1920s, writing

Dialogue Difficulties

I love writing dialogue.

I can write pages and pages of nothing but dialogue. Not even anything else interspersed between, just “…” he said. “…” she said. On and on, for miles. I took advantage of this with my first novel (which reads like a rip-off of every major fantasy novel ever written and therefore will never be seen in public): I wrote the first draft as though it were a play, just dialogue with occasional “stage cues.” For the second draft, I went through and added to the dialogue, filled in the pencil outline with colored ink, so to speak. It worked well enough for that story, because it was so unoriginal, but I’ve never been able to make it work since.

So now I strive very hard to add body language, scenery, scent, emotion, everything that one needs, in between the dialogue. Sometimes I still get carried away, though, and realize that I’ve completely ignored plot development for half a dozen pages while I let my characters have a marvelous meandering conversation. Which is lifelike, true, but most likely boring and frustrating for anyone but myself to read. Then I have to go back and prune it down, insert clues to the plot and/or character development into the dialogue so that it has a point.

Part of the difficulty for me is that it is through conversation we get to know people – how they think, how they feel, how they react in any situation. Since I write mostly character-driven stories, rather than strictly plot-driven, conversation seems the best way to show my characters, rather than just telling the audience what they are thinking, feeling, etc. However, it is the unspoken actions, as much as the spoken, that reveal a person, and that is where I struggle.


“I don’t like being told what to do,” Maia said.
“I don’t particularly care whether you like it or not,” Aunt Amelia replied.
“You are being unreasonable,” Maia said.
“That is irrelevant,” said Aunt Amelia.


Maia folded her arms across her chest and tried to appear as stern and immovable as her tiny aunt. “I don’t like being told what to do.”
“I don’t particularly care whether you like it or not.” Aunt Amelia was superbly indifferent to Maia’s attempts at intimidation.
Maia uncrossed her arms and stamped her foot, forgetful of the dignity of her nineteen years. “You are being completely unreasonable!”
“That,” said Aunt Amelia, a smirk lurking at the corner of her mouth despite her best efforts, “is irrelevant.”

Well? Which one shows the characters better? Then add some scenery at the end:

The bees blundered drunkenly from flower to flower, unaware of the battle of wills that was raging in the center of the garden. The heady scent from the early roses tickled Maia’s nose and increased her irritation with her aunt. How dare she ruin a beautiful June day like this, with the sun shining and the fluffy clouds darting playfully across the azure sky, with her unreasonable demands? It was enough to make even a saint lose her temper – and Maia was no saint. Nor did she have the wisdom of Athena, despite the marble statue looming over her shoulder that suggested otherwise.

It’s not perfect, and I know many other writers could do far better – but it’s getting there. Another half-dozen novels, and maybe it will come more easily to me!

Do you prefer to write dialogue or scene settings? What are some of your pitfalls you have to combat in your writing? Have you ever written a novel that was cookie-cutter imitation of whatever is popular in your particular genre? If it was fantasy, did it have a character who was half-elven? (Mine did!)

5 thoughts on “Dialogue Difficulties”

  1. I love dialogue and I LOVE body language cues, and both are crucial to character development. Back and forth of "he said she said" is monotonous to me, but I think there has to be a balance of both. It's possible to work the cues /too/ hard, getting so bogged down in the unspoken details that by the time you get to the next line of dialogue you've forgotten what they're talking about. When I write, I let the tone of the conversation dictate how much to add…quick, snapping back-and-forth sparring doesn't need too much extra detail because I want it to actually READ quickly and snappily; while meandering, lazy – or awkward, stilted – conversations have all the time in the world for throwing in observations about the conversants scratching their noses or shifting their weight or gazing at the sunset or whatever.This is only marginally related to what you are saying, but I feel verbose and ramble-y at the moment: I notice in a lot of amateur writing a strict avoidance of the word "said" under any circumstances. Pick a really horrendous fanfic and you'll see the characters replying, shouting, whispering, snapping, continuing, and often doing things that don't denote speech at all, like smirking – but they never just "say" anything. Not that there is anything wrong with any of the above alternatives, and it is good to have variety, but you can tell when the author is doing it out of a mistaken notion that the word "said" should be avoided like the plague. Unfortunately I think this trait is made worse by well-meaning English teachers encouraging students to vary their vocabulary. I know it used to be a vice of mine and I still fall into it if I'm not careful.My biggest current blight is adverbs. I throw them around like rice at a wedding. I forget who told me that a stronger verb is worth a dozen adverbs, but I always have to go back during editing and excise them meticulously. (See, there I go.)And as to your last two questions: well, no, since I've never finished anything novel-lengthed, but OH YES there was fantasy and it involved mixed bloods. And pointy ears. And mismatched eyes. Bring on the cliches!

  2. Good point about the tone dictating the tags – there are definitely times when you only want the dialogue itself. I've been re-reading some of the Amelia Peabody books, and whenever Peabody and Emerson are bickering, you definitely just want their words; anything else would muck the atmosphere up. Adverbs are … a big problem for me. I use them so frequently I don't even always realize I'm using them. I'm working on getting better with that!I didn't do the mismatched eyes (darn, missed opportunity there), but my half-elf did have pointed ears AND slanted eyebrows, so there was that. And golden hair, naturally!

  3. Sunrise, you crack me up. Love your remark about the adverbs. I am a big spender of adverbs, adjectives, and articles!I am a description hoor, basically. I can describe places, characters, and situations for days. And have. My mother finally deleted my first novel because, she said, it had no definite endpoint (I didn't really have a plot, yet) and I knew it to be all description. I think there were about ten lines of dialogue in roughly 40 pages (I was young). However, i wish i had printed it out, as several of the characters were probably deserving of a rewrite and i can't ever remember them aright. *sigh*

  4. So, surprise benefit of me following you on Twitter– I'd never before seen all the cool stuff you've been blogging over HERE until I saw you Tweet it! Just browsing down the list, I see a lot I ought to read and comment on! I don't know that I shall ever catch up!I tend to draft in dialogue, too! I do put in basic actions along with it most of the time, but much deeper description than that rarely happens. Any time I jot down a SNIPPET of a story, it's most likely some dialogue with not much else. It's sort of funny for a person who's rather terrible at TALKING, herself…

  5. Aw, beautifulmonday, I wish you still had that old novel, too. And I really do think that by combining our strengths we could write a smashing novel!Rockinlibrarian, so glad you made it over! I really only keep my lj account for keeping up with friends who aren't on blogger, and to occasionally dump some fanfic. This is my main platform!

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