Shelley Widhalm

Telling Dialogue in Stories

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing on February 5, 2012 at 10:00 am

A writer good at dialogue doesn’t have to be good at conversation.

Dropping a conversation, recorded verbatim or that imitates actual talk, directly into a story would bore most readers.

Dialogue is one of those elements of fiction that if done poorly slows the pace of a story, distracting from the forward motion of the plot.

Unlike dialogue, conversations start with introductions and are peppered with fillers, like um, oh, sure, okay and other one-syllable words.

“Hi, Anna,” I said. “How are you?”

“Fine. And you?”

“Good. It’s such a beautiful day.”

“Not for me. It’s raining,” said Amie (who lives in Seattle or Washington, D.C., where rain is the norm).

Not very interesting, but this is what happens when we talk.

Dialogue has a point and leaves out normal conversational natter, like the “hi’s” and “how are you’s.”

It edits out the repetitions, tangents and diversions that occur in conversation.

It economizes by skipping introductions.

It winnows down to the key words, removing the subject or creating an ellipses within the sentence. Dropping words adds to the impact of what the characters are saying.

In other words, dialogue must drive the plot.

It shouldn’t be used to tell back story, explaining the incidents that occurred before the story’s opening scene. It shouldn’t give exposition or drop in information better left to the narrative.

Dialogue, as well as facial expressions, gestures and movement, should be used to show what the characters are like. It should show who they are and how they are feeling in the moment.

Dialogue differentiates the characters, so that they don’t all sound the same.

In other words, dialogue communicates a lot using a few words. Conversation doesn’t really have a stopping point, but peters out or ends when someone has to catch a taxi, gets bored or has a very important date.

Dialogue is like butter, too much and that’s what you taste; too little and the toast is dry.

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  1. Great advice. As writers, we know that “Hi, how are you?” and “Hi, I’m fine. How are you?” is boring but it’s critical to realise every line must also forward plot–opposed to merely sounding interesting.

  2. Absolutely. Dialogue in my early drafts can be painful to read when I go back and edit it. But those early fumbles give me a starting point and get the ideas out there. Just like descriptions and backgrounds, it goes through rounds of polishing to smooth it into an easily flowing whole.

    (Well, I hope so, anyway!)

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