Monday, December 13, 2010

The Balance of A Good Dialogue

One of the main problem I have with my first drafts is that my characters say too much. They will either say nothing, or say what is on their mind. And oftentimes, it will be stated clearly.

That's, of course, completely unrealistic. It helps to get the story moving, to play with the characters and what needs to be said, but in the end I don't think it should this way. That's not how it happens in real life. Most people I know will say one thing, and mean another.

This is not easy to do in a novel, because you have to make sure your reader understands what is implied. Perhaps not always right away, as some things are better understood when you look back at them, but some key points will nonetheless be implied rather than said. Yet, if the reader feels lost in your dialogue, if he knows he's missing something, then he might get annoyed.

It's a delicate balance, one I've yet to reach in general.

I expect a lot of it to come with revision, and betas must be a great help in this regard. How do you deal with this? Do you have tricks, any other guide than your instinct?

Dialogues are my favourite part of a novel. I want to get them right!


  1. I don't think I can be helpful. Dialogue never enters into my story as I am creating it. I just put it all in during the actual typing. I always try to imagine that I am actually whichever character that is the POV character and say whatever I think they would say. See, not very helpful.

  2. Hmmm I pretty much try to keep it real. I don't really have a special technique. If they have something worthwhile to say, then I put it in. I guess that isn't very helpful! I think as long as it sounds realistic and natural you are on the right track.

  3. Most of the dialogue I write is situation appropriate. I keep in mind that the characters are , for instance, at work where someone a couple of cubicle away might overhear them. Or perhaps one speaker is the boss. No one can always tell their boss what they'd really like to say. Then I write the dialogue a second time with the social and situational filters off. I then use a phrase here and there or an incidental action from the second version to add subtext to the original dialogue. Great for adding tension and nuance.

  4. Margo, that sounds like a neat trick! I'll definitely try that. :)

    As for keeping it realistic, my problem isn't as much what they say than how much they say. A lot of my first edit is taking out elements from the dialogue to tighten it.

  5. Really knowing your characters, their backgrounds and how they perceive their relationships with fellow characters helps.

    That being said, one of the easiest ways to heighten conflict in a story is through misunderstanding. This mirrors real life.

    You've got to have clever hands to handle it well, the same way you would place clues in a mystery without giving away the ending too soon. But give your audience some credit. Readers don't need to be baby-stepped through every explanation and interaction.

  6. I have a couple of exercises I've found helpful. One is to hangout some place where you can overhear people talking and write down some of the conversations you catch as people are talking. It forces you to notice how people actually say what they say, and can be pretty funny...even if technically it's eaves dropping. But if you think about it, it's a similar to how artists will sometimes take a sketch the people around them. This exercise is kind of like dialogue sketching.

    The second exercise is to write the dialogue for an entire scene where the two people are arguing but never mention what the argument is really about. Like if a couple is trying to decide what restaurant to eat at, but the woman has just learned that the man has accepted a job offer in another town. This exercise is to practice the use of subtext, and it doesn't have to be an argument (arguments are just more fun to write).

    Also, read (good) movie scripts. They have to rely on dialogue more heavily than novels so the best screenwriters are masters at writing dialogue. There are websites that have tons of scripts available for anyone to read.

  7. Ahhh, the tricky part of writing. I have the worst habit of repeating everything important like a million times in my first drafts, especially through the dialogue.

  8. Hillary: Oh, I agree. I love misunderstandings. ^^ They're great for tension, and so frustrating!

    Cacy: Woah, lots of tips! Thanks for the exercises. I'll go and try some of them next time I'm blocked (although, well, I'm already a natural eavesdropper XD)

  9. I know right? I wrote so much I think I should just copy and paste that comment as a post on my blog!