Writing Craft: Blah blah blah, Who Needs Dialog?

conversationI love to “talk shop” with other writers. I learn so much about my own process and my weaknesses because it’s always easier to see the flaws – and the strengths! – in someone else’s work. Recently, I had the mirrored experience of serving as a beta reader for another writer’s novel and receiving similar feedback on one of my own. The thematic similarities and differences between the two very early versions of the stories are irrelevant. What fascinated me was that we used dialog in diametrically opposed ways in our story construction: my friend’s rough draft read like a screenplay, and mine had comparatively little conversation. We’ll both end up with balanced manuscripts, but we’ve started from opposite places.

Dialog, which is the transcription of what each character says, rather than a summary in narrative, is one of a writer’s most powerful tools. It’s also one that’s easy to abuse, either by using it too much or too little, or asking it to perform functions in the story that it’s not well-suited for. Certainly, it’s possible to tell a story entirely in dialog form, just as it’s possible to write a story entirely in narrative with zero dialog. Most stories fall in the comfortable middle zone, especially if they involve more than one character capable of speech.

When we write prose stories, we can choose to show action in a variety of ways, narrative being one, dialog another. Dialog isn’t very good for showing events at a distance; characters can be discussing those events or relaying them, but both are “off the scene” and hence have less immediacy. On the other hand, if the emphasis is on the reaction of the characters to those events, dialog can be of immense help. One of the strengths of dialog is that if skillfully handled, it can give us a window into a character’s inner state without being in that character’s head. Screenplay writers know this and use dialog to reveal character, to heighten and resolve tension, to create conflict, and to further the plot.

Which brings me to one of the things I saw in my friend’s manuscript. She came to her story with “screenwriter’s mind.” She used dialog not only to convey the content of conversations (relationship building, changing, exchange of information between characters, etc.) but to sketch out the action that she would later fill in with narrative. I’m a bit in awe of this since what little I know of screenplay writing has thoroughly impressed me with what a high-wire act it is to use only dialog and highly abbreviated descriptions of scene and action to tell a story.

I, on the other hand, used bits of narrative as shorthand for the conversations that will be developed in revision. If anything, my rough draft was too focused on the inside on my protagonist’s head, not what she was doing or saying. One of the consequences was that other characters are suggested rather than developed, whereas in my friend’s draft, her extensive use of dialog has done much of this important work.

There isn’t any one right way to weave dialog into a story, any more than there is one single right way to write. The more options we have, the more tools we have in that magic box of tricks, the better we will be at telling a range of stories. So here’s a challenge for your next story project. If you’re like my friend, a writer who uses dialog heavily to set the major blocks of her story, challenge yourself to write that first draft with as little dialog as you can. Can you do it with none? What are the circumstances under which you absolutely have to put it in?

If you’re like me, a writer who puts in just a bit here and there, challenge yourself to use dialog to create the backbone of the plot, to introduce and reveal character, to heighten and resolve tension, without using your normal narrative techniques.

My guess is that either way, the process will be both uncomfortable and revealing. Have you been relying on dialog as a preferred and therefore easy way of transcribing the movie between your ears? Or have you regarded it as a frill, lightweight chit-chat instead of an essential foundation of the story?

The good news is that no matter where we start, whatever our natural propensities and habit, it really doesn’t matter what order we weave in and shift around the elements of narrative and dialog. What matters is that final draft when everything has come into balance and the story shines!


Art by Sidney Paget (1860 – 1908)



Writing Craft: Blah blah blah, Who Needs Dialog? — 13 Comments

  1. I wonder if first drafts reflect whether one is oriented toward visuals or toward text–though of course it’s not that simple. But. For purposes of discussion: Is your screenwriter friend mainly visual?

    I ask this reflecting on a painful awakening I had some time back. One of my favorite pieces was left to simmer for some years. My memory of it was that it was one of my most vividly written stories–such detail! Along with excitement, blah blah. Well, when I finally pulled it out to do the revision . . . I discovered that it was all talking heads. There was the barest modicum of description, and that in language that is best described as “placeholder.”

    Rewriting it meant putting in everything that I had imagined but, *kaff* had never actually made it to the page. This led me to the conviction that we visual writers can be our own worst enemies, because the words we do write down can evoke all the images, without us being aware that all the work was done in our heads. We have to learn how to get it actually onto the page.

    • Too funny! That’s totally me – right back to grade one, when the first story I wrote presented on the page as a riveting opening scene, followed by a short, resolving dialogue between an elephant and a tiger (this was during our “Just So Stories” period), but with no actual plot to be found anywhere except still-bound inside my swirling imagination.

      It took me a long time to understand why everyone thought it was so funny – I mean, I knew exactly what happened, why didn’t everyone else?! There was an accompanying (painstakingly drawn) illustration, after all…

      Which probably explains my difficulty in getting from point A to point B in my writing. I can see it all so clearly in my head…what? you mean I now have to write all that down?!

  2. If I try to write fast, I put down almost all dialogue with stage directions and nothing else – and it’s more like a stage play, with the characters all in one place, talking to each other.

    There’s no good way to recover from that, because even when I try to put in more description and action, I still have long scenes where people stand in one place, thinking and talking about the past, resolving differences in the present, and planning for the future.

    For myself that gives me the emotional development, but it doesn’t translate for the reader. The ability to write scenes where people *do* something and give the reader a chance to infer the importance themselves is a relatively recent development. And now the dialogue is mostly restricted to a couple of exchanges, embedded in prose, and the longer exchanges that are left really *mean* something instead of being endless infodumps.

    The only way I can get there is to not skip over anything, because no, I _can’t_ insert it afterwards.

    • Sounds like a great insight into your writing process, that there’s a switch that brings action to a halt while people talk if the talking comes first. So, if I’m reflecting back correctly what you said, you need to begin your story construction with an armature that’s primarily action, and then add layers of richness, but that the underlying rhythm and momentum of events has to be there from the beginning.

      • I’ve compared writing to ‘connect the dots’ (and it took me a couple more years before I started to see _how_): if you provide too little, readers are confused, if you fill in all the gaps (telling readers what to feel and think) readers are bored, if your hints are all over the map, it will make no sense to the reader.

        Telling stories that are about _what characters do_ (the mantra of ‘a scene is about a character moving through a setting’ helps) gives me a richer tapestry of small events instead of lumps where characters sit and think or talk.

        And yeah, working this out was bloody amazing.

  3. I used to love writing first drafts and was able to write a fairly balanced one. After life disasters and inferiority issues, I wrote in a ragged fashion for a while and am now trying to re-define my method of first-drafting so I don’t hate the imperfections inherent in any rough draft so much.

    I appreciate your thoughts here and the acknowledgement that no matter what type of rough draft a person writes, they can always end up as balanced manuscripts later.

    Thank you.

    • Janice, I hear you. For at least the first decade of my professional writing career, I saw no improvement in my first drafts. They were, not to put too fine a point on it, just awful. All the progress lay in my ability to revise.

      Then I had lunch with a writer friend, someone I admired and who was extremely successful. I poured forth my insecurity about my first drafts. This writer got very quiet for a moment and said, “No one, not even my most trusted reader, sees my work before second, usually third drafts.”

      I thought, Wow, there’s hope for me. As there is for all of us.

  4. I’ve wondered if some of my own reliance on dialogue doesn’t spring from the fact that my way of experiencing live is so talk-oriented. I don’t **do** much; I mainly talk about things–and I wonder if that carries over to my characters and stories. . .

  5. A great deal of my narrative drive comes from the existence of conversations, and the need to create characters to have them. Then I have to orchestrate events and action so that they can reasonably have these chats. And by then I have a novel.

  6. Pingback: » The OutRamp Guide to Writing: Episode #12 - The OutRamp