Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Dialoguing or Rambling?

How mindful are you when you write dialogues? In real life we get away with rambling, but in fiction? It’s a big no-no. I’m editing a story where my dialogue sounds more like characters in a reality TV show. So I decided to share with you an article I read back in January, by James Scott Bell about seven tools he considers important when writing dialogue.

When you write the first draft of a scene, let the dialogue flow. In fact, you can often come up with a dynamic scene by writing the dialogue first. Record what your characters are arguing about, stewing over, revealing. Write it all as fast as you can. As you do, pay no attention to attributions (who said what). Just write the lines.

Once you get these on the page, you will have a good idea of what the scene is all about. And it may be something different than you anticipated, which is good. Now you can go back and write the narrative that goes with the scene, and the normal speaker attributions and tags.

Make up a scene between two characters in conflict. Then start an argument. Go back and forth, changing your actual physical location. Allow a slight pause as you switch, giving yourself time to come up with a response in each character’s voice.

One of the most common mistakes aspiring writers make with dialogue is creating a simple back-and-forth exchange. Each line responds directly to the previous line, often repeating a word or phrase (an “echo”). It looks something like this:
“Hello, Mary.”
“Hi, Sylvia.”
“My, that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.”
“Outfit? You mean this old thing?”
“Old thing! It looks practically new.”
“It’s not new, but thank you for saying so.”

This sort of dialogue is “on the nose.” There are no surprises, and the reader drifts along with little interest. While some direct response is fine, your dialogue will be stronger if you sidestep the obvious:

“Hello, Mary.”
“Sylvia. I didn’t see you.”
“My, that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.”
“Where is he, Sylvia?”

Hmm. Who is “he”? And why should Sylvia know? The point is there are innumerable directions in which the sidestep technique can go. Experiment to find a path that works best for you. Look at a section of your dialogue and change some direct responses into off-center retorts.

A powerful variation on the sidestep is silence. It is often the best choice, no matter what words you might come up with. Hemingway was a master at this. Consider this excerpt from his short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” A man and a woman are having a drink at a train station in Spain. The man speaks:

“Should we have another drink?”
“All right.”
The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table.
“The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said.
“It’s lovely,” the girl said.
“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.

In this story, the man is trying to convince the girl to have an abortion (a word that does not appear anywhere in the text). Her silence is reaction enough. By using a combination of sidestep, silence and action, Hemingway gets the point across through a brief, compelling exchange.

We’ve all had those moments when we wake up and have the perfect response for a conversation that took place the night before. Wouldn’t we all like to have those bon mots at a moment’s notice?
Your characters can. That’s part of the fun of being a fiction writer. I have a somewhat arbitrary rule—one gem per quarter. Divide your novel into fourths. When you polish your dialogue, find those opportunities in each quarter to polish a gem.

Many writers struggle with exposition in their novels. Often they heap it on in large chunks of straight narrative. Backstory—what happens before the novel opens—is especially troublesome. How can we give the essentials and avoid a mere information drop?

Use dialogue. First, create a tension-filled scene, usually between two characters. Get them arguing, confronting each other. Then have the information appear in the natural course of things. Here is the clunky way to do it:

John Davenport was a doctor fleeing from a terrible past. He had been drummed out of the profession for bungling an operation while he was drunk. Instead, place this backstory in a scene in which John is confronted by a patient who is aware of the doctor’s past:

“I know who you are,” Charles said.
“You know nothing,” John said.
“You’re that doctor.”
“If you don’t mind I—”
“From Hopkins. You killed a woman because you were soused. Yeah, that’s it.”

And so forth. This is a much underused method, but it not only gives weight to your dialogue, it increases the pace of your story.

This is a favorite technique of dialogue master Elmore Leonard. By excising a single word here and there, he creates a feeling of verisimilitude in his dialogue. It sounds like real speech, though it is really nothing of the sort. All of Leonard’s dialogue contributes to characterization and story.

Here is a standard exchange:
“Your dog was killed?
“Yes, run over by a car.”
“What did you call it?”
“It was a she. I called her Tuffy.”

This is the way Leonard did it in Out of Sight:
“Your dog was killed?”
“Got run over by a car.”
“What did you call it?”
“Was a she, name Tuffy.”

It sounds so natural, yet is lean and meaningful. Notice it’s all a matter of a few words dropped, leaving the feeling of real speech.
As with any technique, there’s always a danger of overdoing it. Pick your spots and your characters with careful precision and focus, and your dialogue will thank you for it later.


  1. Great article, Claudia. Thanks for sharing. For me, writing dialog is easy. I just imagine two real people talking and try to write a conversation that’s as realistic as possible.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful advice. You're absolutely right; dialogue that sounds good one day sounds absolutely terrible the next, and that you can polish a gem after thinking about it.

  3. Excellent points . Nothing dissuades me more from a story than bad dialogue. Number 3 & 4 are great advice ( perfect example for number 4 ) , I hate being told the obvious. Colloquialism is important to remember when writing dialogue.

  4. @ Carol: Thanks for stopping by!
    @ Angelina: Even if it's realistic dialogue, you still have some leeway to create a dialogue that best suits your work.
    @ SH: Nice to see you around again. I'll stop by your place to see what you're up these days.
    @ Charlie: Glad you agree. I, too, dislike boring or on the nose dialogue :(

  5. Thanks for a very handy and practical advice on how to polish up dialogue - I particularly liek the acting out advice - fun to see your characters argue !! Take care

  6. Great Post Claudia! I printed it out to keep with me as a guide. I'm editing my novel right now, and I'm going to see if I can make any improvements using any of these methods, so thanks!

    Also, thanks for adding me to your side bar, and I've also added you to mine. :)

  7. Hi Kitty!
    Let me know how the acting out goes ;)
    I do believe in economy of words, I learned the hard way. ;) That's why I like Hemingway.

    Hi Racquel,
    Happy to help! I'll follow it as well as I still struggle with some aspects of it.
    Keep writing!
    P.S. Glad we're on each other's blogroll.

  8. Great post. Especially liked the part about silence, and the Hemingway example.

  9. Hi Chris,
    I like Hemingway, so this is why agree with this example ;)
    Dialogue is so important because it also helps the tone of the scene and/or the story.

  10. Good find, Claudia. I'm a fan of JSB's advice. Thanks for the post.

  11. right when i have issues with something, you come out and write about it, I have had this feeling that while realistic my dialogue lacked a certain je ne sais quoi and you nailed it for me I need to find those gems - Thats what am missing.

  12. Hi Adam,
    You're welcome! BTW, great interview with Sara!

    Hi Joanna,
    Glad to hear these tips came in handy.

  13. Yep, these are all great. Thanks so much for these friendly reminders.

  14. Claudia,
    I really liked your post. Great tips.

    Thanks for sharing!


  15. Hi Anna,
    Long time no see! Nice to see you in my neighborhood again ;)

    Hi Doris,
    Glad you liked them. I'm applying them to my current story.

  16. Nice blogging.

    You have an award waiting for you on my site: Footsteps of a Writer:

  17. I just love this blog. Dialogue is so difficult to write. I've been blessed with a knack for it. I just go with the flow, feel my characters moods.

  18. Hi Cher,
    Woohoo! Another blog award! Thank you so much!
    I'll drop by your blog to claim my award ;)

    Hi Henya,
    Yes, believe me, my stories still suffer from bad dialogue syndrome from time to time. ;)
    That's why I decided this article from J.S. Bell. I thought it would come in handy.

  19. I've always been bad with much so that I avoid dialogues while writing...but a few of these tips might help...will try soon...

  20. @ caterpillar,
    When you do, pls let me know if they helped. ;)