Updated: Sep 26, 2020
I first became intrigued with the power of dialogue to move a story when I read Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” The way in which the story happens behind the dialogue fascinated me. There was something so powerful and intriguing about the message between the lines. Readers are left to figure out what the conversation means in the larger context of the character’s lives and story.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about story structure and creating believable characters, but of course I’m always learning. Hemingway’s short story is often cited as the quintessential example of dialogue done well, and there is much to be learned from it.
The same factors that made the dialogue in “Hills Like White Elephants” so intriguing are at play in many other stories as well, because they are effective. There are some basic characteristics of the way Hemingway’s dialogue was written which gave it such power… and by tapping into these, you can write powerful, believable dialogue that captivates your readers, as well.
So, without further ado, here are 4 Aspects of Powerful Dialogue, put into terms that make sense to me (I can’t guarantee you will find the same terminology elsewhere, though you will certainly find the same core principles):
1. Iceberg Speak
When two people are discussing a situation, many things go unsaid. There is no need for a girl, for example, to say to her friend, “I’m glad we’re having dinner again. We have dinner every Tuesday. We have been friends for more than twenty years, and we still have dinner every week.”
Wouldn’t the friend wonder why she was being told information she already knew?
When writing dialogue, keep it simple and avoid info-dumping. Nothing makes dialogue feel unnatural quite like a whole slew of information that the characters have no reason to say out loud. If you need the reader to know the information, find a way to slip it in subtly through something a character might naturally reference. It should be like an iceberg — only a small portion shows above the surface, and the rest remains unseen.
“Do you see that guy over there?” Laura said. “Do we know him? He looks so familiar.”
“He was in here last week, Lar,” replied Daisy. “At the same table. And maybe even the week before that.” She laughed. “It’s a good thing you didn’t become a spy, after all. You’re terribly unobservant. I guess that Junior Spy Handbook you saved up your allowance for didn’t help much.” She chuckled again. “Do you remember when—“
“Oh, no, I noticed him,” Laura interrupted, her gaze still on the man. “I just can’t shake the thought that I’ve seen him somewhere else, too. I thought so last week as well.”
In just one small exchange, we’ve now hinted that dinner is a recurring event for Daisy and Laura, that they usually come to this same restaurant, and hinted that they’ve known each other since they were children. We’ve also dropped in the fact that Laura used to want to be a spy, that there may be a man following one of them, that Laura is more observant than her friend thinks, and that Daisy is seemingly naive about any of it being suspicious. This is a lot of information that could be very important later in the story, however, there was no need to come out and directly tell the reader any of it.
Powerful dialogue shows details by revealing just the tip of things, and letting the reader fill in the gaps.
2. Page Reality, not Life Reality
One common mistake writers make when attempting to write realistic dialogue is to create a conversation on the page that is basically a transcription of a conversation that would happen in real life.
Wait — don’t we want our dialogue to feel like something that would happen in real life?
Yes. Of course. But here’s a surprising truth: real life conversation doesn’t always feel real on the page.
Real-life conversations have a lot of pauses, stutters, back-and-forth, and even sometimes mispronunciations. Some of these are important to understanding the people speaking and what they are trying to communicate, but some of them aren’t. And too many of these in dialogue can confuse the reader or annoy them by interrupting the flow of the conversation. Sure, verbal pauses are realistic, but they aren’t always the most effective way to communicate a character’s hesitation on the page.
Plus, let’s face it, real-life conversations are often boring. Would you want to read a scene where the characters’ conversation was an exact replica of what you and your family said over breakfast this morning? While some of it might be interesting, the majority of what we say during the course of a day would be uninteresting to a third party. Even when I have a funny conversation with my kids and want to post it on Facebook, I am usually posting only a very small portion of the conversation — the rest, though interesting to me, I know just wouldn’t be that interesting to others.
Try to craft your dialogue so that it says the least possible while still communicating what is happening and who your characters are as people.
If you’re wanting to really exercise your dialogue skills, try writing a story entirely in dialogue. I mean entirely. No description of setting, body language, or facial expressions — only the character’s words.
A few months ago, I wrote a story told entirely through emails and texts. While it wasn’t my initial reason for writing in that format, I quickly found the story to be a unique writing challenge. When you’re limited to emails and texts, you’re basically limited to pure dialogue. You can’t jump out of the email to explain what the character was thinking, or how they paced as they wrote it, or any of that. Everything important has to be actually in the messages, somehow.
This experience led me to discover the concept I’m calling anthems, and it’s just as important even if you do have a full scene with description to utilize. Using anthems will improve your dialogue regardless. Basically, anthems are carefully chosen dialogue words that express who your character is and what they are thinking or feeling, without straying into info-dumping. Dialogue can communicate complex thoughts and even layers of contradicting feelings, if you only choose the right words. This isn’t simply about vocabulary or diction, though. It’s about selecting the exact expression needed to communicate exactly who your character is and what they’re feeling at that moment. It infuses the dialogue with personality.
You can show a lot about a character’s personality by how they say something. For example:
In my story, there is a scenario where an ex-boyfriend makes an unwanted advance on the female protagonist. He transfers into her college class and (obnoxiously) announces his presence in the class’s group email. Now, he could easily have said something like this:
“Hi, I’m Declan, and I just transferred into this class. Anissa is my ex-girlfriend, and I am trying to win her back. I won’t give up until I do.”
That is to-the-point, but… it’s boring. And it makes Declan’s character feel extremely flat and uninteresting. If you feel anything for him, it’s probably a vague sense of pity and disinterest. (Or maybe that’s just me.)
But Declan’s character in my story is meant to be brash, obnoxious, overconfident, and funny (in an annoying way). None of that comes through in the dialogue above.
Now, here’s what Declan really said when he joined the email chain:
Hey, you Physics peeps! So, I’m going to be transferring into this class starting tomorrow, and seeing as I’m new here, I just wanted to give you all a shout-out in preparation for my big debut. Here are some things you should know about me:
1. I’m hot. Girls, watch out!
2. Physics is not my best subject, so bring on the study groups. Unless anyone happens to have access to a spare exam key? Anyone?…
3. Anissa and I used to date and she’s probably still into me. Let’s just get that one out there to avoid future heartbreaks, ok?
4. I like tacos.
Alright, Declan out! See you all tomorrow.
Did you dislike him instantly? Most readers did, which told me I was on the right track for showing who he was as a character. Can you see the difference between the two examples?
But anthems achieve more than just adding personality to one instance. Now that I’ve established his personality here, I can revisit some of what he’s said and use it as a mode-of-operation for him.
There are several things going on here in the dialogue:
Bragging statements like “I’m hot”
Declaration of his feelings for Anissa
Attempts at humor in his unique way.
Casual speech, as if he already knows them and is totally comfortable/confident
A disregard for rules and expectations (shown in his request for the exam key, but also in his choice to declare his presence to the class in this way)
A need to be noticed and to feel in control of the situation (again, shown in the way he announced his presence in the email)
Now that I’ve established these anthems here, I can make sure they are included in any future messages from Declan. These will cement his strong personality as a character by making him feel consistent, while also keeping him interesting. They declare who he is as a character. AND — this could be the most important part — these anthems also create an amazing opportunity to show character growth as the story progresses.
When Declan begins to change as a character, the way he expresses himself in dialogue (text/emails) starts changing, too. His cocky statements become less cocky (or even drop off entirely); his declarations of love for Anissa become less confident and more earnest; he stops joking around; etc. The anthems have established his baseline as a character, and then I can uphold them or change them as the story dictates. These are truly a powerful way in which dialogue can move a story and make characters come to life — even without any additional description or narration.
4. Circle the Core
The function of dialogue goes beyond just getting characters talking so that the story seems more interesting or real. Every section of dialogue should have a purpose for your story. This is the core of that dialogue. Many times, smaller sections of dialogue even work together toward a larger core important to the overall story, such as a theme or an unspoken event.
I mentioned earlier that characters should not state outright something that they already know. Circling the core is a similar concept, except it focuses on illustrating a specific bit of information by constructing a clear outline or shadow of it in the dialogue. If Iceberg Speak is revealing only the tip, then Circling the Core is the part where you begin to sketch out a silhouette of exactly what’s beneath the surface so that readers can start to identify it.
In Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” the characters are discussing a very important, life-changing decision. However, they never actually state the details of that decision in the story. Their dialogue moves all around it, hinting at it through their references to “an operation” and their discussion of how things will be afterward. But the topic itself is never stated, only implied. And while they discuss this big decision, just as much is shown by what isn’t said as what is. Add to that the tangents the characters take — a side comment about the setting that reflects the character’s thoughts, for example — and the reader gets a clear sense of the true stress and turmoil of the situation, even though it isn’t stated outright.
In real-life conversations, people often digress from the main point and take tangents. So can characters. But if you know the goal for a specific piece of dialogue, then you can build a conversation on the page that wraps around or dances gracefully around that core while still communicating the core to the reader. This can add interest to dialogue and prevent it from seeming too on-the-nose. However, if you don’t have a clear core focus that you return back to, your dialogue will come across as rambling instead.
But also make sure that you aren’t making a bee-line for that core. Construct an intricate dance around the core by focusing on the fringe elements. Think of your conversation like planets orbiting the sun. The sun is your core… but instead of blinding the readers with it, show your readers the planets, set them in motion, and then let your reader deduce what they’re orbiting around.
Is the purpose of a specific piece of dialogue to share information to the character (or reader)? Is it to move the plot forward by pushing the character to a decision? Is it to reveal some trait or quality of your character to the reader? Whatever the core for that dialogue, make sure that the entire conversation circles it in enough detail that the reader can infer the shape of what’s at the center.
Strong, skillfully-written dialogue can make or break a story.
Do you have any additional tips on writing powerful dialogue? What stories have you read where the dialogue just seemed to come to life on the page?
I’d love to read your feedback!