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April 2017

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Dialogue, Part 1

When I linked to Nathan Bransford's dialogue contest the other day, it occurred  to me that I've never posted here about dialogue.  And yet I love to write dialogue.  In fact, that may be why I've overlooked it as a topic.  Since I struggle more with issues such as plot and pacing, I'm more likely to think about those issues, and post about them.  

But here, at long last and for whatever it's worth, are some thoughts about dialogue.

Good dialogue sounds like conversation, but is not an exact reproduction of conversation.  If you've ever read a verbatim transcript of people speaking, you'll have noticed this.  Nonverbal communication is a significant part of real conversation.  This is why the following overheard conversation may sound incomprehensible:
"And so, he, you know--"
"I was just like, I couldn't even, like--"
"Uh huh."
"Yeah, he's so--"
"Right.  He's like--"
"Yeah, I know!"
but it makes perfect sense to the participants.  When we speak, we may finish a sentence with a gesture, or not finish at all once we see that the other person understands us well enough to finish the sentence in their own minds.  It can be tiresome to list all these nonverbal cues on the printed page, so our job as writers is to fill in the words that are in the participants' minds, the words we wouldn't bother saying if we were interacting face to face.  The same conversation, written as dialogue:
"And so, he, you know, completely ignored me."
"Yeah, I saw."
"I was just, like, stunned.  I couldn't even believe it.  For three weeks he's been calling me and now he acts like, 'Do I know you?'"
"Uh huh."
"He's such a jerk."
"Right.  He's so in love with himself."
"Yeah, I know!"
Aside from finishing the sentences, notice how I slipped in some exposition there too?  This must be done delicately.  One of the easiest ways to ruin dialogue is to plop great chunks of exposition into it, sucking vitality from the writing.  For example:
"Hi, Sally!"
"Hi, Phil.  Where've you been lately?"
"Well, I just finished a cross-country trip where I visited the mother that I haven't seen in thirty years, because I could never forgive her for favoring my brother over me.  But now that I have this brain disease, I've decided that it's time to mend fences, so I packed up the car with my two-year-old bulldog and a cooler full of Sprite, and headed out.  And by the way, about this brain disease, I'm going in for surgery next week, and I sure hope that my fiancee, who's been working on her thesis in Alaska, can come back in time for it.  Oh, and Sally, did you know that I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where I excelled in math and history?"

Getting back to nonverbal cues: While we can't load up every line with them, they can be a telling way to supplement dialogue:
"How does it feel to be getting married?"
"Great."  Lucy's hands curled around her purse handle, and her eyes drifted past me.
"It's next month, right?"
"Yeah."  Ducking her head, Lucy opened her purse and rummaged inside.  "I know I've got a tissue in here somewhere."

Consider this scene with the same spoken words, but different actions:
"How does it feel to be getting married?"
"Great."  Lucy beamed at me.
"It's next month, right?"
"Yeah."  She hugged herself, her eyes glistening.  Then, laughing,  she began to hunt through her purse.  "I know I've got a tissue in here somewhere."

I haven't even gotten into the whole "said" thing, and using dialogue to differentiate characters, but I think I'll save that for another time.   I'll make this post a Part 1, and plunge back into my work in progress now.


You are a genius. Seriously. Well-explicated, lady.
Thanks! Though I make no claim to genius. :-)


Very nice post.

I have to read my dialogue aloud to tell if it works.

Good tip!



I just get stopped cold whenever I read something like "her eyes drifted past me." Hovering disembodied balls of goo trailing optic nerves. . . We do communicate a great deal with our eyes, but I prefer that they stay firmly in the socket during conversations.

In every other regard, I quite agreed with what you wrote.

Re: eyeballs

Oh, I love this comment! Especially "disembodied balls of goo."

I suppose if the eyes don't stay in their sockets, it could make for an interesting horror story. ;-)


OMG, what a great and generous blog. Thank you!

(and I was ROFL over the eyeball comment)!
Thanks for stopping by!


Poor Phil.
A brain disease and he's not even sure that his fiancee will be able to be in town for the surgery.
At least he's got that cooler full of Sprite and a bulldog.

Wonderful post, Jenn. No wonder Nathan linked to it!
Becky Ramsey :)
Thanks, Becky.
I suppose I could use Phil as an example of stream-of-consciousness as well as exposition-dump!
This is such a good post! Thanks for sharing it with us. It's the sort of thing that sounds so simple, and like it should be easy, but of course it is not. I'm saving this one in my memories to share with others.

I don't dislike dialog but I know I have a tendency to go overboard with too much interior talk and not enough of the real kind.
Thanks, Susan.

So many things that seem like they should be easy are not!