Talking talk

Before I get to Hope M’s posted comment about dialogue, I want to mention what I heard on the radio recently in an interview with Madeleine Albright. I’m always on the alert – when I remember – for verbal tics, the phrases people repeat unawares that give a clue to their souls. Madeleine Albright had a telling one. Often, she began an anecdote by saying, “I have to tell you.” This from a former Secretary of State! How many times did she really have to tell a head of state something, and how many times was she unable to say what she wanted to? So, to psychoanalyze her without a license, this oddly candid expression migrated into her ordinary speech.

It’s marvelous when we can find such a revealing conversational tic for a character.

Here’s Hope M’s topic request: I would like to hear what you have to say about dialogue. Although it comes easily to others it most definitely does not come easily to me! It usually ends up going along the lines of he said…she said…he said and so on…droning on and on until I get bored and delete it all.

I’m not sure this is a dialogue problem. The problem may be telling a story entirely in action or in just action and thoughts so that dialogue becomes inessential.

For example, two friends are getting dressed together for a party. One of them, Merry, wants to look particularly great because she’s been teased at school for her lack of style. She tries on one thing after another and is convinced everything looks awful. Her friend, Lara, on the other hand, isn’t thinking about anything except the argument she just had with her father. Lara puts on whatever and sits on the bed, staring into space. The reader, since this is told from a third-person POV, has witnessed both the teasing and the argument with the father and is waiting to see what happens at the party. The conversation that goes on between the friends is polite and inconsequential, because each one has her mind on something else.

That’s okay. In this instance you might keep the dialogue minimal. Or you could go the other way. Merry could ask Lara’s opinion about one outfit after another. Lara could be a polite, supportive friend until she snaps. She says something mean, like, “You’re so insecure it’s ridiculous.” Merry answers with, “You’re so selfish it’s incredible.” They start to get into it just when Merry’s mom knocks on the bedroom door and says it’s time to leave. The argument is unresolved. Both girls have to go to the party bearing the weight of it, and the reader has another reason to worry.

Dialogue that’s working for the story is unlikely to bore you or anyone.

When introducing a character I want to make an impression, often even with minor characters who may have only a few lines. Dialogue, action, physical description, and, depending on POV, thoughts are the major tools for introducing a character. When you’re presenting him for the first time, think about what he can say and what the reader will get from it. For example, in Fairest the Snow White character, Aza, has two brothers who don’t come into the story much, but I wanted to distinguish them, so I made the older brother Yarry blunt. He says whatever he thinks with no tactful coating. If everybody is tiptoeing around a subject, Yarry goes straight at it. He’s the first to say that Aza is ugly. Obviously, he says this in words, dialogue.

Dialogue can move the plot along. In Fairest again, Aza discovers that she’s going to the royal wedding. The revelation comes through dialogue while she’s helping a duchess dress:

“Have you grown taller? I believe you’ve surpassed Ethele.”
“Your skirt next, Your Grace?”
She looked at me appraisingly. “Ethele’s gowns would fit you.”
Occasionally guests gave cast-off clothing to Mother. Dame Ethele’s gowns were clownish. I demurred. “Thank you, but–”
“Not to keep! To wear to the wedding.”

The most economical way to advance plot is by telling, which can distance the reader. But dialogue is economical too. I convey the information about the wedding in just a few lines. As bonuses we see the duchess being imperious and Aza being clueless; character development is enhanced.

You can create a character who is prone to vacuous chitchat. In life, people who drone on are usually covering something. If you show the reader what your character is covering, even a motor mouth won’t be boring.

When you’re writing a scene with dialogue, think about the goals of each character. Maybe one is probing, the other concealing. Or their goals may not be related. Maybe one is probing and the other is practicing being charming. Doesn’t matter what the goals are. If the dialogue is backed up by motivation, it isn’t likely to be boring either.

Dialogue is great for emotional tension. In the party preparation scene, suppose Merry fears her friend is slipping away from her. When Lara doesn’t show the interest Merry wants, Merry becomes more and more desperate. Lara, on the other hand, still considers Merry her best friend, and wants some attention for herself, but she is absolutely lousy at asking anyone, even a best friend, for help. You may need more than dialogue to convey all this; you may need thoughts and action, too. But the dialogue can be the most powerful.

I love dialogue. When I have characters showing off their natures, I’m enjoying myself so much that I think more is better. Then I have to go back and trim, or even get out my ax. Sometimes dullness is just overload.

Here are three dialogue prompts:

Write a separation scene. Two characters are parting forever or for a long period. Each is important to the other, but not everything about their relationship has been positive.

Write a first-meeting scene in which each character has big expectations for what will result from the encounter.

Write a reunion scene in which each character is burdened by his perspective of the old relationship.

Have fun! Save what you wrote.

  1. This was very interesting. I'm usually told my dialogue sounds natural, but I've never thought about it like this before. I'll have to try it out and see how that improves my scenes.

    What's your opinion on placing an emphasis on dialect? For example, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

    What about the words accompanying dialogue? Some people are sticklers for only using "said," even with questions (instead of "asked"). Others use quite a variety of words to give more… shall we say, "expression" to the dialogue. And I know some don't care either way, so long as the word isn't an adverb/ends in "ly." What say you?

  2. Thank You so much!!
    That was extremely helpful, I can't wait to try some of your suggestions!!
    And thank you to April for reading my mind! That was exactly what I was going to ask! I have the same confusion over mixing up what you put after dialouge.
    Thanks again! Can't wait to read your next post!

  3. I love your post and your books, but I have a question about plot (or several). I'm not sure if you've answered this before or not, but how do you decided what to put in a plot or what makes it interesting; what's relavent? What's not? How do you build up to the climax? How do you choose what should be the climax? To put it bluntly: how do you form a plot?

    I love writing, but I usually just write with very little in mind, typing whatever comes to me and it ends up this elongated mess with no clear plot and I haven't the slightest idea on how to do so without constantly worrying about it. When I deliberately set out to make a plot, I think of that chart I get in middle school, where I had to define the rising action and the climax and the falling action and so on. This just seems to take all the fun and creativity out of writing for me, but I know I just can write blindly. Can you please help me?

  4. April and Alexis–I will write more about dialogue, and I'll talk about plot in a future post, after I respond to earlier questions. But, April, I do address some of your dialogue questions in WRITING MAGIC, so you might look there for now.

  5. Ms. Levine-
    I recently picked up your copy of "Writing Magic" at our local library for my 13-year-old son. We are both eagerly working our way through it. I believe I am unbiased when I say my son has a writing gift and want to cultivate it in anyway I can. I picked up some books for trying to expand his vocabulary, but they were boring. Can you recommend anything for this, or other books? Your writing/teaching style is truly captivating and we feel blessed to have found you!

    Mom in Iowa

  6. Renee–I'm glad you're both enjoying WRITING MAGIC! You might try subscribing to, which will deliver a word every day, including definition and usage, with a new theme every week, and there are archives to explore.

  7. I absolutely love the prompts! No other author has ever inspired me to immediately pick up a pen and follow the exercises. I did the first one and filled in abobut 5 pages and am in the midst of the second. Thanks for sharing all these tip with us!

  8. Ms. Levine.
    I am at the end of your book, Writing Magic, and it says, DO NOT TURN THE PAGE! Write 5 pages or a story, then turn the page or something close to that. Why?

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