Dialogue is a sticky point for many writers. It’s hard to make characters talk convincingly and move the story forward. But it’s not impossible, especially as you become comfortable with it. I use a concept I call “dialogue as action” to keep the flow in my writing while letting characters shine through.
Part of the reason for this is that it’s tricky to envision dialogue as a concept that stands alone. Is dialogue something that you’re capturing as a natural flow of a scene; does something happen and then a character says something in response? Is dialogue serving as exposition, conveying information the reader needs?
These are problems more often than they’re solutions. You can use dialogue to show a character’s reactions, of course. You can use it to tell the reader something about the world.
But it overlooks two things.
The reason we talk to each other in reality is communication. Dialogue between two people is going to center around that. I could talk about that at length, but I love the book Self Editing for Fiction Writers and it goes into better detail than I can and I’d just be ripping it off. The short of it is that you need to remember that people are great communicators, but bad at communicating when they’ve got something else on their minds. They’ll misdirect, lie, hem and haw, or respond to something other than what the other person said, though you need to be judicious in how this impacts your prose.
And that’s because in stories, dialogue has another purpose. I’ve written about dialogue before, but today I’m going to focus on ways to make it work in your writing.
Dialogue As Action
Obviously there are times when dialogue is used to show something.
If I write a cold open a story with a character saying something like “Good heavens!” or “Dammit!” I’ve created a certain understanding about what’s going on.
But these exclamations are only a single example of dialogue as action.
Dialogue as action takes the theory of dialogue as communication and pushes it a step further.
When a character says something, they’re doing it to communicate, but they’re also using their words as a means to an end.When a character says something, they're doing it to communicate, but they're also using their words as a means to an end. Click To Tweet
The secret to avoiding lousy dialogue is to think about what action a character is getting at.
Then you chisel away any part of their speech that doesn’t do what you need it to.
Rule 1: People Are Lazy
One thing that I often see people do with first drafts in workshops is provide dialogue that gives too much information.
Sometimes this is inappropriate because of a scene. If there’s an emergency or danger, people will not talk a lot unless they’re stalling other people for time, and this sticks out to people.
However, more often long dialogue is a problem because people are lazy.
There are people (myself included) who will talk your ears off. But even we want to get to the point from time to time, even if we over-share and we love the sound of our own voices.
When people want to say something, though, they say it. They’re not Sir Humphrey from Yes, Minister (unless they are, for comedic purposes), and they will either blurt out what’s on their mind or structure it a little before they say it, but they rarely beat around the bush.
Note: The exception to beating around the bush is when a character’s hiding something during dialogue. This should either be brief or the subject of an inquisitive response, and should never draw out.
Writing from the perspective of dialogue as action is a salutary reminder to cut to the chase. People will do the minimum required to meet their goals because that’s a decent strategy; it’s only when they err on the side of doing too little that things go wrong.
Rule 2: Focus on the Reader
Dialogue in fiction is always artificial. Readers know this, because all fiction, regardless of how true it is to its inspiration, is artificial. A story endures a lengthy process of being transformed and handled and edited to reach its final draft.
The solution to this is suspension of disbelief. People will overlook the fact that you’re not building reality for them, because that’s the game you’re playing with them.
Do this in dialogue. I have, on rare occasions, seen instances of an apparently normal conversation that has a lot of depth. The ordinary etiquette and banter hides metaphorical daggers during a confrontation between two characters.
But most of the time, your audience will ignore the fact that people are talking with some rules changed, so long as it’s the omission of things that you’d normally say. Fake talk works when it’s too streamlined, too clear (to a limit), and too polished. You leave out most of the ums and ahs, and with good reason. Leave out other things that we don’t need.
If the party last Friday was great, but it’s not relevant to the story, don’t bring it up. I see this happen when writers use dialogue as exposition, trying to build a relationship between characters.
But your reader is exploring your story. You don’t need exposition for things that already clear for the reader, and most of the time it pops up in dialogue it brings with it the wrong kind of artificiality.You don't need exposition for things that already clear for the reader, and most of the time it pops up in dialogue it brings with it the wrong kind of artificiality. Click To Tweet
When characters talk, there’s an in-narrative goal. But it’s also going to be about showing the readers something happening. A heartfelt apology is an action. The hour-long process of sorting out grievances and agreeing to bury the hatchet isn’t.
There’s room for that if you’re very careful, but it’s still going to be lighter than it is in reality. We make characters from aspects, and readers expect them to behave in line with that. They’ll fill in the gaps.
Rule 3: Things Happen Off-Stage
One roadblock that I see people hit is the idea that every interaction between people needs to be highlighted. Many of these people rightly understand that they can streamline conversations down to actions (e.g. just saying that someone apologizes instead of doing it in dialogue when the perspective permits), but they don’t understand that we don’t have to see everything that happens between characters.
I had a lot of this when I was writing my first novel. The protagonist spends most of the novel interacting with strangers, and the temptation was to over-develop those relationships.
People should talk, of course. But there’s a limit. Conversations have a way of following their own logic, and they can be very short and telling or drag on.
A lot of these are not even necessary. People fill each other in, and you can easily cue these things up to happen via a one or two sentence description (“Brett caught us up on the situation, and we were ready to…”) or even gloss over them.
Further, think about whether you’re moving forward with something. If at the end of a piece of dialogue nothing in the story has changed, it’s an excellent candidate for the cutting room floor. At the very least minimize it to the bare bones, even if you’re a writer who can make dialogue sing and whose characters ooze personality and charisma.
If people are just supposed to have good relationships with each other, you don’t need to show every link in the development of that relationship or even its maintenance over the course of the story. If nothing changes, save it for off-stage.
Think about the role each section of dialogue plays in your writing.
If it has some action to it, it deserves to stay. If the action is buried too deep beneath other stuff, figure out a way to bring it to the surface.
This will help with knowing whether a piece of dialogue belongs in your story and also can help characters’ interactions seem natural.