Saturday, April 17, 2010

Dialogue. Most writer's Achilles' Heel

I was lucky, I came up on the screenwriting side of things where dialogue is the ALL. #proseismyproblem

But if you look across the spectrum of novelist, up to and including best sellers, their dialogue leaves a little (#ok #fine #alot) to be desired.

Why? Because most writers treat dialogue as a mouthpiece for exposition. Whatever they need to be stated, they simply say through their character's mouths!


It's not just the author's hand, but worse, his blow horn!

Dialogue should come up through your character's core so that it sounds authentic and unique.

How do you know if you have accomplished such a lofty goal?

Take a random piece of dialogue and speak it a loud.
#1 - Did it hurt your ears or make the dog bay?
#2 - Read it to someone fairly familiar with your characters.
Could they pick which character it came from?
Could they tell which Act if came from #ohsorry #thatisforalaterblog

Repeat this 6-7 times.

If you've had to 'edited' on the fly - meaning you changed up the words because they were hard to read aloud (or stumbled over words frequently) or your friend can't tell the difference in the character's voices, you've got some dialogue issues.

"But my characters said exactly what they meant!"

Ah, yes, another cardinal sin. Dialogue that is 'on the nose.'

Think cheesy news broadcaster. That is some 'on the nose' dialogue.

In life, people lie all the time, to themselves even. Think of how often you have 'colored' or 'softened' the truth so spare someone's feelings. And usually over fairly minor things.

The big stuff? Heck, we spend most of our lives avoiding the 'big stuff.' #justaskmytherapist

Yet, your story is filled with "BIG" stuff (otherwise why are you even bothering to tell it?).

People also change the subject, ignore parts of a conversation they don't want to answer, obfuscate, and wander off track.

Your characters need the same reluctance to spill their guts. They need to have all the same frailties and foibles as real people when they speak.

For practice, take a piece of your 'problem' dialogue (something difficult to say or hear).

Now, make the character extremely reluctant to part with that information. Don't be afraid to extend the dialogue or even have the other person 'coax' it out of them.

Do you want to belabor everything a character says? Of course not, but the bigger the reveal, the more time you should take 'finding' the truth!

Find 10 examples of your dialogue that are not easily identifiable as a single character's voice.
Rewrite them until they are unique to that character.

Go find another 20. Rewrite those.

Get used to each 'voice' being special and unique :-)


  1. I love this advice. Dialogue can be tricky. My trick is to figure out what type of movie my writing would be, then imagine that dialogue being read on screen. If it's a drama, does it lack cheese? If it's comedy, is it not cheesy enough?

    What do you think are some great examples of well written dialogue?

  2. Hi!

    I found your blog via twitter (thanks for following btw I'm more comfortable blogging than twittering right now!) this are great tips on writing dialogue. Sol Stein said it best that dialogue isn't how people talk in life. We can get that for free. We don't want to read it in a book we pay for. There's an art to writing good dialogue.

  3. Hi,
    I also found your blog via Twitter. As an aspiring writer (with a couple short stories in the works) I need this kind of advice that makes me stop and think about what I'm doing, and whether what I'm doing is authentic to my characters. When I write, I try to remember the advice an actor friend gave me; to "be" the character. It's harder than it seems, and so is writing character-authentic dialogue. Thanks for the excellent advice and exercise! I can tell I will be coming here a lot.