire." Giles cautioned. "It's against all the rules. What if he loses control? Will you be able to kill him?" Giles was beginning to work himself into an agitated state of Watcher worry, and Buffy was getting angrier by the second.
"Giles, don't treat me like a little girl! I am in love. Do you even know what that feels like? Angel understands me and he loves me too." She jerked her arm out of his grasp. "I am going to meet him now, and there is nothing you can do to stop me." She walked away, refusing to look back.
"She's sixteen," muttered Giles. "She doesn't even know what love is."
"I do too," Buffy shouted resisting the urge to stick out her tongue. Giles sighed, sometimes that excellent Slayer hearing was a difficult thing to deal with. Actually, sometimes the Slayer herself was a difficult thing to deal with. Well there was nothing he could really do about it, besides give her another lecture tomorrow.
This part in particular doesn't feel like Buffy to me: "Giles, don't treat me like a little girl! I am in love. Do you even know what that feels like? Angel understands me and he loves me too." She jerked her arm out of his grasp. "I am going to meet him now, and there is nothing you can do to stop me." She walked away, refusing to look back.
The sentiment it okay, but it just doesn't sound like first season Buffy to me. Like that first clip from Nights...it's a generic *grown-ups don't understand me* type of thing to say. Maybe if she'd said something else like. "Look, Giles. I'm not Superman and Angel isn't Kryptonite. I'm a person, and I love him. If you can't understand that, I can't make you understand. But being my Watcher doesn't put you in control of my love life." Okay that was fairly crappy too, but you can still get the idea and see the difference I hope...
Here's a Buffy and Giles scene from Buried Alive...it's not a real fight, just sort of a disagreement, but I think it gets the characters better. Of course it is set in season 3 when the Buffy/Giles bond has become much tighter than season 1 where Nights was set.
"Buffy?" he said in surprise. "What are you doing here?"
"I just had this feeling," Buffy said, rubbing anxiously at her arms. Angel looked a bit worse for the wear. She wondered how bad the dream had been to affect him that way. He was sitting with his arms wrapped around his legs, whimpering softly to himself, rocking back and forth. But he did not seem to be in danger. "I can't explain it, but I was so SURE something was happening here. Or going to happen."
"It's been quiet," Giles said doubtfully. "He fell asleep, and I read. I haven't seen any hint of the Hound."
"I know I'm probably just being paranoid," Buffy said, unsure of what to do with herself now that she was here, and nothing was happening. "But it's like I'm being eaten alive. I can feel danger coming. It's like something's stalking me, and it's getting ready to pounce. My hair is standing on end."
"I'm not doubting your instincts, Buffy," Giles said hesitantly. "But honestly, there doesn't seem to be anything happening here, and you can't afford to be caught skipping your classes.
"I know," Buffy agreed. "I just, I couldn't concentrate at all and I have all this nervous energy." She looked again at Angel, and stopped talking. He was still rocking slightly, but his head was lifted. His nostrils flared as he tested the air for a scent, then he growled sharply, pulled desperately at his chains twice, and then backed up against the wall. His growling grew louder, and he ducked his head down as if trying to hide.
"What is he doing?" Giles asked.
"I'm not sure, but last time the BloodHound came, Angel freaked out like he could sense the thing coming. He seems more scared this time though," she said with a grimace. "This is not cool."
"Could it be something else that's scaring him?" Giles asked.
"Of course it could, Giles," Buffy said in annoyance. "I'm not a mind reader, I'm just telling you that this is sort of what happened before. And I've been having this feeling. And I think we'd pretty much better brace for impact here."
"Ah, I see," Giles confirmed, reaching into his bag and pulling out a loaded crossbow. "Fully braced."
"You know that's not going to work," Buffy said, raising an eyebrow.
"It can't hurt," Giles responded, raising his own.
"Okay, just try not to shoot me or Angel with the thing by accident," Buffy said with a grin.
"Right, thanks for the advice," Giles said sarcastically
The good thing about the conversation is that although Giles isn't sure there's any reason for Buffy to be worried, they're clearly talking TO each other, rather than AT each other. Instead of it turning into a fight or a big deal. They're discussing things like rational people, and in the end Giles supports her premonition. The tone is pretty light throughout so it doesn't feel like a real fight, and it retains a bit of humor. Another thing about this scene is that in this story I was writing Angel as the beast that came back from hell. He can barely talk, so dialogue for him was limited to just a couple words in the course of the entire story. His actions had to speak for him, tell the reader what he was thinking. And he does contribute to the scene here, almost as if he's taking part in the conversation through his actions rather than his words.
Last set of examples. Willow and Buffy scenes. The first is from Gonna Make Some Changes.
"Nice outfit Willow," she said. She could tell that the new style was making Willow nervous so she covered the awkward silence with chatter, hoping that it would make Willow more comfortable. "Where'd you get it? I really like the pattern."
"Oh," said Willow. "Wet Seal.
"I love Wet Seal," said Buffy. Then she decided to take the subject away from clothes.
"So I heard there's going to be pop quiz in history."
"On what?" asked Willow. She hadn't studied much all weekend. In worrying about the quiz, she began to forget how strange she felt.
"I think they said it was on the War of 1812."
"Oh, ok." said Willow. "Shouldn't be a problem then." Buffy could tell that WIllow was beginning to get her confidence back. The jangling of the bell broke through their thoughts and sent the group scattering in different directions.
I'm sort of unsure about that clip. It's not blatantly out of character, but like some of the others in the bad pile, it does feel generic to me. I think it's in character for Buffy to ask about Willow's new clothes, and to try to help her feel comfortable by talking about the pop quiz. But at the same time, if I took away the names, I don't think there's anything about that snippet that would indicate to a reader who these people are. Again, I must say...not every single word that comes out of a character's mouth is a word you're going to be able to label Buffy, Willow, Angel, whatever. Sometimes people just say stuff that's general or generic. But the whole scene really has no humor and there's nothing in it that *sounds* like Willow or Buffy to me. If I were writing it now, the whole direction of the conversation and the back and forth would be the same, but *how* they said those lines would be different. I'd have tried to give the exchange more personality.
Now, from High Noon. I picked this one because it's short little conversation and I didn't think it would be really fair to compare a little snippet to a section of a longer conversation because it's easier to be witty and in depth when you're writing a longer conversation.
"I could barely sit through computer," Willow confided, when her friend came over to visit her at her lab table.
"Math was a total drag," Buffy told her with a sigh.
"So tell me what happened," Willow demanded, grabbing the blonde girl's hand excitedly.
"In math?" Buffy joked with a grin. "There were equations...and that about sums up the entire hour."
"Not in math," Willow said, rolling her eyes. "Yesterday...with Angel...and the..."
"The picnic," Buffy interrupted. Willow shook her head no and was given a warning look by the Slayer. "It was nice. I make a good sandwich."
"How come you never make sandwiches for me?" Xander pouted. "I like sandwiches. Almost as much as I like ho hos...mmm...what about both sandwiches and ho hos..." Willow looked over her shoulder to see that her lab partner, Xander, had arrived. Understanding replaced confusion as she finally grasped the motive behind Buffy's bland talk of sandwiches.
This isn't a classic scene or something. But it is a *meeting up at school* type of scene like the first one. And it's also a short little conversation like the first one. The difference I think is that even though this is also a short scene, it moves faster. Willow and Buffy are sort of playing off each other, and even though it's short and gets cut off with Xander coming over, there's a little humor with Buffy joking about the math class. Granted, the conversation in Gonna Make Some Changes is supposed to be kind of awkward, but I still think I could have conveyed that without stripping it of any humor. I think this scene shows that even though the other scene is short too, that's no excuse for it being stilted and generic.
If I can figure out some better examples I'll pull them out later :)
Last...just a couple grammar tips.
The punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. If you're using an exclamation or a question mark, you don't need a comma. "I hate you!" she yelled. "What do you mean?" he asked. "This is stupid," she said. "Whatever."
Capitalize what you put in quotations as if it were a new sentence, unless you break one quotation in half. For example, if you write a sentence that starts with description, you still capitalize what you put in quotes at the end of the sentence.
Putting her hands on her hips, she said, "Forget it! I don't have to listen to you."
However, if you begin a line of dialogue and break it in half with an action you should leave the second half of your quote uncapitalized because it's a contuation of one sentence of dialogue.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said, "but I don't like it."
Start a new line each time a new person speaks.
"Where are my yellow shoes?"
"Oh, I thought they were my shoes. No wonder they were pinching my toes."
If someone is making a really long speech and you break it into two paragraphs you end the first paragraph without a close quotation mark. Then start the second with a new open quotation mark.
"I tried so hard to keep from falling down, but the ice. The damn ice! It was so slippery. Why? Why me? Why now? My butt hurts. (BLAH. BLAH. BLAH. Until the paragraph is really long).
"Oh, are those grilled cheese sandwiches? Hand them over."
You usually use some variation of he/she said to indicate who is speaking. "I'm sick of these stupid examples," he said. My narrative writing teacher thought it was a waste of time to come up with a bunch of different variations, he pondered, she wondered aloud, he requested, she pontificated, etc. His point was that you put all this effort into coming up with new ways to say she said, and the reader doesn't really notice any of them unless they're something like she pontificated which is only noticeable as a distraction. He felt they had no bearing on how the line of dialogue is read. My opinion is, sometimes it is necessary to use a descriptive word like spat, sputtered, etc. to get your meaning across or make it clear how a line is being said. Most times said, answered, or asked work great, and I don't think you should be looking for a new word every line. It's like re-inventing the wheel. But sometimes, said isn't descriptive enough to convey your intention.
"You're sick," she said.
"You're sick," she spat.
In the first she could be concerned that someone has a fever or she could be upset or horrified...I didn't give a context so it's hard to tell. You could probably tell from the context if there was one, but if you need to make it clear she's angry and saying it with rage or disgust, the second one gets that across.
You can always modify the *said* if you need to get an emotion across...he said sarcastically, she said angrily, etc. but you don't want to use an adverb on every sentence. People should be able to get some idea of the emotion from the context and the words the character is saying. You definitely want to make sure the dialogue comes across with the tone you intended, so use your best judgement on what type of word or modifier you need, or whether the context can carry your meaning across. If you're having a conversation between just two people you can leave off the tags altogether once you establish who's talking because the paragraph breaks will indicate that for you.
I can't think of other basic grammar concerns at the moment, but if I've forgotten something you've wondered about or if you have some comment, feel free to ask.