How to Write Dramatic Dialogue

Dramatic dialogue can create the right atmosphere for the reader, whether it’s action or emotion, or it can fall flat, depending how well the writer has structured such dialogue.

Effective dialogue in a story is one thing, but dramatic dialogue is somewhat different. It should create an edge, a sense of presence.  It should hold the reader’s attention for several reasons: to impart necessary or critical information, to create character-reader immediacy, to create tension and conflict and to move the story forward.

The most common problem with dialogue is that writers tend to write lots of ineffectual and unnecessary dialogue in order to pad out the narrative, but most of it is rubbish.  It’s just not necessary.  Every writer should learn that dialogue must have meaning for both the characters and the reader.

Dialogue should only contain information necessary to the story arc, otherwise it becomes unnecessary padding.

The knack to writing great dialogue is all to do with how well writers listen.  Listen to real conversations. It’s not just about what people are saying, it’s the way they say it that sometimes makes us take notice. The tone, the depth and the strength of someone’s voice can mean so many things.

To understand this concept, simply close your eyes while listening to people talking.  Rather than seeing them talk (and thus be open to interpretation and predisposition), you are only hearing them. Your brain will automatically tune into the different tones, variances, nuances and pitch. You notice much more in their dialogue. 

It’s the ability to listen that helps writers create dramatic – and effective – dialogue, not the ability to write.

There are, of course, other factors that help writers to create dramatic conversations that add so much more to the story.

Firstly, dramatic dialogue evolves with the drama you create in your scenes. No drama = no dramatic dialogue, it’s that simple. Emotional scenes, action scenes, tense scenes…they all require the kind of dialogue to enhance it and emphasise it.

What happens when people argue and fight?  What happens when lovers get together?  What happens when people are threatened?  What happens when people find themselves in a terrible, life-threatening situation? 

Their conversations or exchanges would differ greatly for each situation, but each one would have drama in one form or another.  This is true for your story scenes.

Your characters are the key here.  You have to know what your characters want and why they want it.  All characters have objectives and motives - they’re always trying to influence other characters, perhaps trying to get something from them, or they’re hiding something from others (in a good way or an evil way). Other characters, meanwhile, may be resisting the urge to give in to such influences, and will have their own motives.

In other words, tension and conflict within the story should exist between characters, and this should be reflected in the dialogue.

Remember, rhythms in our speech patterns alternate within conversations, so the same should be true of your characters. In heated conversations, the tone of voice changes intensely; ranging from high pitched with emotion, to gruff and raw if someone is shouting.  When we’re cagey our voices tend to waver or stutter, and when we’re happy we become loud and tonal.

People in conversation will have contrasting voices.  So should your characters.
For example:

He leaned in.  Low whispers licked against her skin.  ‘Where are they?  Tell me, and I won’t have to hurt you.’

‘I -- I must have dropped them…’

‘Don’t lie to me!’

Her voice trembled. ‘I swear, I dropped the keys, I was scared…’

Again, it’s worth listening to people’s conversations to understand how this works.

Dramatic dialogue relies on emphasis to create the right effect for the reader.

Shorter dialogue structure is very effective for creating drama, tension and conflict, rather than long, boring monologues. Dialogue should carry emotion and vulnerability and reflect the kind of scenes you’re writing.
‘I can’t open the door, it won’t move.’

He tugged on the handle as the flames licked around the car wheels.  No use. ‘Damn it…’

Her voice became serrated. ‘Please hurry!’

‘I can’t, it’s buckled.’

‘Please, I don’t want to die!’

‘You’re not gonna die. Cover yourself, I’m going to smash the window…’

Dialogue shouldn’t be flat or unemotional. It shouldn’t go on too long and become boring and it shouldn’t become leaden.  Of course, if you have created a thoroughly multidimensional character that leaps from the page, then the dialogue writes itself.

Create obstacles to communication between characters.  For instance, if character A is trying to get his point across about something extremely important, perhaps life changing, then provide resistance from character B or C; something that provides tension and frustration. For example:

‘We have to close the plant down, right now, before it’s too late.’

‘You said that six months ago, Mr Jones, and nothing happened,’ Smith said. ‘Do you know how much that cost this town?  I’m not prepared to do it again, all on a whim.’

‘It’s not a whim, it’s scientific fact. There’s gonna be an explosion if you don’t close the plant, I’m telling you.’

Smith turned away. ‘I haven’t got time for this rubbish. I’m not prepared to close down a multi-million dollar operation because of some mad scientist…’

Something else to consider is that dramatic dialogue should create a sense of immediacy with the reader.  In other words, the reader should identify with the characters and the situation. That should come from the emotion, tension and conflict created.  They should feel the fear of a character in danger. They should feel the frustration of a character not getting what he wants or needs. They should empathise with the character when they lose something dear.  You get the idea.

To summarise, remember the following:-

·        Dramatic scenes require dramatic dialogue.
·        Know your character’s motivations and desires – create obstacles in their conversations, get them passionate or frustrated or angry. Get the most from their dialogue.
·        Emphasise speech – use tone and pitch and contrasting rhythms.
·        Keep the dialogue short and snappy.  People don’t prattle on and on when in an emergency, neither should your characters.
·        Emotions and tensions and conflict all create drama.
·        Create immediacy with your reader.

Above all, the key to writing dramatic dialogue isn’t your ability to write, it’s your ability to listen.

Next week: Working with editors.


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