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“This Story Needs More Dialogue,” She Gasped

February 24, 2010

Writing believable dialogue in fiction has been a topic very much on my mind lately, and not only because it’s the Wicked Writers’ topic of the week.

In the past few years, I always thought writing dialogue was the easiest part of putting a novel together. Character A meets Character B at Location X and tells him/her Important Information Z. Simple. I invested much more time crafting plot lines, researching the accuracy of my settings, and so on. But now as I revise, I’ve discovered the trickiest element to get right is the one I gave least thought to.

One reason I may have downplayed the importance of dialogue is that many novels I love use it either sparingly or in between long passages of narrative (that is, non-dialogue). Middlesex, Water for Elephants, Life of Pi, and Poisonwood Bible are all contemportary novels that stuck with me long after I finished the last page.

I just finished reading a suspense novel recommended by one of our Wicked Writers followers, Suzanne Adair (thanks!): A Trace of Smoke. It’s an excellent example of a book that strikes the right balance between strong dialogue and a cinematic narrative style, evoking crisp images of Berlin in the turbulent year of 1931. (If you’re interested in other recommendations, please check out more of my favorite books on www.goodreads.com.)

However minimal dialogue appears within a piece, I’m discovering that it’s the engine that moves along any narrative. In recently editing and critiquing other writers’ works of fiction, I find that nowadays I’m often tempted to put down any book that relies mostly on large blocks of narrative to tell a story (or backstory). I need to understand the characters and hear their voices, not just learn details about their past. And as Greg pointed out in his post yesterday, these voices need to impart more than simply their words but give me a sense of who they are and what they’re all about.

I’ve found that editing for a living, and now with a new eye on dialogue, has helped me to see the spots in my own writing that need tweaking. It comes almost second nature to me, when I see other writers insert three or four blocks of consecutive descriptive passages, to suggest, “break this passage up with some dialogue.”

Trying to apply that advice to my own work has been quite an eye-opener, to say the least. I can now understand the oft-heard lament of, “I had to skip those parts and jump right to the action.” Isn’t that what dialogue is in most stories—the action and interchange we all seek?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. maered permalink
    February 24, 2010 8:45 am

    I love it when a book has snappy, fast-paced dialogue. Love nothing more than reading about an intelligent character who speaks like one, too. Personally, I don’t like reading books with minimal dialogue but I hate it when the dialogue isn’t realistic.

  2. February 24, 2010 9:51 am

    I agree, Maered. When done well, a story flows through narrative and dialogue so seamlessly that a reader gets caught up in the story rather than noticing how much or little dialogue it has.

  3. Steve Liskow permalink
    February 24, 2010 12:20 pm

    Supriya,

    All four of the books you mention with “little dialogue” have distinctive and quirky narrative voices that allow them to do more telling than usual. The typical writer’s voice telling so much with so little dialogue would be unreadable to everyone except the writer’s mother…and then if he’s holding his sibs hostage in the cellar.

    • February 24, 2010 6:05 pm

      You’re right on those distinctive voices, Steve. About those hostages in the cellar, would like to talk about it?

  4. Harley D. Palmer permalink*
    February 24, 2010 2:01 pm

    I have the opposite problem with having too much dialogue and not enough narrative. It is so bad that the first draft of my novel got a review that said I should have been writing it as a script, not a novel!! I have to try really hard to break it up and show more things intead of having the characters just talk about them.

    • February 24, 2010 5:54 pm

      Hmm, have you tried signing up for the Writing Academy? They might help you solve that problem.

      Thanks again, Harley, for taking time to visit with us.

    • February 24, 2010 6:06 pm

      Wow, looks like we should collaborate. Sounds like a good problem to have, at least from my vantage point.

  5. Krishna Shenoy permalink
    February 26, 2010 9:15 am

    As reader, nothing makes my eyes roll than two whole pages of narrative. I’m reading Museum of Innocence right now and it is mostly narrative. If the narrative is too long I get the feeling that the author likes the sound of his own voice. Imparting details and background just because you can is boring. I have been skipping from dialogue to dialogue in this book alot.

    • March 1, 2010 10:01 am

      Yes, I know the feeling. And on a side note, I met Orhan Pamuk’s American translator, Maureen Freely, at a party in Manhattan 20 years ago. (Not something I can say often, so I had to mention it.)

  6. February 27, 2010 11:33 am

    Great summary Supriya. There is definitely a balance that must be struck, a rhythm almost, that pulls the reader along with enough description and action to balance the dialogue. It’s almost a dance – with very tricky steps! One that I’m still trying to learn.

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