Writing Dialogue isn’t Easy

Today, I struggled with the edits in Disappearing in Plain Sight as if I were wrestling with a snake-headed Medusa. This knock-down-drag-out battle was about trying to reconcile my editor’s request for clarity – in a certain piece of dialogue – with how that particular character’s voice sounded in my head. I was convinced that this character would be vague. I could hear her saying exactly what I had her saying. My editor commented that if my intent was to be confusing it wasn’t really effective. I made some compromises that I feel OK about – more than I wanted but less than what would have probably satisfied my editor.

Writing dialogue is tricky. The dialogue that appears in a novel is a construct. It isn’t exactly how people talk – it couldn’t be. No one would wade through pages that read like the transcript of an actual conversation. Believe me – I’ve transcribed and read through enough research interviews to be sure of that. Most spoken conversation sounds OK when you’re present for it – otherwise not so much.

As fiction writers we work to ensure that every word serves a purpose. Dialogue moves the story along. The words we put in a character’s mouth give the reader important information. How do characters express themselves? What words are chosen – what words are left out or implied? Why does a character choose to talk at a particular time? Why has the choice been made to have a character speak certain words to one character rather than another? Dialogue does all kinds of things, but each thing it does must move the story along.


I’ve written chunks of dialogue that were thinly veiled attempts to get pieces of information across to the reader by putting them in the mouths of characters who would never actually say the things I’m attributing to them.  DELETE. I’ve written other dialogue that ended up being my voice and not the voice of the character. DELETE. I’ve written dialogue that is misplaced – how often does someone decide to talk about a painful event in their past in an aside to a colleague during a staff meeting. DELETE. And I’ve written dialogue that suffered so much from colloquialisms and slang – well, it was literally painful to read. DELETE. Dialogue is not easy.

Let’s take a look at what some of the reference books say about dialogue.

Renni Brown and Dave King, in Self-Editing for Fiction Writing, point out that our characters come alive – or fail to – when they speak, and it’s no easy matter to put just the right words in their mouths.

Christopher T. Leland, in The Creative Writer’s Style Guide, urges us to be cautious about asking dialogue to do too much narrative work.

Bob Mayer, in The Novel Writer’s Tool Kit, writes that conversation in a novel is not what it would be in real life. We lack the things we would have in real like – all the varied dimensions of nonverbal communication. We must make up for this lack with the words we choose. Written dialogue is more concise than spoken.

And we’ll give the last word to the King. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King tell us that dialogue is a skill best learned by people who enjoy talking and listening to others . . . many good dialogue writers simply seem to have been born with a well-tuned ear  . . . the key to writing good dialogue is honesty . . . talk, whether ugly or beautiful, is an index of character; it can also be a breath of cool, refreshing air in a room some people would prefer to keep shut-up.

I love to write dialogue. In some ways I consider it to be the strongest part of my writing. When I start to write a scene it’s always in terms of which characters are going to be talking and what are they going to say. Only later do I flesh out the setting, the beats that pace the whole scene out, and the character attributions that keep the reader on track.

I’ve learned a lot since I began this journey of fiction writing and I know I have so much more to learn. The compass I steer by is my knowledge of the characters I have created – my belief, that after working with these characters for a while, I can actually hear them talking in my head. Having said that, I understand how important an editor’s perspective can be – I have listened to these voices yammering away at me for a long time – it’s quite possible for me to assume that something is obvious, when it is not. An editor or a trusted reader helps snap me out of thinking everything I write is crystal clear. Not a pleasant sort of snap – but very necessary.

The above image was taken at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden – I give you this picture with this post in the hope that you will experience the sheer wonder of this piece of art.

The photos that appear at the beginning of the post were taken at the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Peace Garden.


5 comments on “Writing Dialogue isn’t Easy

  1. I love reading fiction but when I start to read dialogue in a story, the dialogue has to have meaning to the story. One of the best stories that I have read lately with humorous dialogue is the stories of Chet and Bernie, a dog and detective. When I read my next novel I will think of the dialogue in a new perspective

    • Good point, Cheryl – the dialogue must have meaning to the story. I love the way you have described Chet and Bernie – a dog and detective – not a detective and his dog. I bet the dialogue is hilarious and I bet the dog has a starring role.

  2. Thanks for this post. It’s very true that writing dialogue isn’t easy. The particular “problem” I’ve encountered in writing dialogue in both my novel: “Beyond the Phantom Battle: Mystery at Loch Ashie” and my autobiography: “From Poverty to Poverty: A Scotsman Encounters Canada” was writing in the Scottish vernacular, as both books were set in Scotland (the latter partially so).

    My editor, who is not Scottish-born, had quite a workout learning the spelling and nuances of my attempt to record written Scots-English. In fact, one computer program sent us the message that there were so many errors in spelling that I could not use the spell-check!!! In the novel, which uses the vehicle of time travel, I also had to try to convey that the Scottish persons my 21st Century heroes encountered when they found themselves somehow transported back to the 12th Century spoke in the Gaelic but the heroes, who didn’t speak or understand Gaelic, heard it as Scots-English and vice-versa. I chose to show the Gaelic, not by using that language, but by eliminating all contractions from their speech and using old-fashioned words or sentence structure whenever possible.

    One reviewer remarked that he found the dialogue stilted and old-fashioned at times, not recognizing why I chose to use the differing speech patterns. On the other hand, another reviewer remarked that the dialogue read realistically for the most part and added, “Character personalities come through well in their speech, and you’ve managed to suggest the Scottish ‘lilt’ without overdoing it. I don’t know how you do it, but there’s a cadence to some of the speech that just seems to work. Very nice.” I can only conclude that some reviewers “get it” and others don’t. That probably goes for general readers as well. I now realize I should have addressed the difference in speech patterns in a preface to the book.

    Having learned my lesson, I noted in the preface to my autobiography: “The reader will notice that I’ve used the Scottish vernacular when Scots are speaking amongst themselves and normal English when they are speaking with non-Scots. That reflects my own speaking pattern. When among Scots, my speech becomes increasingly ‘Scottish-sounding.’ For example, ‘Ah’ (I); ‘tae’ (to); ‘ye”\’ (you); ‘no’ (not); ‘canna’ (cannot);’ ‘oor’ (our); ‘widna’ (would not); ‘aboot’ (about); ‘aye’ (yes), etc. I’ve also used British words for the period before I emigrated from Scotland (such as ‘lorry,’ ‘chap,’ ‘bloke,’ and ‘cheerio’); and changed them to North American words sometime after I immigrated to Canada (such as ‘truck,’ and ‘guy’). My editor and I had a disagreement about allowing ‘Scottishisms’ (as she calls them) into my narrative. I insisted on leaving them in, however, for that’s how we (Scots) speak. Thus you’ll find the occasional sentence such as ‘So, there’s me, the great boatbuilder.’ instead of her ‘cleaned up’ version, ‘So, there I was, the great boatbulder.”

    • We really make our editors work hard – don’t we, Ian? Makes me feel glad to be on the writer side of the equation. I guess we end up educating each other. Thanks for reading and taking time to weigh-in on the editorial front with your own experience.

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