What I’m Learning and Re-Learning about Writing Dialogue

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Some feedback sticks with you for a long time—and not always the painful kind. One such helpful critique has been on my mind lately. A few years ago, I was able to have a published author read the first chapter of my novel’s first draft (so much has changed since then!) as part of a writer’s workshop. Apart from his graciousness, I remember what he told me about a section of dialogue: that I had gone over the natural beat for when it should have ended, and if I edited it to fall on the right beat, the conversation would be much more meaningful and interesting to read. I’m sure that he explained it in more detail, too, but what’s lingered in my mind is the idea of not overextending dialogue.

This concept is especially pertinent to me because I’m learning, as I’m writing and editing Draft 2 of my novel, that my style of dialogue is best when it’s concise but weighty. Some of this is due to the strong presence of worldbuilding and plotting, which infers meaning that otherwise has to be conveyed through conversation or internal monologues. Some of this is due to just not being naturally skilled at making dialogue in which characters are very effusive or where they verbally work through philosophical issues (sometimes I can, but I can’t rely upon it turning out well). But some of what I’m learning, I think, applies to all writing. For example, the best prose descriptions strike a balance between too much and too little while also having layers of meaning that enrich the words. This comes back to the common advice of focusing on the most important information, then conveying that in the most vivid way possible (with room for personal style, of course).

The same is true for dialogue, although execution is a bit different. Meaningful dialogue isn’t just what’s said, but how it’s said (dialogue tags), body language and actions while talking (action beats), and what’s not said (implied meaning, via established backstory, action, tone, etc.). And, more often than not, implying the right amount of meaning strengthens rather than weakens a conversation. The issue is finding that balance for a particular scene. I’m obviously no expert in this, but I have been doing a lot of edits of dialogue to incorporate more implied meaning, so here’s an (made up, not from my WIP) example of what I mean:

“I’m going away to Kipver on tomorrow’s 9 A.M. train, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me!” he said. His dark eyes flashed with anger and defiance as he watched for her reaction.

“What do you mean you’re going away?” she exclaimed. “To Kipver? Tomorrow?”

“I’m sick and tired of life here—of nobody ever doing anything important. I’m wasting my potential doing the same old same old every day. I need a new start. And I don’t want anyone following me! I have to do this on my own.”

“But you always said you were happy here. Just last week you told me how much you were liking your new job and how you were going to hang out with friends. You always look forward to meeting with them. And now this? So suddenly?”

“Haven’t you ever heard of someone faking it? Haven’t you ever pretended to be happy when you weren’t?”

She shook her head in disapproval, just like he anticipated. “I can’t believe you! You can’t just run away from everything that makes you unhappy, without thinking about the consequences—for you or for anybody else!”

“Oh yeah?” He raised his eyebrows, like a challenge. “Watch me.”

“No, I won’t let you leave like this—”

“You can’t stop me!”

“Oh yes I will!”

VS.

“What are you doing?” she asked, motioning toward the half-packed suitcase lying open on his bed.

He kept his back to her as he rummaged through his chest-of-drawers. His voice came out terse and sharp. “Leaving.”

“Leaving?” Her brow furrowed and she pulled her head back slightly. “What do you mean leaving?”

“Leaving. Going away. Goodbye.”

He wadded up a t-shirt and threw it onto the bed with a huff. Still he did not turn toward her—nor did he need to. Disapproval hung upon each of her words.

“I don’t understand,” she said, taking a step closer. “Where are you going? Why?”

“I don’t have to explain myself to you,” he mumbled.

“No, you do—you can’t just up and leave. Why would you? You’re happy here.”

He turned his head enough to shoot her a sideways glance. “I’m going to Kipver. Alone.”

The word “alone” seemed to strike her, for she flinched as he spoke it, and her features twisted into a scowl as she crossed her arms over her chest. “But just last week you were talking about how much you liked it here—your friends, your job…I don’t…you can’t just leave!”

With a quick motion, he closed the suitcase. Then he locked gazes with her and narrowed his eyes.

“Watch me.”

Both of these examples are roughly the same length. Ignoring the broader stylistic differences or quality of the writing itself, can you see how restraint in both a) the characters ‘words and b) the types of dialogue tags/action beats (balancing telling with lots of showing) add more depth and meaning? Also note that Example 1 doesn’t end the same way as Example 2—and note how Example 2 ends on what might be called the “right line.” There’s a sense of weight at the conclusion of the second scene, whereas the height of emotion in the first scene is reached and, then, lowered because the dialogue continues past it.

It comes back to the classic “show don’t tell” advice: allow the actions and known implications to speak alongside the speakers. Allow the reader to use their brain to deduce what’s going on “between the lines.” This isn’t to say that a character who expresses their feelings openly has to suddenly become reticent and curt with everyone, but it’s determining where they’ll draw the line, because everyone withholds something during dialogue—whether that’s because they don’t want to tell it, or because they think it’ll be implied. We do that all the time when we speak to others: vague wording (“you know, that thingy-majig?”), slang, a curt or artificially pleasant tone to convey the desire not to elaborate, even the struggle to put words to very serious topics. Finding how to convey that quality of speech in a way that aligns with each character really does wonders for adding interest as well as realism. It’s always a fine line to walk (fiction doesn’t have to perfectly mimic reality, or else we’d stop reading because characters are too repetitive or have too much small talk everywhere they go), but it’s one worth walking. I mean, look at the result! It’s instances like this, where I’m both learning and re-learning how to stop dialogue at the right point and convey the right amount of information, that I’m thankful for the editing process. It’s difficult to make every dialogue interaction hit the correct “beats” even with multiple edits. And, honestly, I’m thankful that good dialogue can be achieved without having the characters carry all of the burden—it’s been a weight off to realize that my writing will have its own balance in this regard, and can do well with less.

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