On Writing: Touching on Dialogue

You either Speak as a Tree

I stumbled across an r/writing post that was worth linking to all on its own blog post rather than just a weekly list

Comprehensive Guide to Writing Dialogue

I’m not going to do injustice to the post by trying to summarize it here – but its a very interesting take, dividing dialogue into 4 categories:

  • Realistic
  • Perfect
  • Heightened and
  • Snap

to describe the various ways dialogue can be used, and can be misused by combining them awkwardly.

My own thoughts

Dialogue is a very interesting subject firstly because its one of the few techniques that actually carries between screenwriting and prose almost the same, however there are some important twists. Television dialogue obviously has visual cues from the actor and setting to carry meanings whereas prose dialogue needs to be supported by written words.

It’s one area where it can be very useful to study film to better dialogue but not to get too complacent thinking about the differences in medium.

The second interesting thing about dialogue is actually a bit of a head scratcher:

Dialogue is one of the only (and the only common) way that action is directly taken from your story. That is that stories are composed of various descriptions, metaphors, action sequences, narration and summary. Dialogue is a direct transcription of character’s words and as such has some special properties.

(just for fun the only other direct examples like dialogue are onomatopoeia ‘for literary effect’ such as BOOM!)

I find a useful way to understand dialogue is to consider its effects.

Because dialogue comes direct from characters its a very grounding technique. It forces the imagination of the reader directly to the speech of characters at hand. Compared to other literary techniques dialogue leaves the least to the imagination.

In that vein dialogue can be very useful for marking key points during a scene, novels often have a lot of narrative summary, and scene setting so dialogue is a highly effective way of pulling the reader into immediate events.

Similarly dialogue tends to increase pacing, in part this is due to practical properties of dialogue such as usually being shorter sentences and more clipped than general prose. Also because the natural (or rather imitations of natural) rhythms of speech and conversations.

In terms of story Dialogue is typically more direct and thusly fast paced.

So dialogue can be useful in grounding a scene and manipulating pace what else?

Characterisation and Conflict

Probably the most common uses that are so intuitive that the tendency is to naturally just do this, is dialogue as a tool to reveal character and conflicts between. Exploring this element is probably a whole book to itself, but the interesting challenge is to use dialogue in a way which intrigues and is enjoyable for the reader while fitting the book (which brings us back to the linked post).

The final challenge of dialogue is to ensure a good balance with other elements of narration. Too much dialogue can start to feel little ‘talking heads’ but stories with little dialogue can feel very lofty and out of touch. Probably my last thought is that like fight scenes dialogue shouldn’t be used simply because characters are in the same scene together and just interacting, it should have purpose and a use.

To conclude – dialogue is interesting! I confess I’ve never dived deep into whole books devoted to the topic so maybe I should!

What are your thoughts on dialogue, is it easy? Difficult? Weird?

Any interesting insights?

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One thought on “On Writing: Touching on Dialogue

  1. I feel like I have an easier time with dialogue since I have excuses as a Malaysian writer. I can either give my characters Malaysian accents or even write things like “What are you doing?” he said in Malay.

    It really is an interesting aspect of storytelling, and I enjoy Sanderson’s exercise of a dialogue-only scene. Anyway, thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

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