No Idle Talk: The Dynamics of Dialogue

Dialogue’s vital role in fiction first came into focus for me when my creative writing professor at the time read aloud a passage from Don DeLillo’s White Noise, riveting our class with a hilarious yet touching car scene in which a father and son argue about whether it’s raining or not. When he finished reading, the professor tapped the book’s page and said, “Look at all the work DeLillo is doing here,” and I no doubt scribbled down the word work in my notebook; I’m sure I underlined it, doodled emphatic stars and arrows around it, imagining the author toiling over a typewriter, sweat dripping off his brow. It took me a bit longer (years) and many failed, frustrating attempts at dialogue in my own stories to get a better grip on what the teacher meant: Work means that dialogue, like other fictional elements, is contributing on multiple levels in a story. Good dialogue should always be about more than characters talking; it should be integral to readers’ understanding of those characters as well as to the movement and depth of the story.

I’ve been working on this handout for awhile (and wearing out my students, who at this point are like, Sheesh, Chancellor, we get it! Dialogue is important! and I’m all, But do you? Do you?) and did a craft talk on it recently at Tucson Festival of Books Masters Workshop, too. I’ve drawn from a number of resources, of course. Citations below. Still developing, but thought I’d share here.

No Idle Talk: The Dynamics of Dialogue

Dialogue can be one of the thorniest story elements for writers, but when it’s done well—when it’s doing work—it can have tremendous impact. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Keep the story moving forward. A story’s arc hinges on movement, propelling readers toward something—a moment of crisis or change or resolve, or perhaps more simply, in John L’Heureux’s terms, “a moment after which nothing can ever be the same again.” Nothing in the story should stall that momentum, including dialogue. It always should tell the reader something, whether about character or plot or theme or facts; it should ratchet up the story’s tension. In other words, characters should not talk in a vacuum; they aren’t out chatting on a smoke break. Dialogue should be incisive, exact, and essential.

Reveal and distinguish characters and show relationships. What characters say, and how they say it, can give readers vital insights into that character’s personality and emotional state, as well as about the facts of their lives. Speech also is an excellent way to capture a character’s voice, including dialect that reflects region, community, or social group. Take care with dialect: It should be believable and natural to the character, not a caricature. It’s usually better to avoid phonetic misspellings and instead focus on rhythms and syntax to suggest accents. Each character should have their own voice. How your characters speak to one another reveals much about what’s going on between them.

Avoid exposition or detailed description in speech. These are better handled through narration—through telling, not through having characters say them. (Example: “Jerry, I know that you’ve been working hard at your job at the coffee shop, down on 15th Street, where the one of the red shutters is falling off the building.” Instead: I knew Jerry had been working hard at his job at that hellhole of a coffee shop with its hangnail red shutters. “I’m sorry, kid,” I said. “What can I do?”)

Weave speech, silence, action, and the sensory world. How characters respond or avoid response, as well as characters’ body language and gestures, can add great depth to dialogue. Body language brings more of readers’ senses into play, as does involving the concrete world around characters. Additionally, readers infer meaning in the interplay what is said and unsaid, between speech and gesture. The best dialogue operates both as text (what is being said and shown that contributes to the general events of the piece) and as subtext (what’s not said but what’s being implied or revealed, or the emotional undercurrent).

Yes, it’s like real-life speech, but it’s more pointed and dramatic. Though realism is something for which writers strive in dialogue, the kinds of banalities found in real-life conversations (e.g. “Hello?” “Hello, is Jerry there?” “This is Jerry.” “Hi Jerry, it’s Selma”) don’t play well on the page. Summarize or eliminate the niceties and hems and haws and get to the point. (When Jerry picked up the phone, Selma said, “You trust me, right? Do you?” “Yeah,” he said. “I guess.”) It’s a realistic approximation, not an exact replication.

Think balance. Dialogue is one of the most visible story elements because it demands space. This visibility can be a strength, shifting momentum and making a story more active. But overuse of dialogue can be a problem. Direct quotation suggests something of importance, so save it for that purpose. Also, consider balance, pace, and texture within dialogue. Intersperse summarized dialogue with direct dialogue; alter the placement of speech tags or substitute action/thoughts as attribution; weave in characters’ thoughts, description, and exposition between direct dialogue; or keep short lines of dialogue in paragraph for quick infusions of voice without length.

Take care with attribution and speech tags. In reality, people don’t “smile” or “grunt” or “chortle” a sentence. Such verbs used as speech tags are clunky and draw attention to themselves. The attention should be on the dialogue spoken, not the tags. Dynamic verbs are good in narration, but not here. Remember: the speech tag’s only job is to indicate who is speaking. Stick with “said” or “asked,” or eliminate and let the speaker’s action indicate who’s speaking. Sometimes if you’re using other verbs as tags, you’re narratively trying to sneak in story work (dramatic tension, tone) that better happens elsewhere or through other techniques. Such verbs make the author intrusive, when—especially in a moment of dialogue, where characters are front and center—we want the author to disappear. Be sparing even with subs such as “told” “replied,” “yelled,” “whispered,” all of which stand out more than sit back.

Avoid “telling” adverbs. Adverbs often indicate the writer is telling rather than showing—which means a missed opportunity for work. Rather than falling back on telling the reader (she said emphatically), better to convey the emotion or inflection through the syntax or word choice of the sentence or a narrative addition—sometime known as a beat—of action, gesture, thought, or description. (“Stop that,” she said, slapping the table.) If you’ve done your work, readers will get it. Think of adverbs as a missed opportunity to do work.

Get technical: know your formatting and punctuation. Because dialogue is so visible, errors in format and punctuation stand out. They also can interrupt movement and pull readers out of the story. Reminders:

  • All new paragraphs and lines of dialogue should be indented, not left-justified. The speech tag or narrative beat generally should be on the same line as the person speaking.

indent   After escaping the prom, Juliette strolled the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly, looking for a late-night snack. Something salty. She was thinking about Conrad, imagining his pug nose pushed inside his skull, and didn’t notice when she stepped in the path of a man mopping an acidic orange puddle.
indent   The man said, “Excuse you.”
indent   Juliette turned, hitching up the strap of her green sequin dress. “Sorry?”
indent   The man shook his head and lifted his mop. Orange liquid streamed from the gray strands. “I’ll bet you are.”

  • Make sure you understand when to use a comma or period and what to capitalize. A speech tag (said or asked) takes a comma when it introduces but a period if it completes a sentence.

No: Hannah said. “If you say so.” No: “If you say so.” She said.
Yes: Hannah said, “If you say so.”(introduces)
Yes: “If you say so,” she said. (completes sentence)

Also don’t confuse your speech tags and narrative beats. A beat (small gesture or action) takes a period as part of a sentence.

No: Gerald smiled, “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”
Yes: Gerald smiled. “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”
Yes: “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Gerald said, smiling.

Characters don’t smile a sentence. They say something; smiling is an action.

More here on punctuating from LitReactor or The Editor’s Blog

  • Go easy on the exclamation marks, ellipses, and dashes. Overuse of exclamation marks is like overuse of adverbs: you’re telling your reader this is dramatic! or emphatic! Instead, convey the drama or emphasis through the dialogue or a beat. Ellipses indicate a trailing off, but often writers rely on them to create a pause. However, ellipses are less specific than a gesture and thus a missed opportunity; further, a pileup of them interferes with speech rhythm. Same for dashes, which indicate interruption. If you find yourself using these tics, go back and look at them to see if you can eliminate or what other work you might do.
  • Writers also may opt out of using quotation marks, instead using dashes or nothing except the line break. In this case, make sure it’s clear what is speech and what is narration.

    Excuse you, the man said.
Juliette turned, hitching up the strap of her green sequin dress. Sorry? she asked.
The man shook his head and lifted his mop. Orange liquid streamed from the gray strands. He said, I’ll bet you are.

Finally, dialogue is an instructive tool in the writing process. The act of writing dialogue can be a remarkable way to learn about characters, to figure out their troubles, to pinpoint what’s on their minds. You don’t always have to know what they’ll say before they say it. You can use dialogue as what Alice LaPlante calls a placeholder, or serviceable dialogue that gets down what you want to be conveyed. The finessing can come later; at first, it’s okay just to get them talking and see what they’ll come up with.

Works Consulted

Browne, Renni, and Dave King. “Dialogue Mechanics.” Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. 2nd Ed. New York: Harer, 2004. 82-97.
Kardos, Michael. The Art and Craft of Fiction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
LaPlante, Alice. Method and Madness. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.
Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer. New York: HarperPerennial, 2007.
Stern, Jerome. Making Shapely Fiction. New York: Laurel, 1991.



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