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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Why Good Writing Matters: Dialogue

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Dialogue is one of those pesky details of crafting fiction that can make or a break a good story. Good dialogue can make characters really come to life. However, when written poorly, dialogue can make the story flat, unprofessional, and even annoying. It's a tricky thing to get right. I don't think the answer is as simple as "You're either good at dialogue, or you aren't," either. So how does one approach writing dialogue that will make it both real and interesting to the reader?

Keep It Simple
Dialogue holds a number of emotions for the characters that say them. It is a tool for interaction between characters and one for conveying characters' thoughts and emotions to readers. What they say and how they say it can tell the reader more about a character than the author may realize. Depending on the dialect, one might be able to tell a location from which the character originates and sometimes their educational background. So it's easy to get wrapped up in what a character should say, especially when you're trying to explain a complex situation. While you want to be clear with what the character is saying and feeling, you also want to leave out some information, allowing the reader to pick up on cues from the other context. Not doing so can be frustrating to the reader, making them feel as though you don't think they're smart enough to figure out the subtler meanings on their own. Keeping the dialogue as simple as possible can minimize these issues. Say what is necessary for the scene, moment, or what have you, and leave it at that. Make the dialogue unique to the individual, but avoid being overly wordy.

Why this method works: Simple dialogue is real dialogue. There aren't many individuals (that I know at least) that go around spouting off their every thought and desire. We have a way of involuntarily communicating with our bodies that let other people know how we feel about a situation without having to say anything at all. We're also good at saying as little as necessary to get our words across, assuming that the other person will know enough about us and the context of what we said to pick up on the full meaning of our words. We're emotional creatures, and we're often eager to express ourselves without much planning. Good dialogue will have this feel to it, but it will also include a subtle agenda.

If your dialogue is forced, it will be obvious. Bad dialogue is one of the easiest things to pick out, even for non-writers. So it's important to get it right. The best way to pull off this balancing act is to let your characters be who they are. Start out by having them say what you think they would say rather than what you want them to say. You can always go back and edit out unnecessary text later.

Avoid Talking Heads
While good dialogue adds a dimension of realism to a scene and can really be a good means of portraying the personality of a character, it's rendered ineffective when used alone. A large block of dialogue that isn't coupled with anything else, such as appropriate tags or body language, is a phenomenon referred to as talking heads. This type of dialogue will sometimes includes a small amount of body language in ending tags, such as "he said and smiled" or "she asked, raising her hand," but these small gestures don't really tell us much about the situation or the characters involved. They don't give a dimension of realism and layers to a character and/or situation that well-written dialogue would do.

Not every line of dialogue needs a tag, not every body movement needs to be captured. However, in an effort to avoid having to much dialogue and too little body language, it's a good idea to first consider how the character being spoken too might react physically, and attempt to portray his/her body language first, before adding in any dialogue. This will ensure that only necessary dialogue is used, and it will also enrich the dialogue, making it more believable. Again, keeping it simple is usually the best way to go.

I know that it gets tiresome to hear that old practice makes perfect advice, but that's the heart and soul of good writing. Every good writer starts out as an amateur, and every fantastic novel starts out as scribbles of uninteresting crap. It takes time--and yes, practice--to transform those scribbles into a work of art. And no matter how good your writing is, there is always room for improvement.

One way to practice dialogue is by observing before writing. Listen to conversations on the train or in a store as you pass by people. Watch how the intended recipient of those words responds. Note any body language used, even if it's pointing or a simple nod. Keep in mind why you think the responder uses those actions, and what they might indicate to the speaker.

Another good observation exercise is to go to the park and people watch. You don't need to get close to anyone or even hear any words being exchanged. Observing the body language of those around you can give you a good idea of people's emotions, and it makes for excellent notes for accompanying dialogue. If you've ever been around a group of toddlers or young kids, you'll notice that they are especially adept at using body language to communicate. That is because body language is their primary form of expressing their feelings. They are keen to interact with others and have no problem showing how they feel. If you ever get the chance to observe these wonderful creatures, do so. You can learn a lot from them.

Another way to practice dialogue is by doing writing exercises. They can help you with just about any type of writing, but I've found them to be exceptionally useful with practicing dialogue. The more you write dialogue, the easier it will become, and the more natural it will start to sound.

Below are some writing exercises I've come up that encourage use of body language to convey characters emotions. Each has an explanation beneath it as to the specific skills gained from the exercise.

Writing Exercises/Prompts
1. Image a bank robbery scene. There are between fifteen and twenty customers on the floor, all being held at gunpoint by one of the robbers. The other, also carrying a gun, is dealing with a cashier, getting her to hand over all the money upfront that she has access to. The other employees are in a storage closet, guarded by the same robber who is keeping an eye on the customers. Now, try writing this scene without using ANY dialogue. You can focus on either robber, the customers on the floor, or the employees in the storage closet.

Skills: By focusing on not having your characters saying anything, you'll be able to accomplish two things. First, you'll have a better understanding of how to incorporate natural body language into your dialogue. Second, you'll find the key moments where there is a clear need to have something said in order to avoid confusion. This will help eliminate unnecessary dialogue in scenes where you do use it. You will also get a feel in this exercise for how dialogue works when there is a big group of people involved, and it's a great way to explore and practice use of the five main senses.

2. Two colleagues who don't get along well are being forced to work together on a project. It's day 3 of day 5 on the project, and things are getting heated between them. They've managed to get most of the way through the project, but they've now reached a critical point and are getting hung up on the details. Write a scene dictating the outcome of their collaboration on that part. Does one character get his way over the other? Do they put their differences aside and speak as co-workers would, or do they let their anger get the best of them and use dialogue that typically would not be suitable for the workplace? Pay particular attention as to what the other co-workers around them do. Do they become involved, or do they remove themselves from the situation? How does that affect the two main characters in this scene?

Skills: Writing a critical scene where two characters are under a time crunch and dislike each other help to cut down on superfluous conversation. It will keep the dialogue to a minimum and again rely heavily on body language. This will also help you practice using real-life dialogue as a means of solving a problem between two characters.

3. Two teenagers are out on their second date together. It's Valentine's Day, and they've chosen a quiet restaurant to share their evening together. One character is reserved and shy but is genuinely enjoying her date. The other is more outgoing and somewhat talkative, but he is turned off by the lack of participation that his date is showing in the conversation. Write a scene that shows what happens between the two as the guy starts asking more about the girl. Does she open up, or does she get embarrassed by being put on the spot and clam up? Does the guy learn more patience in waiting for his date to speak, or does he get irritated by her seemingly rude behavior? Does the date end well, or do they decided not to see one another again?

Skills: Sharing an intimate meal with someone is a common, real-world situation that often comes up in storytelling. Sharing a meal with someone whom you have affections for raises the stakes a bit and forces characters to divulge information that they may have been keeping secret. It's a situation in which romance can blossom of course, but it can also be intimidating for some and cause them to clam up. Practicing an exercise like this is a good way to get to know your characters and explore how they are most likely to express their feelings for one another through dialogue.

If you use these methods when writing dialogue, you should see improvement over time. But don't get discouraged if it doesn't come naturally right away. Many writers struggle with this area of writing--I'm one of them--and writing dialogue is not as easy as it sounds. Using language and reading others' body language in real life are second nature to most of us. But if you break it down, communication is a rather complex subject. So it's no wonder good dialogue is so difficult to capture on paper. In fact, concise and realistic dialogue is probably one of the hardest things to get right in a story.