• Basic Writing questions is not a crit forum. All crits belong in Share Your Work

Tips For Better Dialogue

editing_for_authors
Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

Status
Not open for further replies.

PsychicToaster

Writing Ninja
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jul 15, 2010
Messages
159
Reaction score
10
Location
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn
Website
www.psychictoaster.com
Last edited:

Her Dark Star

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jul 31, 2010
Messages
267
Reaction score
13
Location
UK
Nice example in that piece, thanks.
Look forward to more.
 

douglass

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Dec 22, 2010
Messages
92
Reaction score
1
Hi Psychic,
I enjoyed your blog. I'm curious about your number one rule:

"Dialogue is the last resort of the desperate storyteller."

It seems in conflict with two trend of novels: 1) more and more dialogue with each passing generation. 2) the more popular the novel, the more dialogue it contains.

Any thoughts?
 

PsychicToaster

Writing Ninja
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jul 15, 2010
Messages
159
Reaction score
10
Location
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn
Website
www.psychictoaster.com
I touched on that in the paragraph that followed:

The first one mainly applies to screen and stage, since they are visual media and you have someone’s performance and action on screen to carry the scene when there is no speaking. On a page, the text is there whether it is dialogue or narrative, so the rule isn’t as hard and fast as it is for the screen, but in general, if you are falling back on dialogue to do the storytelling, then you need to re-examine your plot structure.

I got my start in screenwriting and I had gone to school for theatrical and film direction. That's a guideline that exists for visual media.

That said, it's easy to fall into the exposition trap, even when writing novels:

"Did you hear? Jacob, your brother, will be coming up from his home in Kansas to lecture at our son Chris's college. I'd like to offer the guest bedroom to him while he's here, but I don't want to hear you two playing Madden 2012 until 4AM like last time he came, at Christmas," Alice said.

It's clunky, and unnecessary. Most importantly, it doesn't flow. That text is going to be on the page either way, but compare it to this:

"Jacob is coming to town," Alice said. Brad held his tongue. The last thing he needed was a lecture about staying up until 4AM playing Madden 2012 with his brother at Christmas. "Chris is looking forward to his lecture."

"Why would a math major be attending a lecture on paleontology?" Brad asked.

"'Because it's his uncle and he never sees him' isn't good enough?" Alice poured a cup of coffee and passed it to Brad.

Brad sipped his coffee. "I'll clean the guest room," Brad said. Alice looked at Brad sharply. "And we won't play Madden. Not much. At least not past 2."

The word count is a little higher, but this is just off the top of my head. The dialogue communicates more about their relationship and how they relate to one another, rather than conveys the raw facts. The dialogue is pulling double duty in parts like: "Why would a math major be attending a lecture on paleontology?" We learn that Brad is attentive enough to know what his son is studying but doesn't understand why he would be interested. In fact, the facts learned (Chris studies math, Jacob is a paleontologist) are actually the least interesting parts of that comment.

When Brad jumps to "I'll clean the guest room" without explicit prompting, we understand that the subtext of Alice's entire half of the exchange was: "I want Jacob to stay here." When we look back at the things she says, they all lean in that direction without her coming out and saying it, which is another clue about what kind of relationship Alice has with Brad.

If it's crucial to cut word counts, the important bits of the conversation can be boiled down to: "Jacob is coming to town." followed by, "I'll clean the guest room."

"Jacob is coming to town," Alice said.

Brad sipped his coffee. The last thing he needed was another lecture about how he and his brother had played Madden 2012 until 4AM at Christmas, so he decided to nip the discussion in the bud. "I'll get the guest room cleaned."

The essentials are still there, and we keep the big clue about their relationship: Brad understands Alice enough to know why she is bringing up Jacob's visit without her needing to say it.
 
Last edited:

Bobby

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Feb 23, 2011
Messages
157
Reaction score
14
Website
bobthewriter.com
Psychic, as a huge fan of Elmore Leonard and the late Robert B. Parker, I disagree with your No. 1 rule up there.

Good dialogue moves the story forward. It doesn't have useless exposition.
 

PrincessofPersia

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Dec 19, 2010
Messages
1,430
Reaction score
130
I tend to disagree as well. I've read a lot of really good screenplays (for really good films) that had an arseload of dialogue, often more than page or two with nothing but dialogue. And it worked. I agree with the sentiment that telling what's going on by having your characters just summarise everything isn't a good thing, I think dialogue is an important part of storytelling, on the screen or the page. All of my favourite flicks have great dialogue, even scenes where nothing else is happening.
 

Melancholia

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Feb 25, 2011
Messages
63
Reaction score
2
I agreed and disagreed at some things. It had great suggestions, but I really do not think that dialogue is the last ditch attempt for a desperate writer. Such a statement is more than just a stretch.
 

Purple Rose

practical experience, FTW
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Feb 17, 2011
Messages
2,129
Reaction score
963
Website
alxblog.net
Hi Psychic Toaster, thank you for the link. I found it very helpful, especially as I just received feedback from a freelance editor (who conducts popular NF writing workshops, by the way). She asked me to add dialogue in at least four chapters. If done badly, it will sound contrived and yes, much like a desperate effort at show, don't tell. Thanks again.
 

Susan Coffin

Tell it like it Is
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Aug 24, 2007
Messages
8,098
Reaction score
772
Location
Clearlake Park, CA
Website
www.strokingthepen.com
Thank you for the article, Psychic Toaster. :)

The best way to learn how to write dialogue is to listen to people speak. What rhythm do they use, what words do they choose? Dialogue is often about what is not being said, which often shows what the story is about.
 

TedTheewen

AW's Most Adorable Sociopath
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Mar 7, 2009
Messages
29,483
Reaction score
4,388
Location
In a van parked outside of your house.
Website
tedscreepyvan.blogspot.com
I keep thinking about the dialogue in "The White Elephant", I think it was. It was rather tight.

Someplace I read that dialogue should be kept to 5 words or less per sentence. When I started to use this, it did wonders for the tightness in my work. Also, I've found that what works for me are small keywords to be used sparingly. Personal nicknames for objects, for example. I have a character who uses a lot of drugs and calls narcotics his "happy pills".

Bill Pronzini wrote a novel that had some of the tightest dialogue I have ever read. I can't find the damn title to save my life and my copy of the book was stolen a long time ago. It was about a guy who left Rockford, Illinois and headed to California. It was a suspense/detective story with a wonderful nior quality. If somebody knows of this book, kindly post the name because I totally recommend it and would like to find another copy to the replace the one that was stolen.

Edit: I found this book after searching and cross-referencing for an hour. Anyway, it was called Step to the Grave Easy.

One question I have always wondered about was diction. Some folks get very upset when you write dialogue in ebonics, southern drawl or Bronx/New Yorker. Anybody have a ruling on this one?
 
Last edited:

blacbird

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Mar 21, 2005
Messages
36,988
Reaction score
6,152
Location
The right earlobe of North America
One question I have always wondered about was diction. Some folks get very upset when you write dialogue in ebonics, southern drawl or Bronx/New Yorker. Anybody have a ruling on this one?

"Diction", in terms of word choice, phrasing, etc., isn't a problem. Pseudo-phonetic spelling commonly is. Always remember that standard English is by no means spelled in a strictly phonetic way, so trying to indicate an accent by means of spelling is at best tricky, and can be a real serious reader-irritant.
 

TedTheewen

AW's Most Adorable Sociopath
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Mar 7, 2009
Messages
29,483
Reaction score
4,388
Location
In a van parked outside of your house.
Website
tedscreepyvan.blogspot.com
"Diction", in terms of word choice, phrasing, etc., isn't a problem. Pseudo-phonetic spelling commonly is. Always remember that standard English is by no means spelled in a strictly phonetic way, so trying to indicate an accent by means of spelling is at best tricky, and can be a real serious reader-irritant.


blacbird, that makes sense. The words convey the pronunciation, then? Of course, I can see other ways to work with it by some description. Thanks!
 

NeuroFizz

The grad students did it
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Apr 18, 2005
Messages
9,493
Reaction score
4,283
Location
Coastal North Carolina
I feel empowered. My trilogy about Vampire-Mimes has traction.

Seriously, people interact via spoken language quite frequently. Portraying such in fiction neither weakens it nor is a sign of weak or inadequate storytelling. Unless the OP is talking about story telling rather than storytelling.
 

Purple Rose

practical experience, FTW
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Feb 17, 2011
Messages
2,129
Reaction score
963
Website
alxblog.net
The third and final one is posted. I've edited the first one to clarify some things.

Subtext

Thanks for the third link but it doesn't seem to work. I tried a couple of times but it keeps saying "Page not found". I'll try again later but if you could check it please, that would be splendid. Thanks again PsychicToaster.
 
Status
Not open for further replies.

Featured Book