DANGEROUS DIALOGUE – How to avoid dialogue disasters

Dialogue is an important tool in the writer’s kit, when used correctly. 

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Great dialogue makes your writing come alive. As the most mimetic of writing forms, it brings the reader and writer together in story time and is the ultimate in SHOWING rather than TELLING. Dialogue breaks up the page and breathes life into scenes, engaging the reader in real time. Good dialogue shows us who our characters are and brings surprising plot turns. 

Some people struggle to include any dialogue at all and find writing credible exchanges between characters difficult. However, recently I’ve encountered a few manuscripts where the writers have fallen in love with dialogue, or so it seems, and have tried to write almost whole novels primarily in dialogue, at the expense of world building, action and setting details and readers being able to visualise scenes. So how much dialogue is too much?

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I love dialogue and I’ve written and read a few short stories that are primarily told in dialogue – see Denis Johnson’s “Steady Hands at Seattle General” for a fabulous example. This great story is written almost only in dialogue and yet it still makes sense. How? Johnson makes sure that the reader is grounded in where and when this story takes place in a few simple lines of exposition at the start of the story. As long as we know where we are, who we’re with and what’s going on, you can get away with pretty much anything but GROUNDING THE READER in a concrete setting is essential, especially when writing primarily in dialogue. Otherwise, it feels like voices yelling in a void and the reader is unable to visualise what’s going on. And a short story is a snapshot of a moment in time, not an entire complex story interweaving the experiences of many that demands more explanation and grounding.

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Dialogue is great to bring our characters to life but it’s not effective to use dialogue to fill in whole passages of backstory or to fill in world building details. If you find your dialogue running into paragraphs of explanation of who or why something is happening, stop and think. Put the most important information in dialogue –  the information that gives us the most clues about the character who is speaking – then take the rest of the dialogue and paraphrase it so the world building details are still there but not in a long-winded monologue. 

In screenwriting we tell stories not only in dialogue but in the scene headings and the actions blocks which establish where we are and what’s going on. In screenplays we have the huge advantage of the audience being able to see and hear actors playing our characters within a setting and situation. We don’t have that advantage in prose so we need to fill in those other details so the reader can picture what’s going on and what the characters are doing as they speak.

When writing prose, we need to establish that setting and situation and show our characters acting and interacting with that environment and each other beyond the lines of dialogue. Then the reader is able to visualise what’s playing out – as if on a movie screen. Without enough clues to create that picture, only a whole lot of dialogue floating in space, the reader is left floundering.

Use dialogue to show us the best and worst of your characters. Have them say one thing then do the opposite. Have them lie about something we’ve just seen happen to someone else, or pretend it never happened.

What is she saying?

Use dialogue to reveal a sudden plot twist, but don’t tell the whole story in speech. 

Take a look at your use of dialogue. A little on every page is a good idea, but if you find you don’t have any, then add some in. Alternatively, if you find whole pages of dialogue without any setting or action details, with characters explaining the plot or telling their life stories, think again. Break up these sections with some straight exposition establishing setting and intersperse characters’ actions and reactions, some introspection and just plain telling to make sure the reader can visualise the scene in their own imaginations.

Ungrounded dialogue can feel like you’re listening to disembodied voices from outer space!

For more advice on writing dialogue see my Dos and Don’ts for Dialogue.

Do you like writing dialogue? How much is too much for you?

Write like the wind!

Lots of love

Edwina xx


Happy Yogi
Happy Yogi

I love September, not only does it herald spring here in Australia, it’s also my yoga birthday. YAY! Yes, I’ve just had my 28th yoga birthday and am entering my 29th year of daily self-practice. I’ve learnt that the motto of Astanga, my first yoga school, “Do your practice and all is coming” is true. For everything.

Dream yoga spot on Magnetic Island 🙂

            I was first introduced to yoga in the 1980s and had already been doing a few postures and practicing mindfulness when I met an Astanga practitioner who gave me a print out of the primary series of postures when I was travelling in Cambodia in 1993. Brian led me through a few sessions of the dynamic and powerful practice and I was instantly hooked. Through yoga I was able to replace negative habits with this good one. Every morning I got up and did the practice, even after Brian travelled on. I didn’t have a mat or a teacher, only that piece of paper with stick figure drawings showing me the way forward.

This is a slightly fancier version

            It wasn’t until after some five years of daily practice, and the birth of my daughter, that I attended a yoga class. My first proper yoga teacher, Ian, was a strict Astangi and we were not allowed to progress beyond the primary series of postures until we had mastered all of them. As a short round woman, I knew this may never happen, so after the birth of my son, I found another teacher Peter, who, although based in the Astanga practice I loved, also included postures from other series and schools of yoga. He also introduced me to pranayama which now, after many years of daily practice, gives me great delight.

            Yoga is not for everyone, I know that. But it has been my life’s greatest teacher, my healer, my best friend, my comfort, my challenge and my joy. My yoga mats have caught more than their fair share of tears as the practice unearthed each and every grief and pain I had suppressed and brought to the surface in bouts of unrestrained weeping. My mats have seen me dancing with joy and taught me how to laugh even in the middle of a difficult challenge. In combination with writing, which helped me to express and process the emotions yoga brought to the surface, yoga has healed my life.

Kerry and I showing off 🙂

            Every day I come home to myself on my mat or out in nature. I am not a strict Astangi any more, but I still like a vigorous practice. I’ve learned that yoga is never wrong. You can always practice, though perhaps not doing demanding poses when you are injured or upset. Sometimes all we need to do is breathe, release slowly in gentle seated poses, or lying on our backs. Sometimes all we need to do is to rest in the peace and joy of our own hearts. No religion necessary. Find your own way to the Divine, back home to yourself. 

For me, the mat and movement combined with breath has brought me everything. So thank you yoga, for being my path. Thank you to all my teachers, from the very first to the last. I am so grateful for all this practice has brought me and for all it has yet to bring.

Lakshmi, Hindu goddess of abundance, love and success
Lakshmi – who knows maybe one day I’ll float up to heaven between two elephants 🙂

I hope you have a way to come home to yourself every day too. It doesn’t have to be yoga, anything that takes you out of your head and into your body will do, gardening, walking, swimming, cycling, just please UNPLUG when you do so. Let your thoughts roam free and if this idea scares you it means you really need to let them go. Learn to turn your thoughts into your best friend not your critic, enjoy moving your body and finding the joy in your heart.

Wishing you all the greatest of joys and the happiest of hearts.

Lots of love

Edwina xxx