Conversations About Dialog

Fiction

What do you consider your biggest strength when it comes to writing?  I think dialog comes close to the top of the list for me.  I’ve had several people remark on it.  Yeah, I keep my mouth closed in real life, but my characters blab away…

Truthfully, I overdo dialog.  In fact, in the past I have had beta readers comment on my over use of dialog. Not all – I’ve had others that had positive things to say about it.

I have started editing “The Old Mill”, a book that I posted here as a serial.  One thing that I discovered, to my dismay, is that I have entire chapters that are 100% dialog.  Some are phone conversations.  Others are people sitting around chatting.  After I did one quick pass through the book I almost felt that it would be easier to make it into a play than a novel.  Not just a play, but an Elizabethan era play, with few stage directions. Or perhaps an opera.

Ouch. How do I fix that?

I am now in the middle of a rewrite. One thing that I am doing is changing it from all first person to third person.  Every chapter is in one person’s POV (well, for the most part), but the chapters can be in different POVs.  OK, most are in the main character’s POV, just third person. But I have added other POVs, which really helps develop the characters and makes the entire story more three dimensional.

Does this help with the dialog issue?

Well, I have added several new chapters and these chapters have very little dialog.  Much better.  But when I “convert” a chapter from first person to third, I have been leaving most of the dialog untouched.  OK. I have added a lot of action, internal feeling and observation, which helps.  But most of the dialog is still there.

I’ve pulled a couple of chapters apart and tried to figure out how I could get the same information across in different ways, but have drawn a blank.  For now I will save that for the third draft and just concentrate on what I am doing for the second.  I mean, the amount of dialog, while essentially unchanged, is getting diluted, but diluted in a positive way that helps the story. Fine.

But it still bugs me when I go to a new chapter and see pages of nothing but dialog.  Argh, makes me want to scream! I read through, it all flows smoothly from one idea to the next, is all logical, it has a great natural rhythm, it sounds good.  But I’m not writing a play! I then think, “Well, I’m sure others have conversation like this.”  I grab a random book and leaf through it.  Nope.  Very little dialog, just page after page of prose without a single quotation mark.

OK, let’s try this again.  As I write this I open a hard cover version Stephen King’s “Outsider” randomly to page 222-223.  Uhm, all dialog.  OK,  pages 358-359.  See, no dialog! Not a single quotation mark. One more try. 470-471.  Mostly dialog.

Anyway, am I being to harsh on myself about dialog?  Do you think dialog can help move the story along, or does it slam on the breaks for you?  Is putting across main points as part of a natural conversation too much “Telling” and not enough “Showing”?  Let’s have a conversation about dialog :)

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34 thoughts on “Conversations About Dialog

    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I do like a lot of conversation, but there needs to be balance. I’m a little over half way done with this rewrite now, and the balance is better. I still have a lot of work, but it is getting better.

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  1. Gary A Wilson

    I’ve thought that dialog is just a tool that happens to be a very powerful draw to the reader. It’s as if the characters from the story are themselves living the story in real time. An omniscient narrator can sometimes move the story along quicker, better control scenes and such, but the words of our characters can do much more than a narrator. As a reader, I won’t tolerate course language like random F-bombs from a narrator because I would walk out of a talk by an author who presume to talk to us in such a low manner, but from the lips of a character, I’m just learning more about the character (and if F-bombs are involved, the person is more of a low life jerk). In telling a story, a narrator can’t lie to the reader, but a character can and it’s part of growing to trust or distrust a character. A character can think of and even plan on doing evil, but a narrator better be well above such thoughts or I won’t be reading much more of the work. Would any of the audience we want to read tolerate a narrator who espouses child abuse? Of course not, but from a character – wow- we will quickly engage the story and hope this character somehow suffers for such views.

    Dialog — is just another tool. We should use it and often, use it wisely.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Hi Gary, thanks for your view. Yes, Dialog is a tool,one that I perhaps over use on occasion, needing to put away that wrench for a screwdriver for a while ;) I get what you are saying. Even in first person there is always a difference between the narrative part and dialog. For one thing, Dialog is the only way we really learn how characters other than “I” really feel about things since the “I” narrator may not understand that other person’s feeling, it may be something the author wants the reader to figure out on their own. One thing is that an omniscient or disinterest or other “floating” POV is not used very often for any great length of time in modern fiction. Even if it is in third person, there is usually one POV. In a work like The Stand, Stephan King uses a different POV for each chapter. In a chapter that is from Stuart’s POV, even though it is “he” and not “I”, the narrator can’t know anything that Stuart wouldn’t know. And it is possible Stuart may have some facts wrong in that chapter, so the narrator wouldn’t “lie”, but won’t tell the truth, either, because Stuart doesn’t know. Most stories these days have unreliable narrators, though rarely dishonest (I have read stories with dishonest narrators that purposefully mislead the reader – interesting….). And, of course, sometimes the POV is in the villain, so there are ugly thoughts. Of course the reader realizes that it is the villain, not the author, who has those thoughts.

      Dialog is a very powerful tool, but POV is also powerful, sometimes just as powerful and can be more powerful in very specific situations.

      Again, I am talking 100% about pure fiction. Something that is more creative nonfiction, like along the lines of your memoir type stories, is very different. The narrator does need to be reliable and even if the narrator is clearly the present “Gary” talking about the kid “Gary”, a distinction is made between the narrator and the character. You could, of course, write one of the stories 100% from the POV of the character, say the young Gary, and have it read like a short fiction story, but since it is still biography or memoir, the narrator still needs to be reliable.

      Oh, thinking of non-reliable narrators, I always enjoyed Rockford Files and Magnum PI because the main character was the narrator in those shows. The thing is, the main character often made mistakes in the narration which would be discovered later, usually right away, but sometimes a little down the road. Usually it was an assumption about a person or situation, and often it would be highly ironic, but it made the show more fun to watch. In Magnum PI, it was often the narrator making fun of his character, which was doubly fun,

      Anyway, good discussion.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I agree, it can give us great insight into the characters if, as you say, it is well done. That is the key. Of course, when I write, that’s up to others to judge ;)

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I’m pretty much the same way. I remember dialog and often think of my stories in terms of dialog. I think I’ve been getting better at description and talking about what is happening, but if it is intense action, I’m not there. I’ve written battle scenes that were all dialog ;) Oh well, something to practice.

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  2. Pratibha

    I as a beginner in fiction writing turn to conversational mode when I am really unsure how to place my characters. Like after 500 words , I feel lost to even maintain the same setting and keep it active. I enjoy reading your views though .. good lesson for me.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      It happens in different ways in different stories. I often conceive of the story, or chapter of the book, in terms of conversation, so when I write it down, I write it as conversation. It seems to occur more often when I am writing very rapidly since the conversation allows me to cover a lot of ground, putting out a huge amount of information, in few words. Perhaps if I spent more time planning…. Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed reading through this. Seeing how different people approach writing tasks helps anyone :)

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I got into a heated discussion with a beta reader (OK, my sister ;) ) about if dialog is showing or telling. I said showing. But then, on the other hand, I have a bad tendency to do data dumps as conversation. Yes, a totally different thing than just dialog in itself, but it tainted her view. An example of the data dump in conversation would be like Gandalf telling Frodo the history of the ring. My WIP is similar to yours in that it is a kind of ghost story with long dead characters who we need to know about. Thanks for your opinion – I tend to agree with that view – I enjoy a lot of dialog myself, in my reading as well as my writing.

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        1. trentpmcd Post author

          The Nethergate does sound interesting. I was on a ghost kick for a while. I delayed working on this book, The Old Mill, for a while because the previous book, The Halley Branch was also in ways a ghost story with a lot of history.

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      It is interesting how we all come at it from different angles. Truthfully for me it depends on the work. I do have short fiction that has very little dialog, but too often in my longer works I put across the ideas in conversations. Maybe it’s how we think about the story as it is being formulated… If I think of a chapter in terms of action, I will write it that way, but if I have a conversation in my head, it makes it to “paper”. A lot of my longer works are written very rapidly, so perhaps I come up some chapters as an inner conversation. Not sure.

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      1. Betul Erbasi

        Nice points! For me, I can only write stories in the form of an inner dialogue, so not much conversation between people. I think this is also affected by our lifestyles too, as I have a job that kind of leaves you on your own. So we need to solve things on our own. Maybe that has an effect.

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        1. trentpmcd Post author

          I think that it does have a lot to do with our personalities and how we react to life. I also write in inner dialog at times – I just inserted a new chapter into my WIP which is almost all inner dialog. And as I said in the post, my characters talk more than I do – I’m a pretty quiet person ;) It’s just that it feels natural to me to write this way :)

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Yeah, it sounds like me. I often will write a short paragraph describing the scene, but then just go off into dialog from there… Hopefully by the time this is done it will be a better mix.

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  3. Rowena

    Hi Trent.
    Dialogue is a great conversation point. I think I have a reasonable amount of dialogue in my work and like to use it. My aunt is an academic but she wrote a sort of novel about the last woman who was hanged in Western Australia, Martha Rendell. Anna doesn’t like dialogue and there’s no dialogue at all in the book That’s going to the other extreme.
    From what I’ve read of your writing, you do have a great handle on dialogue and use of slang and accents.
    I’m not sure what the strength of my writing is. Any suggestions?
    Best wishes,
    Rowena

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I can see if she wanted her novel to be extremely historically accurate she wouldn’t want to put words in people’s mouths, but that is very much on the extreme. Of course, my entire online book wasn’t 100% dialog, just a few chapters. But the amount of dialog to action was very lopsided, which I am trying to correct.

      Most of your writing that I’ve seen has either been personal or more historic, writing about a time, person or place that interests you (hard to count FF since it is so short). From there I might suggest that your strength is in turning research into a story :)

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