Let’s Talk About Dialogue

A guest post by Art Holcomb.


Here is a truth about human beings . . .

Before there was writing, there was talking.

Dialogue is the most trusted and most human aspect of story. Sure, we love the action and the conflict, but what we seek in a story in order to make it real for us is what the characters actually say to each other. We often skip to that part in a novel because we find it the most relate-able part of any story. It’s what we most naturally connect with.

Dialogue is the vital part of every narrative.

Without it, all you have is description.

As a writing instructor, I spend an extensive amount of time going over the dialogue in my students’ work. . . . Because dialogue IS tough.

Common questions are:

• “How do I make it sound less like writing and more like talking?”
• “How do I decide what needs to be said and when?”
• “How do I manage the subtext?”
• “Is dialogue where I put in all the exposition?”

What’s important to note is that these are all issues which plague writers at every level. Getting the dialogue just right is the difference between a story that grips the reader and one that gives them a reason to lose interest and slip away.

But exactly what is dialogue’s role?

Let’s start with what I think is the single most important tool you can have on the subject:

The Purpose of Dialogue is not to TELL the story.

Because dialogue is really the vehicle for character, theme, mood, plot conflict, mystery, and tension.

Instead of using dialogue to try to spin your tale, we talk about dialogue as the way to:

Deliver the character: We learn more about a character by what they say and how they say it than anything other than their ACTIONS. Dialogue fills in the sketch of whom these people are and why we should care about them in the first place. Perhaps the most important decision a writer makes is not just what the individual characters say, but also when they say it and whether they should say it at all.

Entertain: Think about the last book you read or movie you watched. I know I often skip past to the dialogue when I find myself losing interest in the writing. I think I intuitively think that dialogue offers me the best chance to RECONNECT with the story.

Dialogue is how we hear the humor and the angst, the way we access the emotions, the way we gauge tension, and understand the level of conflict at any point. All these things add to our enjoyment of the story. Dialogue is the equal partner to action; it is the way we fill in the blanks about the characters we long to understand and bond with.

Point to subtext: Dialogue hints and insinuates. It informs and enlightens. It persuades and sways. It whispers its little secrets to our willing ears. And it confirms or denies our judgments about what we’re reading in a more powerful way than action ever could.

Create anticipation: Dialogue is one way the audience is made to “work for their supper”. No story wants to give the reader everything. Mysteries, clues and innuendos are so often first offered through dialogue. And that keeps the audience guessing about what’s coming next.

And if they’re engaged, they’ll keep reading.

So, I have my students keep in mind the following:

1. Each bit of dialogue must have a mission and a goal within the scene. If it’s not doing one of the four points above, CUT IT!

2. Less is truly more. You need to learn how to make your words powerful. Choose just the right word at just the right moment and you’ve made that important character/audience connection that will keep your fans coming back time and time again.

3. Dialogue should seem easy and natural, but that’s not the same as simple. It takes much more workmanship and craft to write a short, potent passage than a long one. If more writers understood this, we’d probably have less mediocre trilogies and more powerful individual novels.

4. Always make it accessible: write “said” and “asked” most of the time, instead of using hissed, begged, stammered and the like, and use the accompanying action to reinforce your meaning. It will make a much greater impact.

5. Dialogue often controls the pace of the story. Just as shorter narrative sentences produce a sense of urgency, short dialogue moves the story along. Short dialogue also increases the tension in the same way that mystery and suspense can be produce by drawing out the conversation – it’s another way of making the audience work for the experience. Dialogue can be your story’s gas and brakes – use them to your best advantage.

6. Exposition is like cinnamon. In small amounts, cinnamon is a delightful little spice. But did you know that, in large doses, cinnamon is a deadly poison! Treat exposition in the same way. Don’t let one character carry the exposition ball. Toss it around and let it be truly conversational. Your characters should never be eager to give their precious information away in one speech. Remember: a little can go a long way.

7. “On-the-nose dialogue – where the character says exactly what he feels and exactly what he wants – is the antitheses of subtext and can ruin a story. Meaning should always exist just beneath the surface. Each time one of your characters speaks, there are always these twin questions:

• What did s/he mean to say?
• What did s/he really mean?

8. Good dialogue is almost always more about what’s not being said than what is. And the best use of character is revealed in what the character DOESN’T WANT TO SAY versus what he is willing to reveal – what vital tidbit is s/he keeping from us? Remember: what the reader really wants to know is EXACTLY what the character doesn’t want to discuss.

9. Character is also exposed to the reader by the manner in which one character talks to another. The relationship and the depth of characters should always be at stake within these individual exchanges.

10. You can always learn a great deal about the character being spoken to by the way s/he is being addressed by others. It tells you what the speaker thinks of the other person, and that informs you about their relationship.

11. Each line of dialogue contains the voice and personality of the speaker, just as in real life. The way the character speaks should give the reader some of the information that they crave on that vital subconscious level.

12. Make your characters carry the theme – since theme is always important to them in one way or another. Often, the writer doesn’t really understand the theme of his/her own work in the first or even subsequent drafts. When you’re lost about theme, go back and see what arguments your characters are making. Are they advocating for something, challenging a stance or just espousing a position outright? Each story is really an argument of a sort, and the different characters often represent different aspects of that argument. Let them talk– and learn from them.

13. While dialogue itself is not action, the act of speaking is. And all characters are undertaking some kind of action while they’re speaking. They’re kicking the dog, sharpening a knife, pointing a sword, looking shiftily at the floor or staring deep into the other character’s eyes! Use that to inform, punctuate, re-enforce or even deny the truth of what’s being said;

14. Remember: Each character, in his or her own way, demands to be heard – and everything in their voice contributes something to the story!

15. As the prolific writer and teacher Chuck Wendig reminds us, Story has its own secret laws. One of them is that dialogue needs to be authentic but not necessarily real. Dialogue must sound real – genuine, and convincing – but is never the same as the way that people actually talk – with their long pauses, hems and haws and “you know what I mean” phrasing.

16. Regardless of whether you are a novelist, short story writer or a screenwriter, every work you create is essentially a conversation that YOU are having with one person – the reader! Write like you’re talking directly and honestly to that other person and your writing will never sound like . . . well, like writing.

17. Most important, know where to end it. Dialogue has a beginning, middle and end. Learn to know which is which.

I’ll be teaching more on dialogue as well as giving the Keynote Address at the Greater Los Angeles Writer’s Society Conference in Los Angeles on June 26-28, 2015.

Go HERE for more information.


Filed under Guest Bloggers

10 Responses to Let’s Talk About Dialogue

  1. Robert Jones

    Great subject, Art.

    I want to camp out on #8 for a little…the fact that dialogue is not so much what a character says, but what they do NOT say.

    Soap operas, for example, are filled with echoes to drag out the story:

    “Have you heard what happened to Bill?”
    “No, what happened to Bill?”

    The first line engages our curiosity, but the second line is a total waste. And in a novel, there can be no waste.

    Blockbuster movies are filled with one liners and zingers. Even in the midst of characters running, or fighting, for their lives they still frequently toss jokes and insults at one another. If you have an eccentric character and it fits, that’s one thing, but even there it has rapidly become a cliché and what are writers supposed to do when they see a cliché? It also breaks the tension, so if you aren’t careful, you might undercut a serious moment and lose it entirely.

    Another thing that shouldn’t be said is a direct answer to a question. If suspense is keeping information away from the audience as long as possible, why would you have one character oblige another character by being nice and giving him the answers he (and the audience) wants to know? Have them change the subject instead. Or answer one question with another one. Dialogue doesn’t always follow a linear pattern. Writers aren’t nice people. And dialogue should never oblige.

    “Have you heard what happened to Bill?”
    “Price Chopper is having a two-for-one sale today.”

    We can assume the second speaker here either doesn’t care about Bill, or possibly has a reason for changing the subject. We want to know why. It also characterizes the second speaker. Are they a bit shifty, or just not very bright? It raises another question we need an answer to as the story moves forward.

    Actions can be used to good effect. Sometimes not saying something can speak louder than words.

    “Have you heard what happened to Bill?”
    Margaret kept fumbling with her seat belt.

    Does Margaret even care? Or is she purposely avoiding the question? Either way, the question is still hanging.

    Also, think about the movies you’ve seen where friends or lovers are on the verge of a break. What’s said between the two is never what the audience wants. It never follows logic, or apologizes. And we think, “If that were me, I would just say…” but they never do. The result is we feel annoyed, angry, sad. We become frustrated by characters who can’t seem to get out of their own way and make it right. Which is exactly what the writer wants because fiction is all about getting an emotional response.

    “Have you heard what happened to Bill?”
    “You’re always so concerned about Bill. Maybe you should’ve married him instead.”

    Margaret has clearly spent a great deal of time competing with Bill for attention.

    All of the examples depended on Margaret’s response through word or action. All did three things:

    Moved the story forward?
    Added tension or suspense?

    If it doesn’t do at least one of those things, then it really is something that shouldn’t be said. If it can do 2 or 3 all at the same time, that’s even better.

    Not saying what’s expected, having even good friends/lovers become argumentative, changing the subject to whatever they feel emotional about instead of answering a question directly–each response might take the story in an entirely different direction and are all great ways to build tension and characterize while moving a story forward.

  2. Love it! I just finished reading a craft book about how novelists can learn from method actors — and it was wonderful! — especially when dealing with dialogue and the ebb and flow of sentences that match the main character’s emotions. A lot of the same tips you mention here. I’m so glad to see you back on Storyfix, Art. Your posts are always so enlightening.

    Larry, I heard you’ll be joining one of my other favorite blogs, The Kill Zone. Can’t wait!

  3. @R. J. Will Aww, how sad that you feel you need to trash a well-respected author rather than trying to learn from him. I hope you feel better (really) soon.

    • Robert Jones

      I agree. And nice (editing) of your own work, Sue 🙂

      My babble here could often use editing. However, most are done on the fly and I don’t have time to edit every blog message to perfection. Doubtless that applies to Art, who took time out of whatever his schedule entails to share his thoughts with SF readers.

      When a guy who has a handle on craft and has worked in as many forums as Mr. Holcomb, there’s always something to be learned–edited or unedited. We should all respect his time and knowledge.

      On the other hand, RJW has shown us something we might take from this. Even published writers make mistakes and over-write. It’s a lesson I learned when sharing emails with a former mentor who has been in the writing business longer than any of us. The typos and non-edited pieces showed me that real writers work very hard to perfect their stories that go off to publication. They may seem like genius word-smiths in print, but we’re all real people who work hard at craft when it comes to our stories.

      It brought home the fact that ordinary people do extraordinary things every day. And so can each one of us if we persevere and continue to apply ourselves. Every success is brought about through a long line of failures. The people who make it are simply those who never gave up–no matter how discouraging others may seem.

      I prefer to be encouraging rather than discouraging, to see the light at the end of the tunnel rather than the darkness surrounding me. RJW could probably take a lesson from that and work on his delivery.

  4. It’s a blog post for crying out loud, not a legal brief.

  5. Art Holcomb

    Thanks to everyone who commented here. This conversation makes a very valid point: in a world where material can be instantly published, great care needs to be taken to make your work the best that it can be, regardless of forum. Your readers deserve it.

    Until next time.