Friday, September 7, 2012

Dialogue Decisions--How to Choose When to Use Dialogue (and What Kind) in Your Fiction and Nonfiction Writing

Dialogue isn't easy to write well.  In fact, it is one of the red flags that editors use to spot an amateur writer.  Maybe it's because beginning writers use dialogue more as a vehicle to deliver information than for its primary purpose:  to increase tension and emotion in a scene.

Both fiction and nonfiction writers need to know dialogue skills.  Nonfiction writers, memoir to how-to, now incorporate at least 50 percent scenes in their books.  Scenes include action and dialogue.  If you can't write a good scene, your book won't sing. 

So how do you learn to write great dialogue?   

I was taught a two-step  method that serves me well.  Step 1:  Learn to listen to how human beings talk--and how they don't listen to each other.  Step 2:  Learn to pare down the real-life dialogue into dialogue that works on the page.

Learning to Listen
My early writing teachers gave an assignment that I still use.  Go to a place where people are talking and where you can eavesdrop.  I had a favorite cafe.  I took my laptop and scribed the amazing lines of dialogue that bounced around me there.  I also scribed dialogue in doctors' waiting rooms, train stations, on airplanes, and anywhere else people were talking.

The more I did this, the more I noticed how little we really listen to each other.  My favorite example was at a Thanksgiving dinner where I was a guest.  I can't remember the exact words (I couldn't write at the table), but here's the gist of it. 

College-aged girl:  Mom, Dad, I have something important to tell you.
Mom:  Sally, please pass the peas to your brother.  He's not eating enough.  You know he's got a game next week. 
Dad:  You'll never believe what I saw today.
Teenage son:  The guys are getting together tonight, and I wondered . . .     
College-age girl:  It's pretty important.  I don't know how to tell you. . .  

Four people with four different trains of thought.  Very few intersections.  If you listen to conversations, you'll find this happens pretty often.   

From this I learned that dialogue mostly reveals what's not being said.  The interesting dialogue, that is.  It hints at boiling undercurrents.

Listening can also teach you how we talk:  how we use contractions (don't instead of do not) in conversation, how we interrupt each other frequently, how often we change the subject, how we use slang and dialect.  Scribe these too.

One of my favorite lines of dialogue, overheard in a doctor's office, was "You can't use turnips for that!"  I still haven't found a way to use it in my stories.

Paring Down Real-Life Dialogue
Literary dialogue doesn't give all the information and fillers that occur in real-life dialogue.  So it has to be pared down.  

1. Omit anything that's just passing time--unless it hints at underlying emotion.  For example, I take out any "hi" and "hello" and "how are you?" and "bye, now"--these are essential social lubricants but they just fill space.  Which readers don't enjoy, in books.   

2.  Change all your verbs to contractions--"I am" goes to "I'm"--unless your character is not a native speaker of English.  Contractions sound natural; not using them tells the reader that the character is stilted, uncomfortable.

3.  Shorten sentences in dialogue.  A LOT!  I try to keep tension and movement in my dialogue with this rule of thumb:  sentences no longer than seven words.  Three to five is better.

4.  Create interruption, beats, pauses, and hiccups in the dialogue.  Remember that people often interrupt or don't answer in real-life conversations.  Where can you break your dialogue into non-responses, interjections, changes of subject?  This will create wonderful tension and pacing.

Why Phone Calls, Diary/Journal Entries, and Emails Are Challenging Forms for Communicating Emotion via Dialogue    
Dialogue is only a small part of communication.  We also read people's emotions via gestures, eye movement, facial expressions.  In literature, you can add setting to the mix--whatever the character notices while speaking or during pauses.  All of this creates the emotion the reader takes away.

So if you have dialogue that's only voices--such as an email or a phone call--we miss out on a lot of the potential.   

Sometimes you have information to communicate.  And sometimes the players in a scene aren't all in the same room.  So how do you do this?  Mary K., one of my long-time students from Minneapolis, is writing a book about her daughter Maja, who came out to her as lesbian.  At one point in her book, Mary needs to tell Maja about a new ruling in the Lutheran church that allows same-sex couples in committed relationships to be ministers.  This is key because Maja's partner, Cara, is in training as a minister.  But Mary is in Minneapolis, and Maja and Cara are in Sioux Falls.

Mary originally wrote the scene as a phone call.  But when we discussed it at the Madeline Island retreat this summer, we decided it registered low on reader response--not emotional enough for such a key event.  We're missing Maja and Cara's excitement, and Mary's own joy for this new step of freedom for her daughter.   

I wondered why Mary had chosen dialogue to communicate this information.  Although she was trying hard to use more scene in her book, perhaps this was not the best place for it.  Mary asked about more options:  Cara and Maja talking afterward about the phone call? Possible, I said.  But did she want to change Cara and Maja into point of view characters?  Right now, it's a memoir and she's the main character--all the chapters have her as a participant.  She'd be absent from this scene.   Dialogue that takes place away from the main character is awkward in memoirs.  It feels as if the author is using a very visible device to deliver information.   

If she was set on a scene, instead of just summarized narrative ("I told Maja and Cara about the church's decision and I could hear their excitement over the phone."), she needed to bring in her location a lot more.  And she needed to recreate the dialogue so that it was pared down to tenser stuff.

For example:
*  add in sensory detail about the room she was in during the call
*  add in objects in that room--a photo? something that showed how far they had come?
*  add in weather and season--was it snowing outside, raining, sunny in the room?
*  add in body sensations--how did her throat feel when she told them, tight or open?

These clues give a reader emotion when the dialogue is low-key.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
This exercise will help you learn to write good dialogue.  It uses the two-step method described above.

1.  Spend an hour this week taking dialogue notes, as you listen to people's conversations--in your family, with friends, at work, at the gym, wherever.  Use a small notebook or the recording device on your phone.  

2.  Print out your favorites from these lines of dialogue. 

3.  Look at the rhythm:  how often do people interrupt, pause, change subject?  Look at the different voices of each speaker:  can you tell who's talking by their choice of words, contractions, dialect?

4.  Find a section of dialogue in your book or other writing you're working on.  Compare notes with what you learned from listening.  Where can you trim, add better pacing, interrupt more? 


  1. I just have to say that I love the pictures on this blog – especially the coloring. Absolutely gorgeous!