Dialogue in story is like the dressing on a salad – it may not be the crux of the thing, but for better or worse, it dominates the overall flavor.  So while good dialogue can move an otherwise mediocre story along relatively well, bad dialogue is capable of dragging a brilliant one down into the pits of utter Suckdom in just a few bad lines.

Arguably being one of the most important elements of a story, dialogue is also one of the most difficult things to deal with. It’s hard to know when a character should speak and what he or she should say. It gets even harder when a second character with an entirely different personality is required to respond to the first character. For some, dialogue is by far the most harrowing of all storytelling necessities and so the temptation is to avoid it altogether, giving the reader nothing to hold onto but ongoing exposition.

Exposition, in terms of fiction writing, is the method an author uses to convey information such as back story, setting, theme, plot and description, and while being obviously very handy, the general rule of exposition in fiction is this: a little goes a long way. The trouble with too much exposition is that it alienates and disengages the reader. We’ve all read it: page after page of information and details that supposedly need remembering (raise your hand if you gave one or more exhausted sigh of impatience while Oscar Wilde expounded upon the brilliant details of Dorian’s fine things for an entire chapter in The Picture of Dorian Gray). Often times, we skim over exposition to get to the “action” and find at the end of the story that we didn’t really miss anything by skipping over the exposition anyway.

Speaking of Oscar Wilde, It could be (and often is) argued that many of the literary geniuses of the past relied heavily on exposition and it didn’t seem to hinder their effectiveness. That is true, but our attention spans aren’t what they were 150 years ago so while many of the old-time writer’s of classics may have been able to get away with page after page of describing and expounding, we, generally speaking, can not.

Personally, I prefer writing exposition to dialogue and initially I had a hard time writing verbal exchanges between two or more characters. If I had my way, I’d spend the entire duration of a chapter just setting the scene… but I was taught to never go longer than a page, maybe a page and a half, without some kind of dialogue, and this was an intimidating concept.

The first thing I did once I decided to try to learn to write dialogue was to listen.  I keyed in to the dialogue between strangers in elevators, lovers in restaurants and parents chastising their children. I eavesdropped shamelessly and still do, and as a result, I’ve learned that nine-year old boys do not speak the same way as women in their fifties, people from small towns don’t speak the same way as people from cities and even in a group of several people of roughly the same age, class and creed, every person has his or her own distinct way of speaking. So listening to the people around me was a good place to start.

Another great way to learn to write effective dialogue is to read actively. I use the word actively to distinguish the difference between reading to be entertained and reading to learn. When reading actively, you are analyzing the author’s words; it’s not as much fun as reading for joy, but it’s the first step toward an endless reservoir of a virtually free education. For learning how to write effective dialogue, I pay close attention to how the author not only chooses his words, but when he chooses to insert them. I pay attention to how one character responds to another and take note of my own emotional response to it. Was it riveting? Saddening? Relieving? Terrifying? Then I ask myself why. I go back and re-read the lines that hooked me and try to determine what the author did to inspire such a strong response.

I chose dialogue as this blogs topic because it’s something I am currently struggling with. I’m writing a novel about a young man in a tiny little trailer-park town in BFE where the residents speak Hick, twanging their words with a psuedo-southern drawl and dropping their ING’s like a fire-hot Oxford English dictionary. Considering I grew up in such a town, I didn’t anticipate having any trouble with this. However, as I plug along in this story I am continually faced with issues. For example, although a person may actually say, “Sut’ton” instead of, “Something,” it looks really bad on paper. I can not expect readers to decipher the code. So now I am faced with the dilemma of “how much.” How much improper grammar is enough to maintain the characters’ integrity without eluding the reader? Again, this is another area where what was okay 100 years ago is now a big no-no (raise your hand if Emily Bronte totally lost you in Wuthering Heights whenever Joseph spoke up.) So, for the sake of striking what I hope is a good balance, I am limiting myself to some minor (but still readable) grammatical glitches such as the words, “gonna,” “ain’t,” and “ya’ll”. Also, for most of the characters, I am dropping the G on the majority of words ending in ING.

Another, and probably the most troublesome element of writing dialogue for me is keeping “voice.” Each character has his or her own voice… and one of the main pitfalls of writing fiction is losing that voice. Somehow my cool, stoic Casanova, upon waking to find his one-night stand getting dressed to leave, sits up and says something like, “I really had a good time last night. I hope you did too. When will we see each other again?” Upon re-reading, I realize how out-of-place this is. My stoic womanizer would not say anything of the sort. No, he would light a cigarette, squint through the smoke and say, “You goin’?”

In my opinion, dialogue is the lubricant of the story. It can be used to more effectively define relationships between characters, it is a more powerful way to introduce necessary information than exposition is, and if it’s witty and fresh, it keeps the story from going stale. I am learning to just let my characters talk. I’m realizing that letting go and allowing my characters to speak will not result in them stealing the show and taking the story anywhere I don’t want it to go. Characters are extensions of ourselves and therefore, they share our vision. Worst case scenario, a character gets too talkative. In revisions, it will be easier to delete some of his or her lines than it will be to try to add them in later. Also by not censoring my characters, I’ve learned some important elements of the story that turned out to be useful – so I try to let them talk. I use dialogue as often as it’s acceptable to do so because I’ve learned that when it comes to fictional dialogue, silence is far from golden.

  1. Kim Justesen says:

    Some people struggle with plot, some with dialog, some with character development, some with endings, etc., etc. If writing were easy, everyone and his or her dog would be doing it. You’ve learned so much in the time I’ve known you, and you never cease to amaze me with your ability to learn and adapt. Nice job.

  2. Great post and I loved the analogy of the salad dressing. Good pointers.

  3. Linda Bennett says:

    Fantastic blog, Jared. You are a big help to your readers and I am sure they appreciate it too. I know when I am reading a book, I hate reading all the discriptive parts. To me it is boring and if it is, then I will just put the book down and go on to something else.

  4. Another great article on the mechanics of writing. You are spot on about the modern person’s attention span.

    I couldn’t agree more about dialogue’s ability to keep a story moving. Varying dialogue and exposition is a great way to control pace: more dialogue equals faster pace while exposition slows things down. People also have the tendency to describe their environments, which is great two fold. Not only can you eliminate some exposition, it also pulls double duty as characterization.

    It is really hard to find balance between exposition and dialogue, and some authors obviously do it better than others. Wilde had the tendency to exhaust and bore me in “A Picture for Dorian Gray,” yet Pynchon, while taking some effort on my part, enthralled me with his exposition in “Gravity’s Rainbow.” Then there is Lovecraft who was about as sparse with dialogue as you can get, though I still find his bizarre tales fascinating. I willing to put some effort into what I read so long as the story grips me, but I am, admittedly, a very detail oriented person.

  5. Pynchon is definitely not for everyone. “Gravity’s Rainbow” is dense and sometimes you just have to push yourself along, but it is worth it. The story is both bizarre and beautiful. The “Crying of Lot 49” is a (much) shorter Pynchon novel that would be a good introduction to his style. It’s not the caliber of his later work but it is still a decent novel–though my wife would tend to disagree. She’s not so much of a fan. If you decide to give it a go, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

    • In truth, I don’t mind density and exposition in novels. I know that, generally speaking, it’s not considered the most emotionally effective methods, but many of the books I truly, truly love are filled with line after line of flowery descriptions and essay-like format. It’s hard for me not to go that route in my own writing, to be honest. That being said, I doubt I will have a problem with Pynchon. But which one would you more highly recommend: “Gravity’s Rainbow” or “Crying of Lot 49”?

  6. Sweet, will do. I need to find it and finish up some other reading, but I will definitely read it. Thanks for the recommendation!

  7. myp2p online says:

    Do you have a Facebook fan page for your site?

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