Narrative and E-learning

For the last few weeks we've talked about stories in e-learning and why they're a great way to make your e-learning memorable, authentic and engaging. What else can you do to bring a narrative into e-learning? What are the practical points when it comes to writing dialogue?

The bookshelves heave with screenwriting manuals. Save yourself a few quid and start with a few basic tips for good dialogue writing in e-learning.

1. Create real characters

While you don't need to give your characters a full back-story, it's useful to have at least a light biographical sketch to help you write in contrasting styles for each character. For example:

Coach: Becky
Age: 32
Personality: Friendly, on the learner's side, was doing their job this time last year. Uses self-deprecating humour to charm and cajole others.

Expert: Alberto
Age: 44
Personality: Ponderous, likes to refer to principles. Needs to be interrupted to get back on topic sometimes.

It's possible to go a lot further with drawing up character sketches, but don't take too much time developing personality traits that aren't going to come out in the writing and may be a distraction. Most writers find that characters develop themselves as you write for them anyway - so just a few guiding points are enough to get going.

2. Write for real – read aloud

Once you've set up your characters, you need to find a way to write for each of them that sets them apart from each other and comes across as convincing dialogue.

If you're writing dialogue where two or three characters interact, you need to take the time to read it aloud. If you've got a willing colleague, ask them to read some of the parts. See if it sounds real. You can't cheat the ear – clunky wording will stand out immediately.

3. Write less

A common mistake in any narrative or script is writing too much. People rarely speak in paragraphs. If you look at any TV or film script, characters hardly ever have more than one or two lines of dialogue at a time. So aim for similar: think one or two lines of dialogue per character at the most in any interaction.

4. Write what (and who) you know

Stick to the basics. A common mistake is trying to write for a character you don't know or understand well enough. Ideally base characters on people you know and situations you understand, so you can make sure the language and detail is authentic. If you're in new territory, talk to subject matter experts and do the research to make sure you're comfortable with the dialogue and patterns of speech.

5. Keep the jargon down – way down

Most real people don't speak in jargon, they speak in plain English. If you're stuffing your characters' mouths with manual-speak, it's not going to read naturally. Make sure they're talking like human beings. Again, reading aloud will help.

See all our elearning tips.