Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Dialogue - It's Not Just Talking

I often find that one of the main reasons I reject stories is the lack of depth in a project. In other words, the author has really skimmed the surface with the real character development. In most cases, when I say this to an author, they add more sub-plots and story elements which does nothing more, in the long run, than increase the word count. In reality, the easiest solution is sitting right in front of their face - Dialogue.

Too often, many authors miss the real value of dialogue in a story. For most, the only purpose is to have the characters have a conversation with one another. Now granted, dialogue is a discussion, but what the readers can gain from the use of effective dialogue is huge.

When I used to actively do theater, one of the things I did was to spend countless hours looking over the script reading not just what I said to memorize the lines, but to read, the other stuff in the story. I would see what other people said about my character. I would read carefully to see how my character said things to different people in the story. In other words, was there a difference in tone and vocabulary used with the different situations. These small little elements added a huge amount of depth to the character development.

Over the weekend, I worked with one of my authors a new project she was working on. Depth was one of those elements. She found that she had a character that suddenly had nothing major that had to happen in the story. Still, it was time for this characters POV to show up since she had spent a very larger portion on one of the other characters. So we built in a dialogue.

Now I know what you are thinking. "But Scott, you're just having the characters talk." True, but instead of just having the conversation be mindless, this was a chance to insert a bit of that information dump that we try so hard to avoid in the narrations sections. Since this character was new to the surroundings, she had the character bump into someone that has been around for some time. The conversation could now deal with elements of world building, introspection into the other protagonist, as well as some introspection on the characters and his new surroundings. In this short dialogue, we now were starting to understand the GMC of two of the major characters, got a bit more of an understanding of the plot, and did so in a fun way.

Your job during this week is to really look at your use of dialogue. I understand that you probably use all of the elements I talked about here, but look at what you MOSTLY use it for. I think you will be shocked that for many of you, the dialogue you use most of the time is just mindless chatter. It's simply a time for your characters to be together. See if you can make it so much more.



  1. I am huge on dialogue and cannot imagine introducing it to promote the story. It arises naturally from the dynamic between the characters and therefore presents that dynamic as character development. History, location, atmosphere, and other plot details can/may be revealed by the nature of the dialogue. Cue Bob Dylan again.

  2. Even dialog needs to reveal character or move the story forward- otherwise it's just wasting time and space.

  3. Excellent post. I agree. Dialogue is key for me. When I'm reading a story, I will sometimes skip the descriptive bits just to get to the next piece of dialogue. I think you learn more from conversations in the story than anything else.
    Thanks for reminding us though. I'm currently editing so I'll keep a keen eye on my dialogue and make sure it's saying all that it should.

  4. I LOVE writing dialogue. I give workshops on dialogue. But there's always more to learn, and there are excellent points in this post. Beware the AYKB info dumping!

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  5. Scott,

    I once read a great piece from another literary agent that said every phrase in dialogue should reveal something about your character. I've always loved using dialogue in my work, but since reading that advice, my dialogue has improved vastly. I actually now use it to help reveal great truths about my characters. In fact, I find myself not able to write a story without dialogue. Thanks so much for this great post. I think it's such a vital tool in creative writing when used correctly, and is often overlooked.


  6. As another old theatre geek, I'd like to add that sometimes what a character doesn't say about themselves or others can be a huge window on who they really are.

  7. Consider me refocussed, I'll scrutinise idle chatter and make it slide along ;)