Using Dialogue to Bring Your Story to Life

Susan Violante
Managing Editor

After over 20 years of working on my writing, I have learned that dialogue is the most important tool available when telling a story. We can use the dialogue to describe, inform, show action, establish mood, and even portray the personalities of our characters. In short, the dialogue brings the story alive for the reader. For this reason, it is so important to create a balanced amount of dialogue that will move the plot forward and make the characters real.

Dialogue is also one of the biggest challenges for authors. Just think about it. We don’t always write dialogue for people like ourselves. For example in my book, my main character is a young Italian boy growing up during WWII in Libya, but I am a middle age woman who grew up in South America! Yet, I had to figure it out if I wanted to produce a successful product. So my dialogue research began.

Doing research to develop dialogue was a new concept for me, because at the time I began writing my fiction novel I was mainly a writer of articles and poetry. I thought research was reserved for setting, plot, and character development. It had never occurred to me that I needed to do research before creating dialogue until my critique group made clear that some of my dialogue didn’t sound real.

Five years after I was done with my book, I was reminded of how overwhelmed I was when I found myself feeling the same way about some dialogue in a wonderful book I was reviewing. I loved everything about the book, but felt disconnected at some points because some female dialogue didn’t click with me as a female. This fact prompted me to share some tips from my own experience on how to use research to create genuine dialogue to make your characters real and thus connect to the reader.

  • The first resource we have is our personal life. In my case, I had the year I spent in an Italian missionary school in Venezuela during the fourth grade of elementary school. I was 10 years old, just like my main character. So, I went down memory lane and pictured the Italian boys’ interactions as I remembered my days there. I focused on their slang, cursing, and especially on their jokes and games.
  • No personal memories to fall back on? Look around you. Thanks to globalization, we have pools of characters of all sexes, ages, and ethnicities. Watch your characters come alive in the people around you.
  • Once I had a clear picture on how an Italian 10-year-old boy speaks, I started exercising by recreating the interactions I remembered on the paper, and getting them critiqued by my fellow writers during our group meetings. Playing on paper with what you see in real life is crucial but most of all it is fun! Creating a dialogue after each critique sounds frustrating but by redoing it a few times, we get so used to the character’s personality and slang, that it will come naturally when incorporating it into the story.
  • Finally, while playing with the dialogue we have to remember it also has to be genuine for the time period our story is taking place. Slang changes with time, as does humor, the way people play with each other, and curse at each other. In my case, I was grateful to be able to find old, Italian movies from the WWII era that were close enough. Reading books from the era you are writing in also helps, but for me creating the dialogue through a live person I watched or a character in a movie works better for some reason. 

In reality, every writer will embark on a journey to find their own style and their own tools to do the research and put the story down. I hope that these tips will contribute in all of your journeys!

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