For Writers

How to Add Layers to Your Dialogue

How do you flesh out dialogue??

When I’m freewriting, I tend to write way more dialogue than action. My first drafts often read like screenplays. Sometimes, I won’t even put tags that explain who is talking, and I’ll have to scroll back through the scene weeks later desperately trying to remember who was who. 

Take this chunk of dialogue:

“I said no one was supposed to go in there.”

“I thought you meant, you know, other people. I didn’t think you meant me.”

“I always mean you. I don’t care what other people do. I care—”

“About me?”

“Just — don’t do it again, okay? It’s dangerous.”

“Duly noted.”

It’s not bad, is it? But we have no idea who is speaking, where they are, or what’s going on. So let’s see if we can beef it up a little bit…

1. Take it Layer by Layer

To beef up pages of characters yammering back and forth, I try to go layer by layer. First, consider:

a. The Physical Layer

What are these characters doing during this scene? Are they interacting with their environment, or with each other? I’ll try to create a little subplot throughout the scene, like a character rifling through a cabinet looking for something, or flicking through paperwork, or cutting up chicken … something that will keep their hands busy and show them doing more than just standing in space.

Describing facial expressions and ticks feed into this. How are your characters physically reacting to what’s being said? Are their faces screwing up in anger? Their cheeks going red? Blood draining from their face as they’re caught in a lie? Maybe they’re rolling their eyes or cracking a grin. Chunks of dialogue will be easier and more vivid for your readers if they have a good sense of where the characters are in space and how they’re reacting to what’s going on. 

Let’s look at our dialogue and add a physical layer to it:

Henry slammed his fist against the table, rattling the glass so that water slopped over the rim. “I said no one was supposed to go in there.”

June dropped into the seat across from him and threw her feet up on the table. “I thought you meant, you know, other people. I didn’t think you meant me.”

He scoffed. “I always mean you. I don’t care what other people do. I care—”

But he suddenly stopped talking.

And June found herself sitting very still.

“About me?” she said quietly.

He swiped at the water he’d spilled across the table. “Just — don’t do it again, okay?” he said without looking at her. “It’s dangerous.”

“Duly noted.”

Already better, isn’t it?

b. The Emotional Layer

Then, I try to add the emotional layer — how is the Point of View Character internally reacting to the dialogue? What thoughts or reactions or mental spirals could the scene be instigating?

Henry slammed his fist against the table, rattling the glass so that water slopped over the rim. “I said no one was supposed to go in there.”

June dropped into the seat across from him and threw her feet up on the table, because she knew it would annoy him. “I thought you meant, you know, other people. I didn’t think you meant me.”

He scoffed. “I always mean you. I don’t care what other people do. I care—”

But he suddenly stopped talking.

And June found herself sitting very still.

“About me?” she said quietly. 

She waited for his reaction, wondering if he would ever admit to it, this tension, stupidly feelings-shaped, growing thick between them.

He swiped at the water he’d spilled across the table. “Just — don’t do it again, okay?” he said without looking at her. “It’s dangerous.”

“Duly noted,” she said with a sigh.

c. The Sensory & Story Layer

Lastly, when fleshing out a chunk of dialogue, I’ll try to add story elements that I didn’t touch on before. These can include:

Sensory details: Instead of focusing so much on what the characters are physically doing or emotionally feeling during the scene, this is your chance to widen the camera’s lens. Describe the setting and what’s going on in the background. Describe smells, or sounds; textures or tastes. Create concrete images that the reader can use to visualize the scene in their head.

Story details: This sublayer can only come after the first draft, I think, once you have a good understanding of your story and what is to come. But this layer involves asking yourself questions like: do I need to foreshadow something that’s going to happen, or do I manipulate this scene so a character asks a question I dearly need the reader to be considering? Do I need to clear up a plot hole here so no one will trip on it later? What double-duty can this scene be pulling? 

Since this dialogue is independent of an actual story, I won’t add story details, but here’s a bit of sensory imagery layered into our snippet:

Henry slammed his fist against the table, rattling the glass so that water slopped over the rim. “I said no one was supposed to go in there.”

June dropped into the hard-backed seat across from him and threw her feet up on the table, because she knew it would annoy him. “I thought you meant, you know, other people. I didn’t think you meant me.”

He scoffed. “I always mean you. I don’t care what other people do. I care—”

But he suddenly stopped talking.

And June found herself sitting very still.

“About me?” she said quietly. 

She waited for his reaction, wondering if he would ever admit to it, this tension, stupidly feelings-shaped, growing thick between them.

In the silence that stretched, June was very aware of the murmur of voices just outside the room, and of how strained Henry looked, his eyes shadowed, hair rumpled, as if he hadn’t gotten enough sleep.

Without looking at her, he swiped at the water he’d spilled across the table. “Just — don’t do it again, okay?” he said. “It’s dangerous.”

“Duly noted,” she said with a sigh.

See how much interesting that little back-and-forth is now? How it feels all nice and story-shaped?

Now, I’m actually partial to the first edited version, where we just added the Physical Layer — and that’s okay! A lot of times, you’ll only need to add one or two of these layers to your dialogue in order to improve it. You don’t want to hamper your dialogue with too much else going on; you want your story to move along cleanly and clearly, and too much weight will tip the wagon. That being said, if you’re finding yourself mostly writing bare dialogue and are looking for a way to flesh it out, try these suggestions! Cake on some extra layers of description and see if your story comes out better for it!

As always, happy writing. 🙂

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Christina is an aspiring novelist, who wanted to create a safe, fun place to share advice, inspiration, and motivation with other writers!

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