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Writing Dialogue That Works (Part One)

Photo credit: Kanaka Menehune via Foter.com / CC BY-NC
Photo credit: Kanaka Menehune via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Dialogue is a tricky, fickle thing. It can draw the reader into interactions between characters faster than any narrative could ever hope to do. Dialogue can make its readers laugh, smile, get angry, and sometimes reach for the Kleenex box on the bedside table.

Photo credit: jamarmstrong via Foter.com / CC BY-NC
Photo credit: jamarmstrong via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Dialogue can give your story heart. It can make your reader fall in love with your characters and experience the hardships they are going through.

Dialogue gives us a feel for each character. A child’s voice should read less formal, with not as many big words, and perhaps a playfulness that we sometimes lose as an adult. A character in his/her later years, may have a voice filled with wisdom, that seems more formal and respectful. One that carries with it a weight that only comes with age.

Dialogue is a powerful thing, so long as it is written well.Tweet: Dialogue is a powerful thing, so long as it is written well.

When proofreading other writer’s work, and looking over my own during editing, I always look to see if the dialogue fits the character. Would this character actually say these words? Would anyone talk this way in casual conversation?

Photo credit: aphotoshooter via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
Photo credit: aphotoshooter via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Our goal as writers is to write so our readers are kept engrossed in the tale we are telling, never once pulling their attention away from the story to question what they’ve just read. Here I’ve compiled some tips to help you do just that. The journey to becoming a full-fledged author is a long and tenuous one, but having the right tools in your arsenal, will be sure to help you along the way!

Since this post will look at each issue in writing dialogue, and include a sample conversation and analysis, I am going to split this post into parts.

Part One: Writers who cram too much description into their dialogue.

If an explanation must be given to the reader, question first if whoever is having the conversation needs to know this information too, or if they would already be aware of it. If the characters would have this background knowledge already, then saying it in the dialogue would be redundant for them. In this case, because the reader still needs to have the information, it is best left up to the narrator to tell.

Let’s look at an example to better illustrate my point. Two best friends, who grew up together, meet up and are reminiscing about old times and places they had been:

 Photo credit: Brian Gaid via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Photo credit: Brian Gaid via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

“Remember that shack over by Old Ben’s house?” I looked across the table at Tommy just as he took a sip of wine. The smile that formed around the rim of his glass answered my question for him.

“How could I forget? It was the one place you could be indoors but still look up at the stars,” Tommy said, gazing up at the ceiling.

“He really did need to get that roof fixed. I’m surprised it didn’t cave in on us with all those slats missing!” Tommy’s laugh was infectious as he reached forward to take another sip of wine. “It certainly wasn’t the place to go when it was raining. What would’ve been the point?”

Old Ben’s property, was a place we so often spent our time together. It was there, at that little shack in the woods, where we could be ourselves. Where no one would judge a little black boy and a whiter-than-white girl like myself, co-mingling. We could just be two kids having fun and enjoying the day.

Children just didn’t see skin colors as adults did back then. Lucky for us, a lot of time had passed since those days. Looking at Tommy now, sitting and having dinner together without drawing attention from the other patronage…well, none of that would have been possible before.

In this bit of writing, you can see that the protagonist (and narrator in this case) does put description in the dialogue, but it is a give-and-take in the conversation between her and Tommy. The details of the dilapidated shack they once shared are not only brief, but they could really be something said in conversation to spark memories between two old friends.

It gives the reader the visual but none of the background information for the scene. That information is left in the narrative paragraphs that follow the dialogue, and explains to the reader the significance of their hideout.

Imagine that these two lines were written as dialogue:

That little shack in the middle of the woods on Old Ben’s property, was a place we so often spent our time together. It was there, at that little shack in the woods, where we could be ourselves,” I said.

It just doesn’t work. Tommy already knows all of this information, and it would be redundant to tell him again. Not to mention it sounds way more formal than two old friends would be with each other, sitting having a casual drink. Having said that, it is still important to the story, and therefore, should find its way into the narration.

Remember: Keep the dialogue quick and snappy and leave the long-winded descriptions and background details to the narrative.Tweet: Keep dialogue quick & snappy. Leave the long-winded descriptions & background details to the narrative. http://ctt.ec/u_d72+ @jhwinterauthor

Have you ever written too much description in your own dialogue? Have you read books where the author did this? If so, did it make you feel less connected with the characters?

Writing Dialogue that Works (Part Two): coming soon…

Photo credit: univrsltransl8r via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA
Photo credit: univrsltransl8r via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

7 thoughts on “Writing Dialogue That Works (Part One)”

  1. Great post about an important problem. It’s so easy for me to see this in other writer’s work, and yet somehow it still pops up in my own writing when I’m not looking — how sneaky it is!

    I only recently learned the term for this, the “As you know, Bob” problem. Now when I’m writing a critique, I mention that and hope the person searches for the term, since there’s a ton of good advice out there on how to recognize and avoid it.

    1. So very true. It is always easier to pick these kinds of issues out in other people’s work than our own. We have our writer-blinders on. That’s why we go through so many drafts when we edit. It takes looking at the same work ten times to catch things we missed throughout the other nine revisions!

  2. Since I’m writing a fantasy novel where the protagonist doesn’t know anything about the world she’s in, I find this especially difficult. It’s first person present tense so the reader learns along with her, but I find that if I need a lot of description in dialogue, I tend to have it revealed over time. I also break it up with questions or reactions to keep the explanations believable. I’m still writing and editing, so I hope to find that balance before publishing.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Hi Diane! Thank you for the comment! Being a writer of fantasy myself, I know how difficult it is to get that description into our stories for the reader. One technique I’ve used, which I will be talking about in a future post, is going through the entire manuscript (during editing) and only read the dialogue. See if it makes sense, or if it’s bogged down by the details. Some details are okay, especially if neither person having the conversation know them already. Since you are writing in first person present tense, you can always use your character’s inner thoughts as well, to get some of those details in. Play around with it, and as you said, find that balance.

  3. This is a great post! That example you gave was extremely helpful in illustrating the issue. When I think about books I’ve read where I noticed this issue the most, I’m finding that the majority of them were YA books. I’m not sure if that is just a coincidence. Do you think some genres might be trickier than others when trying to avoid this problem?

    1. I agree that a lot of the time where I’m noticing the over-description in dialogue, tends to be in YA books. Even in TV shows like Shadowhunters (based off of Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series), they are writing the dialogue to have way too much description. It makes the characters sound “cheesy” and not true to life. I loved those books and I will continue to watch the show, but somehow they need to find a better way of getting some of the backstory into the dialogue without sounding like the characters are reading a dictionary definition. An excellent example of quick, true to life dialogue, can be found in Rainbow Rowell’s books. Her book FANGIRL is a great example of this. Highly recommended if you haven’t read it already!

      Writers just need to spend a little bit more time in their character’s heads to figure out what needs to be said vs what is already shared knowledge among those talking. We need to read and write dialogue with the hope that it will push the story forward, not be bogged down by the details. Thank you again for the great comment!

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