People recognize terrible dialogue when they hear it in movies, or on television or read it in books. It comes off wooden, robotic, confusing, lecturing, boring or in some way artificial sounding. Examples abound in B-grade movies, comic books, soap operas, and probably in the last book you refused to continue reading. Don’t be that writer.
Dialogue is NOT conversation put on paper.
Imagine that instead of writing a novel, you are writing a play or a screenplay. By their nature, these are dialogue-driven works and as such, soar or sink by the quality of the spoken interaction between the characters. The most common blunder in writing dialogue comes from trying to reproduce normal conversation. I dare you to go record random conversation at the mall and then transcribe it. It is gibberish. Stammering, unfinished sentences that leave the listener hanging on a word, interruptions, rambling, redundancies, slang, misuse of language—these are the hallmarks of normal conversation.
Think of dialogue as value-added, condensed, poetic, crafted simulations of conversation.
Learning how to craft dialogue well matters because up to half of a novel is dialogue.
In general, in literary fiction, the ratio of narrative description and dialogue runs low on dialogue. Literary fiction tends to present story through a character’s inner life, with longer sentences and longer paragraphs that emphasize the beauty of language and imagery, rather than on the action of the story. When a story encompasses a decades-long history, it demands the use of narrative to summarize, interpret and present the events within. Examples: Faulkner, Dickens, Kingsolver, Tolstoy, and Michener.
In commercial fiction, or genre fiction, the ratio of narrative to dialogue runs closer to 50/50. Readers of commercial fiction prefer the immediacy of experiencing the story over the look-back-at-one’s-life kind of story. Because of the influence of television and movies, reader’s attention span has grown shorter and this, too, affects the narrative/dialogue ratio. With almost half their story presented through dialogue, genre fiction writers benefit from developing this aspect of their craft. Examples: Elmore Leonard, Irwin Shaw, Mark Twain, Richard Price, and Tobias Wolff.
Dreadful dialogue comes from using dialogue when narrative or exposition would work better.
When writers use dialogue to deliver backstory, present flashbacks, to reveal character’s thoughts and feelings, or to explain complex issues, history, or technical information, the dialogue suffers. It’s like a carpenter using a wrench to hammer in a nail. Sure, it can be done, but why work so hard with the wrong tool for the job?
Delivering backstory through dialogue is storytelling within a story. Generally, anything longer than three consecutive lines of speech by one character comes off as lecturing, so, even if your character is supposed to be a bore, demonstrate it once, then move on. Backstory should be sprinkled, not shoveled. Can you spread out the delivery of the details of backstory for revelations?
Examine your reasons for telling backstory through dialogue. Why is one character telling so much to another character? Would it be more dramatic and interesting to have the other character discover this information in bits and pieces and then confront the ‘telling’ character for more? Allow the listening character to challenge the teller to break up the lecture.
Presenting flashbacks through dialogue is also tricky. Flashbacks are internal. Is the flashback worth stopping the flow of action? When presented in movies, they can begin with a voice-over along the lines of “I remember that morning twelve years ago when I first met Mr. Adams….” The best use of a flashback is when the character has reached a point of utter confusion or frustration and he has to make a decision. To make that decision, he will think about things from his past for clues and answers. Think of a flashback as a question answered by memory. For example, the character asks himself—How on earth did I end up in this situation? When the character recalls the decisions he made that led to his current state, he reaches the point of understanding, which answers his question, and the flashback is over. He can then apply this insight to the present situation.
Revealing a character’s thoughts and feelings through dialogue seems artificial because thoughts and feelings are internal. Who is going to declare absolutely honest thoughts and feelings with others in a conversation? Okay, children do, but unless your character is a child, it could be ‘oversharing’. Leave that stuff for the social networking souls who post “Hi, brushed my teeth today. Sure didn’t want to go to class, but have a quiz in history class I have to take.” You might as well shoot your reader to put him out of his misery. There must be a compelling reason for a character to share personal thoughts and feelings. If such sharing is necessary for the story, keep it brief and dramatic, such as in a fight scene or in a highly dramatic moment. The exception for a character sharing his thoughts with another would be two or more people brainstorming together, or in group therapy, but even then, keep it brief.
Using dialogue to explain complex issues, history or technical information is a sure-fire way to drive the reader away. Unless you can make this dialogue an argument, don’t use dialogue. It does not sound natural to use dialogue to explain complex issues or technical information because long stretches of speech are lectures. If the reader needs to know the time, don’t tell him how to build a clock. Narrative summary works best here.
If a dialogue scene in your manuscript is there to deliver backstory, present flashback, reveal character’s thoughts and feelings or explain something, then change the scene to exposition.
Dialogue is designed to perform these functions:
- Advance the plot. The inciting incident, key turning points, the climax and other important emotional moments have the greatest impact when the events unfold in front of the reader.
- Build to a change in a relationship, a power shift, or a turning point in the action. Make the talk between characters matter. If the talk does not cause a change or mark a change, then why is it in the story?
- Create immediacy. The reader experiences the conversation in real time, along with the characters. This allows the reader to feel part of the story by drawing her into the experience.
- Reveal character. How a character expresses himself changes depending on who he is interacting with—spouse, child, boss, colleague, or adversary. Characters talk differently when under stress or in danger. A person’s character is tested when having to choose between doing the right thing and doing the easy thing.
- Set the mood to create an emotional impact on the reader. It is better to make the reader cry than to make the characters cry. In dialogue, conversations can be elevated above the commonplace because the writer can craft the dialogue with imagery and precision. Characters can speak bolder, wittier and more insightfully than real people. Brief statements hold the greatest impact.
- Begin or heighten conflict. It is human nature to desire to witness the action rather than hear about it second hand. If the conversation does not affect the relationship of the characters involved in it, then why is this conversation being played out for the reader? Show the fight scene.
- Create suspense. The reader knows more than the characters because the reader is privy to all the conversations and actions. Stimulate the reader’s curiosity, raise questions. Characters lie and misunderstand one another in dialogue. The reader enjoys sorting out the liars from the truthful.
- Move action along swiftly. When the reader goes down the page quickly, it gives the feel of fast action. Dialogue increases the pacing of any scene because things happen when characters meet face to face.
- Reveal tidbits of the past. Use it like Hansel and Gretel, dropping crumbs to leave a trail. Lead the reader along.
Great dialogue does more than one of these functions at the same time. Make sure the dialogue carries its weight—that it does double or triple duty in the scene. Read your dialogue scene out loud into a recorder. When you play it back, can you hear clunky phrases? Are you gasping for breath in long sentences? Revise. Polish. Shorten.
You can craft dialogue that resonates with readers long after they put down the book. It takes effort, insight and aiming for deep character to make your dialogue memorable.
This article first appeared on the SavvyAuthors.com website. They are revamping the site so I am posting this article here to keep it available.
Very informative Joni, thank-you. I was wondering if you could explain exposition to me? Not sure I understand what you mean. I like the Hansel and Gretel analogy for backstory though, I can see where I’ve done a little much there and can now go fix that 🙂
By exposition, I mean conveying information to the reader. It can be done through description of setting, history of the place or of the people in the story and through the character’s thoughts. Giving too much information through dialogue can sound artificial or forced.