Monday, March 29, 2010

Dialogue: Just the Way We Talk?

Dialogue is two or more characters talking to each other. We can all talk. Writing dialogue should be easy, right? Well, yes and no.

Here’s what dialogue is:

Talk is an ACTION. An ideal, compact way to advance your story by having one character tell the other what’s happening—to reveal, admit, incite, accuse, lie, etc. It can speed up a scene.

A way to define a character. The way someone speaks—accent, vocabulary, idiom, inflection—tells as much about what he is like as his actions do. And let’s us see him better than just using description. It can also reveal motive.

One way to show emotion and set a mood. Characters reveal themselves when under stress or angry. Dialogue is used to create an emotional effect in the reader.

Another way to show POV.

Often used to get across what is NOT said. Example, if you want to show that someone wants to avoid an unpleasant encounter, you can show this by having them talk around the subject uppermost in their mind, but never quite touch it. In this way, you’re asking the reader to read between the lines. It’s tricky, but think about how you talk to someone yourself when you’re angry at them but don’t want to tell them exactly why—by being sarcastic, arch, nitpicky, oversolicitous, etc.

To intensify conflict. Dialogue is often adversarial or confrontational. Dialogue should be natural, but never the way we really talk.


The minute the phone rang, Janet snatched the receiver, grateful for a distraction—any distraction. “Hello,” she said.

“Hey, Jan. It’s me, Shirl.”

“Oh, hi. How are you?”

“Good,” replied Shirl. “How about you?”

“Okay. What’re you up to?”

“Ah…you know,” said Shirl. “Not much.”

“Yeah. Not much new on this end, either. I brought home a ton of case files to read.”

“Same here. We need a shift lieutenant who knows what a shift is.”

“You got that right,” Janet agreed. “But I almost wish we were still at the station. Maybe we could get some buzz on the new detective, that Ross. Supposedly he’s an investigative whiz.”

“Maybe not,” said Shirl. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “He’s why I’m calling. Roger, the guy in records? He told me Ross comes with a lot of baggage—maybe even a criminal record.”

“Say what? That can’t be possible.”

Make sure your characters have something worth saying before they open their mouths, and get to the point quickly. What did Janet learn from Shirl that moves the story along or tells us something critical about one or both characters?

Example rewrite:

The minute the phone rang, Janet snatched the receiver, grateful for a distraction from the case files she’d lugged home from the station.

Shirl was on the other end. She said a fast hello, then dropped her voice to a whisper. “You lay eyes on that new detective yet? Ross?”

“Sure,” said Janet. “Supposedly he’s some kind of investigative whiz.”

“Maybe not. Roger, the guy in records? He told me Ross comes with a lot of baggage—maybe even a criminal record.”

“Say what? That can’t be possible.”

We’ve cut the conversation down from 17 lines to 8 and made it much more exciting. We know, without a lot of chit-chat, that she’s brought home extra work. Shirl cuts right to the chase with her tidbit of gossip.

Next month, I’ll write about some of the common mistakes we all make in dialogue.

A native Montanan, Heidi Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. She has had her first novel published, Cowgirl Dreams, based on her grandmother. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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  1. Thank you - helpful information as I'm reworking my novel's redraft 3 of my novel.

  2. I enjoy writing dialogue more than narrative, so my novels have a lot of it. Part of the fun is getting into your characters' heads so they don't all sound alike. This is a good post, Heidi, because you show how boring dialogue can be if you don't cut out the chit chat.

  3. Thanks. I can sure see how the rewrite was much better.

  4. I love writing dialogue - it's the descriptive passages where I fall down.

  5. Good points on dialogue. It's important for writers to listen to the conversations around them. I've found that helps when writing dialogue.

  6. Great post, Heidi :)

  7. Thank you for saying "talk is action".

    I just made a comment on my own blog about great dialog being action -- then, began to think I should edit it because I was all wet. Now I won't.

  8. Good post, Heidi. I am so glad you did the rewrite to show how the dialogue needed to be edited. I remember a writing instructor telling the class that we shouldn't make our characters so "polite." I'm sure he meant what you pointed out that we don't need the pleasantries that we use in everyday speech.

  9. This was a very insightful and helpful post. Thanks.

  10. Thank you all for commenting. I'm traveling so didn't get to check in as early as I would've like to.

    Kay, I'm glad I verified what you wrote!

    Dialogue can be a lot of fun and it can be tricky too.

  11. Way to go, Heidi. You work and travel. Hope you had sun. See you soon.

  12. Fantastic and informative article. i enjoyed your example regarding dialogue.


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