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

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