Writing Wednesday: Dialogue

Writing Wednesday

Welcome back to Writing Wednesday, a biweekly feature where I troubleshoot an aspect of writing. This week we’re taking a look at DIALOGUE.

All right, so I’ll admit it: dialogue isn’t one of my strengths. Or at least, I don’t think it is. I remember the first time I ever brought a piece of writing to be critiqued by my in-person critique group, the dialogue in it was so bad I actually cringed to hear it read aloud. I can’t remember exactly what was wrong with it (and needless to say, I’m sure there was everything wrong with it), but I do remember it sounded stilted and stiff, awkward and unnatural.

I think that we as artists working with the written word sometimes forget how much of writing is aural. Language is a funny thing, and functions in two modes: visual and aural. The visual component is on the page, the aural is in your ears.1 Have you ever taken the time to marvel at the act of writing on the page? How a letter turns into a word turns into an image? How quickly our minds are able to understand concepts from mere shapes and symbols?

But we process language differently when we hear it: we’re not merely taking the sounds and translating it into concepts, we’re absorbing a lot of information that has nothing to do with language at all. The tone of voice, nonverbal cues like body language, the length between pauses. If you’ve ever read the transcript of a podcast or a radio interview, you’ll find that it reads very differently than the same interview in an article.

Why is that? It’s because the way we speak and the way we write are different. The mistake I made in my first critique group was trying to make my dialogue sound too realistic.

I think there’s a difference between making dialogue sound “realistic” and making dialogue sound “natural”. The former is true to life, and values veracity over storytelling. The latter is crafted, which values clarity over veracity. Striking a balance between the two is hard to teach and as with anything else in writing, subtlety is necessary. Unfortunately, finesse cannot be taught, it can only be learned, and it can only be learned by voracious reading and diligent practice.

So what is good dialogue? Let me return to this notion that language is both visual and aural. Like prose, good dialogue should be varied, with its own rhythm and voice. It should sound good, first and foremost.

But it should also do a number of other things. Good dialogue shows characterization, tension, and gives exposition. What dialogue is after all, is a conversation between two or people. (Generally two.) Good dialogue shows two characters reacting to each other, which further develops characterization and can heighten tension. You can also use dialogue to belie to create juxtaposition between what the character is saying and what the character is doing. For example:

She smiled. “Everything’s gonna be alright,” she said, reaching out to smooth my hair.

And contrast that with:

Her eyes glistened. “Everything’s gonna be alright,” she said, drawing me close to hide the tremble in her voice.

Or even:

She smiled. “Everything’s gonna be alright,” she said, running her finger along the edge of her knife. Slowly. Delicately. Deliberately.

Dialogue in conjunction with exposition illuminates character. But just what is the purpose of dialogue? Is it possible to tell a story without it?

Well, yes, you could. But even fairytales have dialogue, however limited. Dialogue is the ultimate way of showing, to be honest. And showing actually moves the pace along most faster than than if you were told the same information. For example:

He told them all where to find the weapons. He had spent years preparing for this, hiding his guns and ammo all over his house, in places where his enemies wouldn’t think to look. Guns hidden in waterproof boxes in the well of his toilet. Bullets sewn into the hems of his curtains. A shotgun in the bag of his defunct lawnmower in the garage. He and his friends would be ready, and their enemies would be taken unawares.

Contrast that to:

“Where’d you hide ’em?” I asked, tearing through the shelves in his closet. Nothing there but shoes, still wrapped up in tissue paper, neatly stacked in their boxes. Surely he’s gotta have something.

“Relax,” he said. “I gotcha. You won’t find my guns in any of the usual places, if you take my meaning.”

I stopped rummaging through his clothes. “What—”

Bob tilted his head toward the bathroom. “Back of the toilet. Open it up.”

I frowned, but did as he asked. Gingerly, I lifted the lid off the well of his grimy porcelain throne. Sure enough, sitting in with the pump and the chain was a box.

“Didn’t expect that, did ya?” There was a slightly manic gleam to his eye. “Now come into the living room and help me rip out the stitches at the bottom of the curtains; I sewed the bullets there.”

“And the shotgun?” I asked, almost afraid to ask.

In answer Bob opened the door to his garage. He pulled a knife from his back pocket and slit open the bag.

“You’re looking at it now, son.”

I shook my head. “You’ve been prepping for ages, haven’t you?”

He cocked his shotgun and his grin at the same time. “They won’t know what hit ’em.”

Dialogue is inherently more active than expository prose, but that doesn’t mean that one is necessarily better than the other. As with everything else, variety keeps a reader’s interest. Interspersing dialogue with exposition and vice versa keeps things moving along swiftly.

Tricks and tips for best dialogue writing practices

  1. Write the dialogue first. This technique might not work for everyone, but it can help you to look at dialogue on its own, and to see how a conversation between two people can further a story.
  2. Read your dialogue aloud, and without the tags (“he said”) and exposition. Straight dialogue, like a play. Does it make sense? Can you tell who is speaking?
  3. Go see a play. I’m serious, even a play at your local community theatre. Even if the production is amateur, a lot can be gleaned from absorbing a story this way. You are better able to understand what works and what doesn’t when it comes to people talking with or at each other. You can also glean a lot from silence. Silence is a potent thing, both on stage and on the page.
Further Resources

That’s all for this week! Next time we’ll talk about CHARACTERIZATION.

  1.  For the Deaf and hard of hearing, many function in two different visual modes: written English and American Sign Language, which are two different languages.

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