Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dialogue Isn't Real, It's Code For Real-Life Conversations

If you believe my critique partners, my dialogue writing skills have improved by leaps and bounds over the years. Sometimes I wonder if they’re simply being kind, but considering how poor my dialogue skills were back when I began writing over six years ago, I guess it wouldn’t have taken all that much for me to become noticeably better.

Perhaps it has something to do with being an introvert, more accustomed to listening than talking, but dialogue has never come naturally to me. Heck, six years ago, I didn’t write dialogue, I wrote telling summaries of dialogue. As if I was afraid of using quotation marks. It wasn’t until I compared my chapters with those in published books that I realized the problem. No wonder my chapters had seemed so short.  :(

Fast forward to the present and I’m feeling a lot more comfortable with the whole dialogue thing, although I still have plenty left to learn. If anything, my dialogue now goes on for too long. Experts tell us it’s what’s left unsaid that delivers the most punch, but leaving stuff unsaid leaves me with a queasy feeling in my stomach. (Maybe because I used to be a teacher) Having characters talking at cross purposes or evading each others questions or misunderstanding what the other is saying are techniques I still struggle with.

Lately, I’ve been paying attention to television dramas to see how their writers write dialogue. One of my favorite shows for this is “Suits.” Even though there’s plenty of conflict and tension during an episode—almost all of it revealed through dialogue—the dialogue exchanges are surprisingly short. In fact, they’re much too short to adequately cover everything the characters would really need to know. And that’s the point I’m beginning to understand. Dialogue isn’t there to communicate information between the characters, it’s there to relay information to the reader in a manner that maximizes its entertainment value.

Dialogue isn’t real-life conversation, it’s code for real-life conversation.

So what shows do you watch for the dialogue?



  1. Speak in code, huh?
    I find dialogue easier than description. Together, we'd probably come up with a good book.

  2. I too find dialogue easier than description, but I usually end up writing way too much of it and needing to cut back. In real life, conversations are usually a lot more boring or mundane than what we actually include in fiction. That's where every word needs to matter.

  3. I used to watch the Office mostly for the dialogue, because really, the situation and setting wasn't that interesting. What's more interesting is the way the people try to express themselves, usually badly.

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  5. My favorite show was always Buffy, because I loved how the characters talked. When I do a first draft, it's mostly dialogue, because it seems easier to just have the characters talking to each other than worry about what they are doing or where they are. My favorite thing is playing games with what characters are not saying, and what they're really thinking.

  6. It bugs me that I can't think of the show that I really loved for dialogue. I know Psyche was one, the way they were completely off the wall, but there was another one that I can't remember.

    I'm no pro when it comes to dialogue. Often I rely on CPs to see if it sounds natural or not. It's never been my strongest point. :)

  7. Firefly. I like old movies, too, but dialogue isn't used the same anymore.

  8. I remember the first time I tried to write dialogue. I felt unworthy of putting someone else's words on paper. It took a while to get past that.

  9. There's a little editor that sits on my shoulder and grumbles fiction rules and negative reader remarks to me. 'She can't tell him that. He'd already know.' ... 'Whoa, whoa, whoa--that's enough. You want to make him seem passionate, but three paragraphs without so much as an action beat is over the top.' LOL

    Great post, Ken. :)

  10. I'm naturally pretty good with dialogue, but I end up struggling with everything else about the technical writing. Description is tough for me and figuring out all the other non-dialogue stuff that goes around dialogue so I'm not just writing so little that there's a bunch of white space.

  11. There's not a lot of television with dialogue I admire. I'm more likely to cringe at what I hear and re-write it in my head.

    The exception is Game of Thrones. The dialogue there is right on the mark. Clever and biting.

  12. One show I loved for dialogue was Gilmore Girls. It was fast paced, never boring and I always felt I was in on the secret side of things. I doubt its for everyone though.

    Anna from Elements of Writing


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