Writer basics 101

Dialogue special part 2: dialogue is more than talking

jamie lucie sheffield pk 008Last time I discussed ways to make dialogue scenes easier to write. But dialogue is more than just what characters say.

Dialogue is action

Dialogue is a kind of action scene. Although the conversation is the main focus, the characters are more than just mouths.

Make the characters respond to each other

There should be give and take. A good scene will give a sense that something in the story has changed; in a dialogue scene you can make the conversation cause this change. And if so, the characters should respond to each other – listen, be surprised, perhaps refuse to accept. They could change each other’s minds or become more entrenched in their wrongheaded mission. Maybe strengthen their supportive relationships; deepen rifts and conflicts.

Non-talking responses

Some writers try to make the characters express everything in speech. For a radio play, that’s probably a necessary evil, but for a novel it’s not ideal.

It can also undermine the power of a character’s response. For instance, if a character has been upset, writers often try to put this in words – an understandable urge as they’ve got used to writing lines.

So I’ll see a lot of dialogue that goes: ‘how could you say that, I’m your best friend, I feel very hurt’ as they flail to convey the enormity. But not everyone is articulate and voluble when upset. Characters might react with a moment of silent shock, a gasp, an unguarded facial expression. Or they might stand up and put on their coat.

If you’re struggling to think of the right words in such a scene, consider whether you’re forcing the character to articulate when they would not.

Less drastically, you can build in other actions and reactions. I often see scenes where characters are sitting dummy-still while they’re talking. But most people get quite busy when they’re involved in a conversation. They might betray nervousness by kicking the table leg, or fiddle with their cuffs while they think. Even if the characters are on the phone – and therefore most of the communication is verbal – they are doing a lot more than simply speaking. They’ll be grimacing, smiling, biting their nails, straining to hear through a bad connection.

jamie lucie sheffield pk 007Go back and edit – how much talking do you need?

Once you start adding the non-verbal responses, you usually find you can refine the lines that are said out loud. If a character points across the loch at a monster, they might not need to say ‘look at that monster over there’ (thank you, Dave and Jamie, for the demonstration in the picture). If you edit the gestures so that they work with the spoken words, you make the point better. And you keep all the reader’s sensory channels open.

Don’t forget the setting
In the pressure to get the dialogue flowing, the writer sometimes forgets the environment. Then suddenly the character will stir their coffee. (Hooray for lattes, BTW: with just one prop you can slurp foam, add sugar and twiddle spoons.) But the environment is there all the time. If we don’t have continual low-key reminders, there can be a jolt when it returns to the scene. I often see long exchanges of chit-chat, then a sudden reference to the mahogany desk the character was sitting at – but the environment of the scene had long since disappeared from the prose.

A really vivid scene will keep the setting in the reader’s awareness. And that’s not just visuals, but sounds too – readers need all their senses fed.

A word of caution, though; it’s very easy to overdo. Details like this can get intrusive and irritating, so it’s better to use the setting to create natural pauses as the characters are talking, or when they need a beat to think. And don’t write ‘she thought’, try: ‘a police siren wailed in the street outside’, which will create the pause in the reader’s mind. It’s even better if you can make the environmental action echo an emotional point of the scene – for instance, a customer at the till who is arguing about his change.

These are ways to make a dialogue scene more fully rounded. And of course, there’s a whole other level under the words: the subtext. We’ll look at that next time.

For now, though, give me your thoughts: do you have to do separate passes to add these elements to dialogue scenes?
nyn2 2014 smlThere are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2

23 thoughts on “Dialogue special part 2: dialogue is more than talking

  1. Great points! I have to be careful not to add action beats to EVERY line (yes, it’s easy to overdo, as you said), and remember that a simple volley back-and-forth is okay once in a while (as long as it’s clear who’s talking. I definitely have to clean it up and balance talking, action, tags, reactions, etc. on the second pass. You make a very important point that the plot should be furthered and developed!

    1. Hi Carol! Yes, a fast, clean volley is sometimes just the thing. And Dave’s reading a novel at the moment that’s full of unnecessary stage directions – sighing, lighting a cigarette, tapping fingers on the table. Whenever the characters start talking his fingers are twitching towards a red pen!
      Thank goodness we can edit, though. My dialogue scenes take a lot of shaping.

  2. Excellent advice! I add “environmental pieces” to dialogue to re-prime the reader, to remind them which person is talking… and of course to remind them that there is even an environment to speak of!

  3. Great tips! I’m looking forward to your post on subtext.

    It absolutely does take me multiple passes to shape dialog. It’s part of why I’m a multiple-draft writer. However, I’m not so organized that I add non-verbal cues and setting details in separate, dedicated passes. I’d say that I do most of my dialog editing in the second draft, which I think of as my “continuity and details” draft. I believe that the setting, the movement of the characters through that setting, and the dialog all need to work together to create an immersive experience for the reader. Jumping ahead a little, I’d say that subtext is an important part of the alchemy that engages reader emotions to that experience.

    As far as I can tell, how we balance the dialog elements you mentioned in your post is largely a matter of style, and that’s a good thing. Different readers want different levels of conflict, action, and detail. Genre plays into this as well, of course. Some readers love rich detail while others get bored and want to “get on with the story.” Finding the readers who resonate with our style seems to be an important element for success in this business.

    1. Hi Daniel! ‘A multiple-draft writer’? I’m a gazillion-draft writer.
      And you raise an essential point about style. Some readers want a story to be slick and fast; the sparest detail is enough. Some will feel deprived if they don’t get mesmerising detail and the time to enjoy it. Finding who fits our style is part of the battle.

  4. Usually I have to go back and write in the environment. When it comes to the “Don`t write the boring parts” advice I follow it and I skip the settings descriptions. Some of my characters can find themselves staring at a plant that appeared out of nowhere or breaking the conversation to chase a bus that magically came into existence. Now, I first right the dialogue and then go back and add whatever I need.

    1. Hi Gabriela! Ah, years of working with pernickity editors have trained me not to make plants magically appear – though it’s easily done. Often you’ll have it in your head and not realise you didn’t tell the reader! After all, we’ve had other things to concentrate on. Thanks for joining in.

  5. Good, straight forward advice. I find it helpful to try to wear the character’s skin while they are speaking and report what they are seeing, hearing, feeling as they are talking. That helps me anyway.

  6. See ‘No Country for Old Men’ (the book, not the film) for fast, clean volleys taken to the almost-painful edge of reader understanding – and for significant plot turning-points only communicated thereby. I wonder if McCarthy sweats over them like the rest of us, or skips lightly from volley to volley. Sweats, I hope.

  7. Thanks Roz, as always excellent advice. I love dialogue in a story as it moves the story along quickly, but it is easy to forget the surroundings, so this is a great reminder.

  8. Great advice! Thank you for this, I’m going to utilize the information you’ve given. Of course, some of it I’d already known, yet somehow in my actual writing I’d managed to forget it and I have you to thank for reminding me. Thank you!

  9. Great post, Roz, and much needed. It’s so easy falling into the old soap opera kind of dialogue where everything about the story is repeated for the first-time viewer. People rarely speak directly to what they’re thinking or feeling. They avoid, divert, ignore, speak from their own distracted thoughts. It’s usually an iceberg; the words are only the tip of things with much more hidden.

    Yes! Don’t forget the setting! In scriptwriting, which is 95% dialogue, we often speak of “spilt jam” and keep notebooks of these things to draw from. The concept is that very little dialogue is needed if a couple are having breakfast and someone spills the jam. If they’re deeply in love, neither says, “I love you,” during the scene, but rather, “Oh, no, don’t fuss about it. I’ll clean it up with my fingers and you can lick it off.” If one person is cheating on the other, something like, “You can’t even keep your jam in the jar, can you,” tells the story. So much can be spoken with words having nothing to do with the conversation if they’re reacting to the setting or some small event.

    You always bring up such excellent points to help us refine our craft. It’s finding ways to do it well that keep me tripping on my prose. You help us step higher and avoid those stumbles.

    1. Cyd, that’s a fantastic point. I’m going to tweet your comment. There’s such life in those two examples – and they are so much more interesting and engaging than the simple idea they were intended to express. That’s one of the joys of polishing our work. We begin with a simple idea, but we can add such depth by just dwelling on it a little longer, making sure every thought and line adds something worthwhile.

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