Goodbye Dialogue Land

On January 4th, 2010, Inkquisitive asked, “ you have any help for those of us who seem to live in Dialogue Land? I know you have touched on this a little before, but do you have any suggestions on how to convert a conversation-heavy scene into more action? My book is starting to look like a play (which I do not want) with bits of narrative strewn among a majority of conversation. Thanks.

Here are some suggestions for getting from Dialogue Land into Action Land.

Suppose your main character’s objective is to restore a friendship.  In real life and fiction that’s usually achieved with words, but this time your job is to get there with minimal dialogue.  Consider how your main character, James, can win back Hanna’s trust with few words, and not a letter either.  You don’t have to retreat into wordlessness, however.  James can be thinking like crazy.  In addition to thinking, what can he do?

Or, write a story with a main character who is not a talker.  She may not even be much of a verbal thinker.  She expresses herself by action.  Make her mad at someone.  How does she deal with her anger without talking or screaming or explaining her feelings?  Bring in more characters and stick mainly to action.

Silence can pack a huge emotional wallop.  In life and in fiction when one person stops talking to another, you have explosive tension.  Friends doing something together without a word – walking in the woods, cooking, sitting by a fire – can convey companionship and peace.  Setting can help, and so can body language.  Two people slumped in chairs in a hospital lounge suggest grief or hopelessness.

Think of a retreat in which the participants have vowed silence.  In spite of the silence, however, relationships are formed, feelings conveyed.  Try writing about a main character at a silent weekend retreat.  Make her want something that is counter to the intentions of the retreat.  How does she go about getting what she wants?  One way to approach this might be through humor.

Maybe this can’t be done entirely without words, but what fun it would be to write – or read – a mystery set in a place of silence.

When you find yourself locked in dialogue, think of it as being stuck on the phone.  Your cousin has called.  You love him, but he’s a chatterbox, and after a while you remember that you’ve eaten nothing for eight hours or a light bulb needs changing or you promised to mow the lawn, so you look for a friendly, unhurtful way to get off the phone.  Try the same technique in Dialogue Land.  Think of a reason for one of your characters to end the conversation.  Break everybody up and move the story to a different location.  Make the next scene a solo one.  Your main character is alone.  He has no one to talk to.  What does he do?

Radical cutting also may help.  Do all these words need to be said?  Can some just be eliminated?  Suppose your characters are talking about an event that they all witnessed.  Try showing the event.  Your characters can have thoughts about it, but let the action unfold as it happens.  If one of the characters missed the occurrence, you can just say in narration that he was told.

I have not done this recently, but it might be a good idea:  Watch an old silent movie.  In silent movies there were occasional speech lines shown on the screen, but almost everything was accomplished without them.  Observe how it was done.

Look through picture books.  Granted, these are simple stories, but they might be useful anyway.  See what the images convey, because you can write in images.  You can write about facial expressions and reduce the necessity of having someone say what he’s feeling.

Often the motivation for dialogue is to develop character, and dialogue is wonderful for that, but think how your characters can reveal themselves without words.  We learn a lot about Kirby if he combs his hair in a mirror while Kathleen weeps on the sofa a yard away.

I’ve saved the most obvious for last, because it is obvious.  Write an action story:  a chase, an escape, a natural disaster.  These can be dialogue heavy too, but don’t let yours be.  When your characters start getting chatty, make the roof cave in or the bad guys show up.  Tie your characters up with tape across their mouths.

Prompts are scattered through this post.  Here they are, collected:

•    Restore a friendship in a scene.  No more than ten words may be spoken.

•    Write a story about a main character who isn’t a talker and isn’t a verbal thinker either.  You may want to get her mad at someone.  Or do something else with her.

•    Set a story at a silent retreat.  Your main character wants something and it isn’t silence or spiritual growth.  What happens?

•    Watch a silent movie (I love Buster Keaton) or read a bunch of picture books.  Use one of them as the basis of a story with little dialogue.

•    Write an action story about a chase or an escape or a natural disaster.  Or all three!  When any of your characters speak, don’t let the speech go beyond a single line.

Have fun and save what you write.

  1. That's good; I have the same problem. Thanks for the advice! 😀

    I had a question: I reached the 50,000 word goal for NaNoWriMo this past November. However, my novel is not done and they did not even take the huge step to begin the journey. I think this is because I take too much time word padding, describing characters, or introducing new ones. What can I do to remedy this problem?

  2. Dear Mrs. Levine,
    I am a fan of all your books and love to write. But I have a problem: how do I find out if my writing is good? I can't critique it like I can other books, because I've heard it so much and don't hear it as I do with other books. Can you help me?

  3. I also have a question. One of my friends was going through the book she's writing and descovered she had around 50 main or semi main characters. Ouch. I'm trying to help her downsize a bit, but it's not going very well. How do you know when you've got too many characters? When is a it a good time to stop adding new ones? And do you have any ideas on how she can downsize the amount of characters she has?

  4. Such great advice, and such good timing. I literally typed on a message board yesterday that my draft was done except that I needed to go back and fill out a couple scenes that were basically nothing but dialogue, and poof, here was this post. So, thank you for that!

  5. Wow! That is almost a prompt for every day until your next post – all of them interesting.

    Inquisitive – when Gail said that "James could be thinking like crazy" it gave me the idea that if you are having trouble putting thoughts into your dialogue, you might try writing a scene in first person. Maybe even multiple times, writing in first person of different characters in the same scene.

  6. Horsey at Heart–I think you should keep writing and not worry about word count. Don't go back; just start the journey. When you finish you'll be in a better position to decide what to toss and what to keep. Oh, and maybe limit yourself to no more than two new characters per fifty pages.
    Kye–You've asked a similar question. Your friend should keep writing, and the important characters are likely to emerge. If your friend is writing in third person, a switch to first may help her simplify. Horsey at Heart, a switch may help you too.
    Elizabeth–Often putting one of your stories aside for a month will let you see it fresh and know what needs more work. I wouldn't worry about whether or not your writing is good, or about too much detail either. Do your best and keep going.

  7. Elizabeth – Barie-ah's post reminded me, also look up It's a very reputable children's writing association. They have chapters in every state, but even if there is not one near you there are ways through them to get in touch with other writers and form on-line critique groups.

    Also, Cynthia Leitich Smith has some good information for writers, you might start with her FAQ, – she discusses critique groups and also specific sites for writers under 18 (if that happens to be you.)

  8. That' real good advice, thanks. After reading your post, I thought back to my novel, and realized – what do you do if you have too LITTLE dialogue? I sometimes have to force myself to insert dialogue in a scene. Some scenes of mine are paced alright – ok dialogue, ok action, ok description (the ones I wanted to write, like I mentioned last week). BUt the others…the dialogue just isn't natural enough. 🙁
    I've heard that there shouldn't be too much non-dialogue in a piece of writing, beacause that will turn off readers. But in some scenes there just does NOT seem to be place for it!! Your thoughts?

  9. That's great advice! But I fear I have the same problem as F. And if I do have a moment where diologue comes natural then I write it where almost every time someone says something I explain what their doing; running fingers through their hair, staring out the window, pacing the room, biting their nails, touching someones shoulder. Is this a problem or a good thing?

  10. Thank you so much! I wrote a story I considered dead because I killed it with dialogue poisoning. I hope I can revive it with your tips! I'm so glad I'm not alone with this problem. 🙂

  11. Your biography on this site and other sites alway say you have been writing stories all your life. Have you always wante to be a published author who is well known or were just writing for fun and wrote something that made you want to be published? I have wanted to be the type of author that discusses her next book on Good Morning America since I was in Kindergarten and wanted to be just like Barbra Parks and write Junie B. Jones books for her when she quit. I had it all planned! haha anyway just a curious question.

  12. I recently came across your blog and I'm so glad I did! I've been a huge fan of yours ever since I read Ella Enchanted. It is by far one of my favourite books.
    Thanks for the great advice on dialogue. I've been struggling with this problem in my writing. Each word seems really important to me, so it's really hard to shorten or cut my characters' dialogue. Looking forward to your next post.
    Mary/Elizabeth: There are many writing/critiquing forums on the Internet that may cater to your needs. is a very helpful site for young writers between the ages 13-25 (the average age of the members is 18). If you're in that age range, you should definitely check it out.

  13. Jill–I haven't been writing stories all my life. The statement is a holdover from my first book (ELLA) when the flap copy writers had little else to say. I wrote stories
    from elementary school through high school, and then there was a twenty-five year gap! I go into this in WRITING MAGIC.

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