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dialogueEffective dialogue works by implication. The tone of a comment or the choice of words or the hesitation with which something is said can indicate that beneath the spoken words there is a feeling very different from what the words seem to express. Dialogue suggests what people mean by what they’re saying, even if they themselves aren’t fully aware of it.

John L’Heureux

While I wish I could’ve participated in more Litquake events this year, I’m glad I could attend their “Art of Writing” series. Each year, Litquake hosts different panels, which consist of published, sometimes emerging, authors. Every time I go, I leave feeling validated as a writer. The discussions are like an energy boost to my writerly aims. In each session, I am surrounded by writers, new and experienced, listening to other writers talk not just about their book, but about their craft of writing and their own process for writing a novel, memoir or short story. It’s as if I’m back in grad school, except not as technical, although I’m finding I like technical. I really miss those days of deconstructing stories to “reverse-engineer” an author’s craft decisions.

I realized this even more when I got home that night and dug into the manuscripts I read for the literary agency. In the first manuscript, which ended in the slush pile, the writer made a fatal error in the first two chapters. The entire back story and ground situation were laid out in dialogue. The main character went from one place to another, talking to one character to the next, in order to set up the story, which took nearly two chapters to really begin.

During Litquake’s “Art of the Short Story” session, the panel was asked whether they liked writing dialogue or narration more. I was surprised to hear how many preferred writing dialogue. As a short story writer, I dread writing dialogue, mainly because of the space it takes up. A relatively short conversation between two characters could take up an entire page. That’s precious real estate in short fiction country. Short story writers look to make every word count, and every exchange between characters must carry more than its surface weight.

Since reading our agency’s in-box submissions, I found these principles still apply to longer forms of writing. While novels and memoirs have the luxury of space, they don’t have the same luxury when comes to pacing, and dialogue can create or sabotage it. It’s surprising how many submissions that never end up in our agents hands simply because of the misuse or ineffective use of dialogue. As a result, I’ve put together below a list of dialogue writing tips that may help you get your submission past the likes of a discerning editorial intern like me.

Seven Tips for Writing Dialogue

  1. Dialogue is not for “info-dumping.” If you need to reveal expository information such as the background or ground situation, it’s better to have it come out as your story is unfolding. There are more effective methods to reveal this information than through dialogue, such as using narration or internal monologue to show the past in scene (flashback) or in summary.
  2. Dialogue needs to be tight, succinct. Because you are in scene, dialogue lengthens time. Sometimes slowing down the moment can ratchet up tension, but the longer you stay in dialogue, the more you risk losing pacing. Best to cut out all the small talk or trivial conversation and only show the meatiest, or most significant part of the conversation.
  3. Dialogue is still considered character action or movement. If scenes only consist of characters conversing, there is little else happening. Characters who are too busy talking are not taking meaningful (relevant to the character and situation) action or reaction to push the story forward.
  4. Dialogue should carry more than its weight. It’s an opportunity to bring out characterization by the way the character delivers or receives the exchange of dialogue. It can be a trigger for revealing a past that motivates or pushes the character to take action.
  5. Dialogue, or in-scene conversation, isn’t always necessary. Compressing dialogue by summarizing can keep pacing tight. Dialogue in summary is useful when it comes to dialogue with minor, non-recurring, characters. It is also an efficient way to show an exchange of information that gets your character to the next plot point while not being a key moment or having emotional significance.
  6. Dialogue doesn’t always need dialogue tags, but they’re important to use to keep the reader situated in the story. This is especially important when dealing with dialogue between three or more characters. While they shouldn’t be included every time a character says something, there should be some way for the reader to follow who is speaking, either with a dialogue tag every now or then, or identifying the character through their movement or expression.
  7. Dialogue descriptors or adverbs should be used sparingly. It can sometimes be an overstatement. For example, rather than stating “He said sternly,” use other ways to bring out the character’s sternness, such as in what he says and how looks when he says it.  Often what is said already implies the character’s attitude.

Writing dialogue can be tricky but if used well, it can deepen your characters and push your story forward. It can increase tension rather than slow pacing. It can make a character more complex rather than simply be a talking head.

I’m interested in hearing from other writers and editors. What are your thoughts about writing dialogue? What do you find most valuable in its use and how do you see its purpose? And what has been successful for your writing and what has not?

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