Wednesday, April 4, 2012

D is for Dialogue

“Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a big slab of prose at the start.”
― P.G. Wodehouse

Dialogue used to be really hard for me. 

My characters would say the cheesiest things. I didn't know why they didn't sound authentic. 

I was stuck.

Then I started reading screenwriting books, and books on character, and I started taking a writing class and I learned some important things.

I really started listening to the way people talk.

And I learned that they don't always say what's on their mind. They speak in fragments, and dodge questions, and almost always use contractions.

And then I started to let my characters speak for themselves.

That's the thing. I used to make my characters say what I wanted them to say, not what they wanted to say. When I actually started listening to them, I began to write better dialogue.

Before, I would approach a scene and ask myself what does my MC need to say in this scene?

But what I should have been asking was what would my MC say if he were in this situation?

I was forcing the dialogue rather than letting it flow out as a product of character.

So now, when I'm writing dialogue, I don't think to myself what do I want my character to say next. I stop for a minute and listen to them and ask myself what do my characters want to say next.

Sure, I, as the author, have goals and ideas for how this scene will be played out, and I do shape the dialogue to meet those goals.

I don't let the characters talk as long as they want or say whatever they want. I trim it here and there as needed.

Think of it like recording a conversation between two people. If you were putting it into, say, a memoir, you wouldn't just include the transcript. You would trim out all the unnecessary parts - the small talk, the pauses, the off topic bits.

What parts would you keep? The parts that either

a) reveal character 
b)advance the story

If your character's conversations are doing both, then you're achieving the purpose of good dialogue.

Writing dialogue should be more like eavesdropping than putting words in people's mouths.

You listen to your characters, hear what they're saying to each other, and write down the relevant bits of the conversation.

It's part of delving into their character to try to find out what motivates them, what they say, think, do, how they react. Because what they say shows us a lot about the way they are.

Why does bad dialogue annoy us so much in books and TV?

Because dialogue is supposed to reveal character, and weak dialogue implies weak or poorly developed character.

So if you want to write strong dialogue, then listen to your characters, cut the unnecessary parts, and keep in mind that the goal is to reveal character.
"The world requires me to re-write its wretched dialogue!”
Do you struggle with dialogue, or does it come easily for you? What helps you with writing good dialogue? What are some things that characters say in books or TV that annoy you? 
Let me know by commenting!


  1. I enjoyed your dialogue in your short story submission for Inkblots. Looking forward to discussing it at our next meeting.

    1. Yes, me too. I'm eager to hear what you all thought of it. :)

  2. I came to writing via playwriting so dialogue has always been my anchor. If anything, I tend to overdo it in my MS.

    1. I know what you mean by overdoing it - I've had some people read my writing and complain that I put too much dialogue and too little action. :)

  3. Oh I hear you Lauren. I have a problem with dialogue. Like now I'm writing a YA story, and it's not easy trying to make the dialogue sound like a teen. I'm reading alot YA books right now, and watching TV series. The dialogue in my Adult contemp was much easier than the YA. mmmh. I'm all ears and eyes not, absorbing everything and anything. Thanks for commenting on my post. A thanks for sharing this wonderful post.

    1. You're welcome! I like sitting and listening to conversations, just trying to absorb the way people talk. I hope your dialogue works out. :)

  4. Wow, what a great post! I feel like I just took a dialogue writing seminar. Thanks so much! I'm a talker, so my characters probably talk too much, but it's easier to cut than to add, in my opinion. I tend to just spew out words, edit later. A real good brain dump is very stress-relieving.
    Thanks for your kind words about my Swedish lessons. If there's anything in particular you'd like your character to say, let me know. I'd be delighted to help you. I still have E, P, and R undecided. Although I'll probably figure out E, considering it's TOMORROW. Sigh. I'm probably the only co-host who didn't pre-write and schedule their posts. I lost my notebook of all my notes for two weeks. Found it though!
    I hope you're enjoying the challenge,
    Tina @ Life is Good
    Co-Host of the April A to Z Challenge
    Twitter: @AprilA2Z #atozchallenge

    1. Haha, thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

      I'll let you know if I come across anything particular I'd like to translate. Thank you!

  5. When I started writing fiction, I had the most terrible time with dialogue. A lot of it had to do with the fact that my characters were several years older than I was (I was barely a teen and they were entering their 20's). My characterization was shaking at best too. Dialogue also goes hand-in-hand with characterization. If you base a character heavily on stereotypes (the cheerleader, jock, nerd, etc) then they will say a lot of cheesy things based on those stereotypes.

    "Writing dialogue should be more like eavesdropping than putting words in people's mouths." --- so true and this is great advice.

    Sarah @ The Writer's Experiment

    1. I agree about the stereotypes. A lot of the cliche things characters say are because they are stereotypes, and not real people.

      I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

  6. Excellent post! This is great advice - I sometimes jump in and speak for my characters, and then during revisions it sticks out like a sore thumb.

    Thanks for following me - I'm a new follower,too ;)

    1. Hey, thanks for following me back! :)

  7. Great post - you've really put your finger on it by saying you should let your characters speak for themselves. Mind you, sometimes they take the story where you didn't want it to go!

    1. Isn't it fascinating when characters come to life and take the story in a different direction? :)

  8. This was an excellent post, pat yourself on the back! You definately hit the nail on the head - dialogue is actually quite difficult to write, especially to write it in the way your particular character speaks. Anyone who states otherwise, either has a gift or doeI swallowed hard.


  9. I've found it really helpful to read it outloud. That will tell you more quickly than anything else I've found whether the dialogue sounds authentic.

    1. Yes, I agree. Sometimes I say the conversation out loud before I even write it down (which sometimes gets me odd looks from anyone who happens to be in the room with me.)



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