Monday, January 19, 2009

Can we talk about writing about talk...?

All the information you need can be given in dialogue.
- Elmore Leonard

I taught a seminar on Writing Dialogue for the Writing Room on Saturday. Preparing and leading a writing seminar on a craft element always turns out to be a big refresher course for me.

Here are a few notes from the seminar:
What is dialogue? Dialogue is conversation between two or more characters.
1. One mark of good written dialogue is that it is doing more than one thing at once:
• Advancing the plot
• Revealing character
• Providing “subtext”

is what's not said but implied. Dialogue is often a mask for unexpressed feelings. Or even for lying. People frequently don't say what they mean. It makes for interesting dialogue if the reader knows that someone isn't saying what she means, or is lying. It creates tension.

2. What is not said is as revealing as what is said, especially regarding emotion. People in crisis are often at their least articulate. Think about it: The rhythm of speech changes according to our emotions. An angry person will be short and sharp. A person in love will be long and languid and dreamy.

3. As Francine Prose mentions in her book, Reading Like a Writer, dialogue in fiction is better than "real" dialogue. Fictional dialogue should be an improved, cleaned up, compressed, economical, and smoothed-out version of the way people talk. And yet, it should sound "natural."

4. Dialect is challenging and easy to overdo. "Dialect should always be achieved by word choice and syntax, and misspellings kept to a minimum. They distract and slow the reader, and worse, they tend to make the character seem stupid rather than regional." --Burroway, WRITING FICTION

Good examples of dialect (where syntax makes dialect clear): "Don't rush me none."
"Run up yonder and tell her."
Bad example: "Doan rush me nun, Ah be gwine." (caricature)
Ron Rash (ONE FOOT IN EDEN), Richard Price (LUSH LIFE) and Annie Proulx ("Brokeback Mountain") are writers who are masters of dialect.

5. A few ways to improve your dialogue writing skills:
Eavesdrop. Start paying close attention to people’s conversations in public places. Write down snippets or intriguing lines in a journal.
Read your dialogue aloud "to make sure it is comfortable to the mouth, the breath, and the ear. If not, then it won't ring true as talk." --Burroway, WRITING FICTION.
Also, have people read your dialogue to you. You’ll be able to hear the rhythm and cadence of the sentences, how easy it is to pronounce the words and syllables, how long each character’s dialogue is.
Keep Practicing. The best way to improve dialogue writing skills is to read it (you’ll learn to spot and pay attention to authors who are good at writing dialogue) and to write more dialogue. The more you practice writing it, the more you’ll come to understand the cadence, rhythm and timing of natural-sounding dialogue.

Oh, and Happy MLK Day everyone.


  1. I'm working on a novel and find that scene setting comes easily but I struggle with dialogue. I'm afraid it's wooden and slow.

    I also seem to use a lot of stage direction, with this person turning to do this and that person turning to do that.

  2. I think it's less daunting to revise and cut back after drafting dialogue...cut out the stage directions and tags, and read aloud and a lot of times you can pare down.


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