I was the kind of kid for whom words came naturally, written or verbally, who liked having conversations in my own head. I would replay discussions from earlier in the day, fix the things I said by drumming up something more witty or charming. I’d create conversations I thought people might have, or conjure the words for each of my characters, quickly dashing to my notebook to scribble them down before they were forgotten. Dialogue was always my favorite part of writing.
And I’ve come to discover that dialogue is consistently the part of writing that most writers like best. Maybe because instead of just describing something in narration, we’re breathing life into characters that are meant to jump from the page. We’re infusing them with a personality of their own, allowing them to interact with the other characters and the world around them.
In my life outside of writing, I teach 8th grade English, and in our class, we often create stories. Students love dialogue, too, and they’ll include as much of it as they possibly can within their own narratives. After a few years of sifting through their bountiful back and forths on the page, I realized that there are rules to dialogue. Rules I knew as an author and needed to share, but also make accessible to teen writers. I came up with three (flexible) rules.
Dialogue must do at least one of the following, but hopefully all three: Reveal information, move the plot forward, and entertain the reader.
Perhaps the most nuanced of the rules, using dialogue to reveal information can be a little tricky. First and foremost, dialogue should feel natural, as though two people who actually exist would most certainly be having this conversation. As writers, we want to avoid over-informing the readers to the point that our characters become unrealistic. For example, if two friends were sitting in a cafe, one would never turn to the other and say, “So here we are, Fred, sitting in this cafe at the corner of Elm and First.” That would be weird. Surely, our friend Fred knows where he’s sitting. Instead, details like that can be included in the narrative.
But does this mean that important tidbits like setting should be left out of dialogue altogether? Nope. YA author of The Half-Orphan’s Handbook, Joan F. Smith, often combines elements in order to create believable dialogue. She says, “I use [dialogue] a lot to reveal information or backstory while also setting [characters] in a time and place. For example, ‘No, I’m not talking about it. Could you pass me that pepper?’ Combining these sentences helps drive the story forward while setting them in a kitchen/restaurant.”
In moving the plot forward, often tension between characters is necessary, and dialogue is a great tool to fuel this. YA author of We Are the Fire, Sam Taylor, recalled, “My first creative writing teacher taught me to avoid making dialogue too tidy, especially when characters are responding to questions or in a really emotional or high-tension scene. Their unique motivations and priorities can be revealed when characters are each taking the conversation from a slightly different angle. Often, what characters don’t say to each other is as revealing as what they do say. Especially when it’s a kid talking to an adult.”
For all readers, being entertained is clearly a priority, but entertainment can be achieved in a variety of ways. Following the first two rules isn't a bad way to start! But entertaining dialogue can be humorous, sad, fulfilling, exciting, romantic. The important part is that expectations are being created and met. In this sense, dialogue doesn’t always sound like everyday conversation. For example, if you met your neighbor at the grocery store unexpectedly, you might engage in some small talk. Discuss the weather, your kids little league game, how late the mailman was, and those deer that just won’t leave your prize winning tigerlilies alone. Then, you’d say your goodbyes and move on to the produce aisle. These things happen in real life, every day. But they don’t need to go into your book. Unless your neighbor is secretly snipping your tigerlilies for her own nefarious reasons, this conversation is pointless. Leave it out!
I think it’s also important to note that these are dialogue rules that I apply during revisions. During the drafting stage, it’s important to remember to play and have fun with dialogue. You’re getting to know your characters, too! And you’ll be surprised at some of the things they’ll tell you if you let them.
Erica George is a writer of young adult fiction. She is a graduate of The College of New Jersey with degrees in both English and education, and is currently an MFA student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She resides in scenic Hunterdon County, New Jersey, but spends her summers soaking up the salty sea air on Cape Cod.
Many themes in Erica’s writing rotate around environmental activism and helping young people find their voice. When she’s not writing, you can find her exploring, whale watching, or engrossed in quality British drama with her dog at her side. Words Composed of Sea and Sky is her debut young adult novel.