A Few Thoughts About Dialogue

I had a letter from a reader who asked me to talk a bit more about dialogue.

It’s hard, I’ll tell you that. It’s the hardest thing in writing. But it’s also the thing that editors look at–as a sure gauge of a writer’s level of accomplishment.

Pay attention to great dialogue. When you read a something that really works, bear down on yourself and ask, what’s going on here? Analyze it like it’s a boxing match. Who’s up, who’s down and how do you know? Who won? When did you know they were going to win, when would you have put your money on Character A vs. Character B? Get used to reading the subtext. That’s dialogue.

Note the mix of landscape and voice, the cross loyalties. What’s said and what isn’t. The less said the better.

I guess the most important tip about dialogue is this:

Dialogue is only for conflict.

It’s like a racehorse, it can’t just carry any old thing, the pots and pans and old tires. You can’t heap all your expository business on it, the meet and greet, all that yack. It’s just for the conflict between one character and another. That’s it.

So if characters agree, you don’t need dialogue! If someone’s just buying a donut, nobody needs to say anything. That’s what narrative is for.

Also, great dialogue in fiction isn’t screenplay. In fiction you can just tell us what people are thinking, they don’t need to say the obvious. In fact, the most interesting fictional dialogue has people thinking one thing and saying another. That’s what gives your scene dimension, and it’s super fun to do.

The question in dialogue is always, who wins and who loses. Who is putting pressure on who, and how.

Dialogue works best in short bursts, three or five lines, then go back into the other tools of writing–landscape, internal thought, memory, observation, gesture and so on.

Keep it short. People don’t generally speak in full sentences. And nobody gets to make a speech, unless it increases the tension of the scene–where I’m waiting to see if you’re going to get me on that plane and don’t dare interrupt your long story about your grandmother’s prize apple pie.

No meet and greet. Start the dialogue when the conflict starts. The rest is easily covered in narrative. No “business.” “Want a cup of coffee?” No. I don’t. Ever.

Every person speaks differently, because every person is different, so their speech reflects their vocabulary, their rhythms, their interests, their age, their level of optimism or pessimism. We’re physically different, we take a different breath. Some people are quick, they interrupt, they gush words, others are slow, they stop, they consider. Some are indecisive, they wander off.

Think of your characters as being played by the best actors in the world. Nobody wants to be the straight man. Give them all dynamite lines. Nobody should ever say, “What?” “What do you mean by that?” A line anybody could say is a line nobody should say.

And keep the world going. The world doesn’t stop in its tracks as your protagonist speaks. You have to keep all the plates spinning.

Gesture is just as important a part of dialogue as the spoken utterance. Everybody who has traveled to a foreign country knows you can get along knowing not one word of Chinese or Hungarian. The gesture, vocal tone and facial expression is more telling than words.

Don’t be afraid of silence. Whoever controls the silence controls the scene.

finally, remember that the reader is the recipient of all dialogue. So don’t have one character tell another something we already know. Just summarize it in narrative.

There are so many components of good dialogue, so many subtle ways it works, I can only lay out a few tips here I hope will help you along your way.

Wish you good writing!

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22 Responses to “A Few Thoughts About Dialogue”

  1. Janet, I’ve only just discovered your blog. I wish I’d found it earlier. Your advice is gut-punchingly good – stops me in my tracks and makes me think very hard. Thank you.

  2. litscribbler Says:

    Some great points, Janet. Especially the ‘who’s up, who’s down’ question, which can strike literary writers as crass and unsubtle–but if you worry too much about being subtle you’ll end up with no conflict.

    I’ll play devil’s advocate a bit on ‘keeping it short.’ While generally a good idea, I find some writers go too far, writing fragmentary dialogue that seems stiff and forced. Also, while you have to pick your spots, there’s something liberating about letting a character just go off, inadvertently revealing themselves in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise.

  3. Fabulous advice laid out in a clear precise way. Heaven! Thank you :)

  4. Carol Nuckols Says:

    Janet, I’m printing out your writing tips as I prepare to resume revising my novel. I especially welcome the insights into dialogue — thank you.

  5. Penny Sobocinski Says:

    Exactly what I was hoping for! To find those differences in people’s vocabulary/personalty I’m going to have to be more conscious of it in conversations around me, and study it in the books that I love. The last few writing classes I took emphasized getting away from too much exposition. Maybe I don’t really understand what exposition is because it seems to me my favorite novels have a lot of it? I would love to hear your definition of what exposition is.

  6. “Just what I needed to hear” I said, with gratitude.

  7. Paul Chernoch Says:

    How prophetic! I just wrote a short story with a scene where two people are ordering donuts. Of course, since I used donuts as a metaphor for a heart with something missing in the middle, the kind of donuts that each character orders is actually important to my story…

  8. barbara lowenstein Says:

    This is terrific. I am going to suggest that all new writers read this piece.
    Best, Barbara

  9. dave c Says:

    Janet

    While your points are well taken I have to chime in that most agents, in my opinion, wouldn’t know good dialogue if they saw (read it) – they are so busy with trends and the next best (see sure) thing that much too much good writing is simply overlooked. They are, alas, the gatekeepers and hold thy keys to the kingdom at the moment.

  10. I like your observations about the importance of silence. Very helpful blog.
    Victoria

  11. >> I can only lay out a few tips here I hope will help you along your way.

    You are being too modest, Janet. This post is all the good advice I’ve ever read about dialogue, and then some, in one concise post. Thank you!

  12. [...] Fitch writes about writing dialogue: Dialogue is only for [...]

  13. Thanks for the insightful post. “Dialogue is only for conflict” is a priceless tip.
    Donna V.

  14. great advice, wonderful insight… you are a wonderful and gracious teacher, probably the best I’ve ever had!

  15. I appreciated the line that likens diaglogue to a racehorse. I will definitely use your advice with my students.

  16. Thank you Janet. Will share link with my students at Grub Street Writers in Boston. Wonderful post!

  17. [...] Janet Fitch’s blog. The White Oleander author has some superb stuff there, including this essay on creating dialogue. She writes: “It’s like a racehorse, it can’t just carry any old [...]

  18. I have just been introduced to your blog from another author and now understand why it is so highly regarded. Wonderful content and information.
    I will be visiting often…

  19. [...] Fitch (author of White Oleander) has her own post, entitled “A Few Thoughts About Dialogue,” where she carries this idea of flat conversation even further. She says, “Dialogue is only [...]

  20. This helped me so much with what I’ve worked on recently. Thank you!

  21. […] A Few Thoughts About Dialogue (By Janet Fitch) […]

  22. […] excellent post by Janet Fitch on when to use dialogue and how. My favorite advice from her is:  “Dialogue is only for […]

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