Talk, darn it!

January 28, 2010, F posted this question:  …what do you do if you have too LITTLE dialogue?  I sometimes have to force myself to insert dialogue in a scene….  I’ve heard that there shouldn’t be too much non-dialogue in a piece of writing, because that will turn off readers. But in some scenes there just does NOT seem to be place for it!!  Your thoughts?

And the next day, Arya wrote,  …I fear I have the same problem as F.  And if I do have a moment where dialogue comes natural then I write it where almost every time someone says something I explain what they’re doing:  running fingers through their hair, staring out the window, pacing the room, biting their nails, touching someone’s shoulder).  Is this a problem or a good thing?

One reason readers like dialogue, which I discuss in Writing Magic, is that it creates white space on the page, because speech paragraphs are usually shorter than descriptive ones.  A page with just a single paragraph, for example, looks daunting.  You may have seen textbook pages like this.  My reaction is, Whoa!  I don’t know if I can handle this.  But a page with ten paragraphs of mixed dialogue and description looks much friendlier.

You can achieve comforting white space with short paragraphs, a good technique when a character is alone.  But when two or more characters are together, there’s a more important reason for them to talk than mere white space.  It’s relationships.  Put two people together, even briefly, even strangers, and there’s a relationship.

Not all situations lead to dialogue, of course.  I grew up in New York City, where people are smooshed together, often more than they like.  So in the subway and on the street they frequently guard themselves against contact with silence.  But even in crowded New York City, talk erupts surprisingly often.  Once, a woman on the subway, out of the blue, couldn’t keep herself from telling my husband that he has a beautiful nose!  If a subway train gets stuck between stations, riders may complain to one another.  If the delay is prolonged there will certainly be conversation, and sometimes friendships are formed.

Imagine three characters are scaling a wall at night.  The enemy is on the other side, and silence is required.  No dialogue, but lots of thought, and some of it about the other characters.  Take away the enemy, and they will almost certainly talk.  Okay, maybe the task is so hard that they have no breath left over for speech.  Suppose it isn’t that hard.  Suppose it’s a beginner-level wall in a fitness program, but suppose the characters have never met before.  They’re just thrown together for this task.  Still, each has a personality, and they’re unlikely all to be silent types.

Maybe one is the leader.  She’ll likely feel she needs to give some instruction.  One is scared.  Depending on who he is, he may reveal his fear in dialogue or camouflage it in different dialogue.  Or hide it in silent teeth gritting.  And maybe one is the silent type and won’t speak unless the leader checks on him.  They may not be talking much, but they’ll be talking.

Of course it’s up to you.  Don’t let any of them be silent types.  The leader may be naturally friendly.  Another climber may be given to putting herself down out loud, as in, “There’s no way I’m good enough to climb this wall.”  The third may be curious and may have a series of questions for the leader.  Or he may be nosy and be angling for dirt about each of his companions.

In most scenes your characters won’t be strangers, and they’ll have feelings about one another and be connected in various ways.  If you think about their feelings and what each wants from the others, you are likely to find dialogue inevitable.  What a character wants may be a tiny thing.  A character may even just want conversation for its own sake.  He may looking for reassurance that the other person doesn’t dislike him.  He may feel that social convention demands speech and he can’t be silent.  He may not be comfortable with silence.

Near the beginning of the mystery I’m working on now, which is in early stages and has no title yet, several of my characters are on the deck of a boat watching a dramatic sunset.  The dragon, Masteress Meenore, says,

    “Some would call it a portentous sunset,” IT said.
    Evil portents?
    “But rational creatures do not put any faith in auguries.  One can deduce nothing from them, and common sense reminds us that no sunset is the same.”

IT – the dragon – starts talking only to show off ITs intelligence.  What follows is a discussion of magic.  Some characters disagree with IT.  There’s a dispute but no real anger.  These characters are being sociable, passing time on a boat where the opportunities for action are limited.  And they’re debating ideas I want to introduce into the story.

When one person speaks, in fiction and life, another often wants to respond, to agree, disagree, ask for clarification, steer the conversation another way.  If you ask yourself what the other characters think and feel about an initial statement, you can open the dialogue floodgates.

Now for Arya’s question:  Generally it’s good – terrific! – to include movement along with dialogue if you don’t overdo it.  These little acts can reveal character or show where people are physically, and they break up solid dialogue, just as you want to break up solid narrative.  The nail biter and the pacer may be anxious at the moment or anxious as a constant state, and the reader will get that.  The character who touches the shoulder of another person may be showing dominance or reassurance or demonstrating his touchy-feely nature.  My example above would be improved by a little physicality.  This would be better:

    “Some would call it a portentous sunset.”  White smoke rose from ITs nostrils in a wide, lazy spiral.

The reader knows that smoke spirals mean IT’s happy, so information has been revealed.  The other advantage is that I can cut “IT said,” which now takes up unnecessary space.  We don’t want every dialogue paragraph to be accompanied by a gesture, but many can be.  You can always take a few out when you think you’ve gone too far.

Here are two prompts:

The first is to go back to a scene, or more than one, in one of your stories that seems dialogue weak.  Think about the characters in the scene and how they feel toward one another, what they want, what their thoughts are, and what their thoughts might move them to say.  When one character speaks, see what another might say in response.  Put in as much dialogue as you can create.  You can delete the excess later.

The second prompt takes us on a hike through beautiful countryside in a national park.  No danger is looming.  There is no need for the characters to talk, but they do.  Try one or more of these possible groups of hikers.  In each case, limit the number of talking characters to no more than four.  Mix gestures in with the conversation.

•    A group of campers and two counselors.

•    An elder hostel group with a younger tour guide.

•    A family group.  You make up the members.

•    Participants in a program for troubled teenagers and two counselors.

•    Bird watchers.

•    Scientists engaged in finding and tagging wolves.

After you’ve written a page, have one of the characters say something that shocks everyone else.  Then write another page of dialogue.

Have fun and save what you write!

On another subject, several weeks ago Priyanka asked about writing from the perspective of characters much older than she is.  I am weeks from tackling this, but I read an excellent article in yesterday’s (March 2nd) New York Times in the Science section that has bearing on the topic.  Priyanka and anyone else who feels uncertain about inventing older characters may find the article helpful.  The title is “Old Age, From Youth’s Narrow Prism.”  I’m sure you can access it online.

  1. Thanks for your ideas on dialogue. I am writing a creative non-fiction piece for Dr Fraustino's class and I realized that I need to add some dialogue to make it more interesting! I can't wait to meet you at Eastern! Tricia

  2. Wow, thanks for answering. 🙂 I understand what you mean…it just seems sometimes hard to feel the characters, make them seem real enough so that the dialogue comes naturally. But anyway, interesting post, I'm going to be following up on that.

  3. My question is about dialogue too, unless you've already answered this question (then I'll try and find it). How do you write believable dialogue that is unique to each character's personality? Every time I try it seems to come out sounding so much like me and more straight forward than I want it. They all seem to say what they think and not think either logically or in directions that suit their characters…How do you get around this and write dialogue that shows character's personalities and gets the story moving at the same time? I'm pretty clueless on both..Another very helpful post though. Thank you!

  4. Dear Mrs. Levine,
    That's DEFINITELY not the problem for me. Instead, my stories are starting to look description-free, and more like a movie script. Any advice?

  5. Amy Goodwin–Great question, and I haven't written about it directly, so I'm adding it to my list.
    Mary–On January 27th I did post on this exact subject, so I suggest you take a look.

  6. Good question, Amy. I struggle with this too so look forward to GCL's answer! I did see a tip recently to print out your manuscript and highlight each character's dialogue in a different color – it might have been in an interview of Lisa Graff (I hope I attributed that correctly.) I plan on trying that as soon as I get my manuscript to that point.

    April – I was surprised that I found the article less sad and more hopeful. I expected it to be sad. But it may be that judging from your picture, that you are much younger than me. 🙂 But I know what you mean, I didn't enjoy the movie UP! as much as some because I thought the beginning was so sad. Thanks for the link to the article.

  7. Mrs. Levine,

    I've been meaning to thank you for such helpful posts! I'm ok as far as dialogue is concerned, but I tend to be description heavy. I also need to work on suspense. Any suggestions?

  8. Erin, I don't know how old you are, but I'll be 25 when my namesake rolls around. 😉

    I found it sad not in a crying way, but in that "ugh" kind of way (I'm clearly not explaining it well). So sad that we assume others are feeling what we expect them to or what we project on them, when they're not. So sad that we all fear the distant future. So sad that hospitals and nursing homes are often filled with these kinds of people (my conclusion, not what's stated in the article).

    That kind of sad.

    But the revelation the doctor had about the woman in the wheel chair was amusing, because it was so unexpected (the writer sets you up to believe the doctor's assumptions). Clever writing, there.

  9. Wow. Did that lady really comment on your husband's nose? That's kind of weird. But, quick question: I'm reading a book* by a friend, and she's only 13. The stories are wonderful, thrilling and above all a great mix of description and dialogue, but I keep finding mistakes. The most common is "I" and "me." It drives me insane, but I still get what she means. When I read, or even write, for that matter, should I worry about this or let it go? Thanx. 🙂
    * You can purchase this book on Amazon. It's self published and written by Brooke Harrison. There's 2 soon to be 3 of them.

  10. Mary–Yes! You should worry about mistakes when you read and when you write. Your friend should fix her grammar. The only time when it's okay to mix up I and me is in dialogue when the speaker (and not the writer) is making the mistake.

  11. April – I get what you mean – and happy birthday!

    As far as my age, I'll just say that I am old enough now that I'm finally glad people often seem to think I am younger than I am. When I was married and people used to ask me what grade I was in, it was a bit much. 🙂

  12. @Erin: Lol, you scared me for a second! Haha, glad to see that's not the case.
    And I think Amy's question is an international emergency. 🙁

  13. Ms. Levine- Thank you so much for the link to the article! I thought it was fascinating. The section with the old woman who "forgot that she was old" reminded me of something that happened to me recently- I was spending an afternoon with some middle-schoolers and reminiscing about my favorite parts of elementary school. I didn't feel that much older than them, although my college experience obviously gave me a different perspective on the things we were talking about. Imagine my surprise when they called me an old lady! Having always been told that I act/appear extraordinarily young for someone that's almost twenty, I was shocked at how they perceived me.

    Perhaps that's how some older people feel, haha. Nobody really feels as old as they appear to be on the outside, huh?

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