Dialog: Compressed and Essential

Dialog is the element that brings stories alive. Imagine reading an entire novel void of dialog. Trying to sustain a whole novel—or even a few consecutive scenes—without any dialog would be difficult, for that would mean your story would have to be conveyed by narrative and internal thoughts alone. So our ninth essential pillar of novel construction is all about dialog.

Writing great dialog is challenging. Browne and King, in their terrific book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, tell how some editors considering a manuscript for publication look first at the dialog. One (unnamed) editor is quoted as saying, “If the dialog doesn’t doesn’t work, the manuscript gets bounced. If it’s good, I start reading.”

People are social and they communicate—often not very well. But speak, they do. Unless your character is isolated, which is quite justified in many stories (as the result of shipwreck or solo exploration, etc.), he is going to talk to other people.

First, Avoid Boring

So, although we want the dialog in our scenes—like every other component—to be believable and feel “natural,” the tendency for many writers is to write boring dialog.

Just as everyday people and situations can be boring, so too can dialog. But, as I’ve said many times before, readers don’t want “boring.” They read to be entertained, inspired, excited, moved, changed.

Yet, we need a balance between boring and ridiculous. Dialog that is over-stylized, overly stiff, or unnatural is jarring. The key to “proper” dialog lies in the characters who are speaking.

Know Thy Characters

I’ve discussed the concept of “voice” in other posts, and although many think that voice has to do with the author’s writing style, it doesn’t. Voice is character. Each POV character in your novel has his or her own voice—style of speaking and thinking. But we’re going to look at that a bit further in our next pillar.

I bring this up here to help you keep in mind that yes, the speech of each character needs to be true and appropriate, tailored to each one’s personality, background, education, ethnicity, geographical location, etc. But so does the inner voice. When you are in POV, in a character’s head, she is not going to think and react to events with one kind of voice and talk out loud in another.

So while I’m not going to go into voice in this discussion of dialog, keep this important fact in the back of your mind: It’s not hard to have a character think a direct thought in his style of speaking, but it’s a little harder to do so with the running narrative in his POV. And I’ll address that a bit in our pillar on voice.

Some Basics on Crafting Great Dialog

So, the first point of emphasis when it comes to creating great dialog is making sure it fits the context and the character.

Next: No one should sound exactly like anyone else. Unless you have some funny bit about a character mimicking another character, each person should be unique. The movie (and the great miniseries) Fargo, is hilarious mostly due to the fact that many of the characters talk the same way—with a North Dakota accent and local colloquialisms. This very deliberate element of “sameness” makes statements about the group of characters in the story, but even though they sound alike, every character is very different in personality, need, attitude, and behavior, so the story is rich with distinct characters.

It takes work to stylize character, and we’ve already gone over some of this in the previous posts on creating great secondary characters. So apply all those things you’ve learned to the character’s dialog—the way she phrases words and constructs sentences, the word whiskers she may use, the kinds of things she talks about.

Don’t use dialog to dump information. All too often writers use dialog as a way to dump information. Yes, dialog is a great way to convey important things related to your plot and backstory. Through dialog you can nicely reveal the past and character motivation. But when you slip into what is sometimes referred to “As you know, Bob” dialog,  the reader can tell you are having characters say things they obviously would know already, so are being spoken aloud for the reader’s benefit. Which is a no-no.

Don’t tell us things we already know or don’t care about. Many beginning writers make the mistake of needless repetition. They might say something in the narrative, and then have a character speak out loud the very same thing. For example:

Mary really hated it when people talked down to her. She looked at George and said, “You know, George, I really hate it when people talk down to me.”

Okay, that’s a bit obvious, but you get the point, right? And often writers have excessive amounts of mundane, boring dialog due to trying to make the conversation sound natural (as I noted earlier). Trivial conversing over the weather or what someone had for breakfast is not going to interest readers. But then, how do you show your characters talking in a believable way, when we do talk about things like that?

The trick to great dialog, as hinted at by the title of this pillar of novel construction, is to compress the dialog. Just what does that mean? Here are some ways:

  • Avoid “on the nose” dialog.  This means that characters should never simply state exactly what’s on their minds, without nuance or subtext, nor appear to be giving “exposition.” In real life, people rarely say directly what’s on their minds. Our fictional characters should reflect that.
  • Less is more. If you can “say” the same thing with a visual image, action, behavior, or sound effect instead of through dialog, omit the dialog. Trim out extra words and boring bits of info and phrasing. Tighten a sentence like “I was wondering how you might be feeling today, seeing as you had recently undergone surgery and might be a bit under the weather” to “Hey, how’s it going? You better? Sore?” Think about the content, what you need your character to convey, then tailor it and tighten it to best represent his personality and unique voice.
  • Have a specific purpose for what’s being said, and lead steadily to your point. Don’t have random chatting that serves no purpose. I like to think of every page of my (usually very long) novels as precious, expensive real estate. Every word should count. Every line of dialog should have a point to it.

There is so much more to crafting great dialog, but this first post should give you some things to consider. Start going through your scenes and look at the dialog. Read it out loud! You’ll hear the clunky, boring bits (I hope). Or read your dialog passages to someone else. Take those bits out. If you need to have characters introduced or say hello, either just note that with a short line of narrative or dialog, and then move on quickly to what it important in your scene.

Next week, we’ll go deeper—into subtext and technical ways of making dialog come across clearly and smoothly.

Any thoughts you want to share about the things you like or don’t like in dialog you read in novels? What is your toughest challenge when it comes to writing believable dialog?

Inspection Checklists:

Inspection Checklist 1-concept with a kicker

Inspection Checklist 2-protagonist with a goal

Inspection Checklist 3-conflict with high stakes

Inspection Checklist 4-theme with a heart

Inspection Checklist 5-Plots and Subplots in a String of Scenes

Inspection Checklist 6-Secondary Characters with Their Own Needs

Inspection Checklist 7-Setting with a Purpose

Inspection Checklist 8-Tension Ramped to the Max

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  1. I especially like compressing dialog with the aim of prompting the reader to get involved by filling in some blanks. I think compression is easier to do with dialog than narration, especially since actual conversation is closer to compressed dialog than the obvious and drawn-out explanatory dialog found in some writing. Love your example. When conversing, we assume (often correctly) that the other person follows and understands our line of conversation, and if the don’t, they’ll ask for clarification. With writing, it’s judgment, and a fine line between interaction and confusion, but pushing that envelop is what’s fun.
    Thank you for this excellent series.

  2. Good reminder, Susanne. My early dialog was on the nose, and I had to have the term explained! LOL

    But I received the best compliment ever, when Steve Laube wrote a half page message to me regarding the manuscipt I sent to him before a conference at Mount Hermon, with this statement. “Great dialog. How refresshing!”

    Was that ever a boost to this writer’s heart. 🙂


  3. I was a television writer for 25 years and dialog was far and away the best part of writing a script. My partner and I were (are) a perfect match. He is brilliant at structure and transitions, but dialog? Not so much! And I’m just the opposite. Putting words in the mouths of my characters in a way that conveys who they are is so much fun and a great challenge.

    A perfect example of a good dialog writer is John Sandford. I’ve read my way through all of his books and regretfully finished his new release last night, leaving me with nothing else of his left to read! He has a main character who continues throughout the series, and an offshoot series featuring a secondary character from the first. I think he probably branched out when he saw Virgil Flowers overshadowing the charismatic Lucas Davenport of his first books.

    It’s all about the humor in the dialog, which may have nothing to do with the story but is a “spot on” reflection of the character, and often comes right out of left field in the middle of an intense action scene. A Flowers’ specialty. Virgil’s nickname throughout both series, not printable here, probably evolved from a casual comment that stuck. That’s all I’m saying…go read them!

  4. A timely post as usual! I am about to begin another round of editing my projects, and as always with your articles, there is much food for thought.

    1. This is really useful as I’ve just signed up to do my first Nano and my story will include several characters. One type of dialog I can’t stand is over-use of the hesitating phrase OK to have some if it’s essential, but Catherine Cookson’s pages are speckled throughout with “I – I – don’t know -” and “What – what are you saying?” and “But – but – I don’t understand” – drives me mad!
      And another one is the deliberate use of a name in a silly place, like “How’s your wife?” “Sally? Oh, she’s fine!”

      1. Yes, using names in address directly in speech is mostly unnatural. I started paying attention to how often my husband addressed me by my name and figured it was about twice a year …

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