Talk it Out: Thoughts on Dialogue

I’ve been writing since I was little. A lot of my drive to write came from encouragement from my teachers. One thing I heard from grade to grade, and class to class, was the following observation: “You write a lot of dialogue.”

While never framed as a critique outright, I took it as an observation of something I should scale back. There are books, and there are scripts. I prefer to write books (or short stories). While I adore a good screenplay, it’s ultimately a writing medium that I don’t feel is my forte – beyond my knack for a good back-and-forth.

Unlearning my interpretation of my teachers’ observations has been one of the trickier parts of getting back into writing over the past two years. As I write first drafts — always a tough experience — I find myself stopping when I fill a page with a back-and-forth between characters. “It’s a book, not a script,” I tell myself. Then I keep writing – and keep writing dialogue. Cursed habits!

Or maybe they’re not so cursed. Over the past two years, I’ve heard more and more from people who encourage my dialogue habit. The most common refrain is one I’ve discovered firsthand: it’s one of the best ways to show and not tell. This seems odd, since characters speaking a truth is somewhat like telling. But in my own writing, I find that telling sounds more natural when it’s shared in conversation, as opposed to spelled out in narration.

This was my most common revision in Please Give, a trickier story to navigate the “show not tell” fields because it’s written in first person. My first drafts often had the narrator, Beth, possess amazing psychic powers about what the other characters were thinking. If she wasn’t psychic, then she was a lengthy narrator, going on and on about people’s histories and what was what. Sometimes that worked in narration (well, TBD — I’m waiting to hear back from my editor), but most of the time, it was long-winded, clunky, and unnatural. All those adjectives were erased when I converted explanatory narration into dialogue. Why should Beth speak for these people? She – and I, and the reader – can talk to them.

Further, having the characters talk revealed more things to me while writing than I thought possible when trying to speak for them as a narrator. This is true of both my first-person and third-person stories. Conversation can reveal many layers of depth, in ways that narration sometimes can’t.

My editor gave me some sound advice that I’d like to close with. When reading one of my stories, she found it didn’t flow as well as the others. It was also a story with less dialogue than I usually include. She said she realized while reading it that my characters need someone to talk to. I’ve often repeated that to myself when I get stuck on a dialogue-heavy story, because when I move past my doubts and make my characters to speak, I find that she’s right.

I would encourage any of you struggling with dialogue to consider if your characters need the same. Write a bunch of one-liners. Get them to talk to each other. Get them to talk to you. Even if you go back and take out superfluous lines, or add some narration to make it less script-like, or even feel odd writing so many lines, it may end up being the practice that helps your story come further to life.

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