Sunday, December 21, 2008

Let Me Tell You Something – Dialogue, Part Un

One of the most important tools you need in your arsenal as a writer is DIALOGUE. With great dialogue, a story can have depth; with weak dialogue, a story can fall flat.

Dialogue should do more than present TALKING HEADS. Dialogue that is rich and integral to a story does several things…

--It can reveal character and motivation. We don't learn about characters simply by what they do, or the exposition that is written; we can learn about them through what they say, too.

--It can establish the tone or mood. If you're writing a comedic piece, at least one of your characters is probably a wise-ass, joke-cracking person, always with the witty comeback.

--It can foreshadow. Have you ever read a book and after reading a conversation think, "Oh no, something's about to happen?" That's the writer's ability to integrate foreshadowing into dialogue.

--It can provide exposition and backstory...and you want to use this judiciously. Nothing will bore a reader faster than you using dialogue to tell your main character's entire life story. That being said, dialogue is a tool in which you can "quickly" give some additional information, such as backstory so that you won’t end up with long, tedious passages of exposition.

--It can develop a conflict and move a plot forward.

Another thing that dialogue can do is create a great hook, and there are some writers who try to create that hook by starting a novel or starting chapters with dialogue. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but a writer must make sure that that piece of dialogue used is stellar, that it provides enough context to intrigue the reader and make him/her want to continue forward.

I recently edited a manuscript in which the first two pages of the story contained nothing but dialogue with few taglines. As a reader, I had no idea where the characters were, I didn’t know the characters (thus, I couldn’t care for them and their predicament), and I didn’t know what the characters were doing. A reader should always know these things when reading a book.

Keep coming back…a few more parts to this talk on dialogue!


Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator, whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at The World According to ChickLitGurrl.

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  1. Shon,
    This makes me think of the first draft of my first novel. I wrote half the book without a single word of dialogue! A writer friend read it and suggested I add dialogue and do some showing instead of telling. I started working on those areas at that point but didn't go back to revise the first half of the book then. My mother read the first draft and said, "I don't know what the difference was, but the second half was sure a lot better than the first half!"

  2. Dialogue (which Fox's spellchecker insists is spelled "dialog" grrrr) 101:

    1) Watch The Twilight Zone with Rod Serling's classic scripts

    2) The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri

  3. I evaluate manuscripts for a POD publisher, and very few authors get the balance of dialogue and action or back story just right. Some include almost no dialogue, especially for the first ten pages or so, and I just read one that was 90% dialogue. Finding the right balance is critical.

  4. And finding each character's voice within the dialogue is another challenge that we've recently discussed here. Too often, the characters tend to lose their distinct voices because an author loses attention to that detail. This is one other reason to read your manuscript aloud.

    Good post!


  5. I enjoy writing dialogue, even more so than descriptions. Still, I have to go back after my manuscript is written and check to make sure my characters don't all sound the same. One way is to slip in a certain expression that character is fond of using as long as you don't overdo it.

    Morgan Mandel

  6. LJ, I recently edited a manuscript that was closer to 95% dialogue - and most of the dialogue was on the freaking phone, and most of it began chapters, which left me unaware of my surroundings as a reader.

  7. I absolutely love writing dialogue--it's my favorite aspect of writing a book. Of course a book shouldn't have too much dialogue because you need to connect with the characters and learn about them through other story-telling devices. For me, it's a lot easier to find myself giving too much dialogue rather than description like I should at some points.

  8. It's all about BALANCE. Currently, I'm editing a manuscript that has a lot of dialogue in it, and although the dialogue is conveying good things to me, I still need to SEE the characters, to see them FEELING something.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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