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

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

As writers, our primary aim is to keep readers turning the page, glued to our story, compelled to read on way past bedtime. To keep readers up at night, they need to be invested in our story, connected to our characters and their goals. 

Jayne Mansfield had to keep reading even in the bath!

If a character has no opposition to those goals, then the story is over very quickly. 

EG. Maya wants to become a singer, wins a talent competition and is signed to a major label. That may be how the dream goes, but without opposition your story is over in a page.

We need to make that goal hard to attain. Anything we work hard for we value more than something given to us too easily. I think that’s why childbirth is often such an arduous process. After a woman has been battling contractions for hours, her baby is extra precious to her. She’ll kill to protect the tiny being she’s worked so hard for.

So when we create our stories we need to make sure our characters have something to fight against or overcome. 

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EG: Maya wants to become a singer. She enters a competition, but her parents refuse to let her attend and lock her in her room. 

Even more than this, something needs to be at risk, to hang in the balance. 

EG: Maya wants to become a singer and she enters a competition, but her parents refuse to let her attend and lock her in her room. But if Maya doesn’t go then she won’t be able to win the prize money to pay for her best friend’s operation.

What’s at stake? Her best friend’s life! As well as Maya’s chance at stardom. That’s going to keep us up at night.

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If we look at the primary building block of story – the one sentence “logline” or story idea – it goes something like this. 

Our Adjective but contrasting Adjective Protagonist must DO SOMETHING or else RISK SOMETHING IMPORTANT to them. 

For example:

Helen, a fearless but hot-tempered astronaut must intercept and destroy the meteor before it collides with the earth and destroys the planet.

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Of course, what’s at stake doesn’t have to be something huge like the end of the world – you can after all drown in a puddle – but it has to at least FEEL like the end of the world to your character.

As an editor I often see stories without enough at stake. 

A traveller wants to see the world. This is not a story but a travel journal or an article in a travel magazine.

A young man is conscripted to a war that’s almost over and never sees a day of fighting. The natural risk of warfare is missing. In this case nothing is at stake, except maybe he’ll die of boredom.

This makes it very difficult to sustain a full-length manuscript.  

However, in most cases there is usually something at stake if you dig deep enough. Or you can use the power of your imagination. 

If the traveller is escaping a dark past, trying to outrun a dangerous ex-lover, then you have a story. What’s at stake? It could well be the traveller’s life. Now we have a story.

If the young man’s girlfriend is back at home alone and pregnant, then he is risking a lot. Would he attempt to go AWOL to get back to her? 

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We need to keep the reader in fear of that risk becoming a reality. That balance between HOPE AND FEAR.

If we try to keep to the facts of a story too closely, as we must when writing memoir, there may not naturally be enough at stake. That’s where the freeing power of fiction comes in. 

Your essential human truth will still shine through a story that has been fiddled with to create a more compelling narrative. Storytellers have been doing this since we spun our first yarn around the first campfires.

Without an element of risk, something at stake, any conflict is diminished, and we all know that conflict drives stories forward.

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Is there a crocodile hidden under this peaceful stream, or maybe rapids just around the corner?

What’s at stake in your story? Is something hanging in the balance? If not, what could be? Have fun figuring out what’s at risk.

Hope this was useful.

Lots of love

Edwina xx