Writing: More Effective Dialogue, Part II

Last post we talked about writing effective dialogue in general. Today let’s take it a bit further.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are some more tips for writing effective dialogue:

Too Much or Not Enough

New writers often lean heavily to one side or the other—either they allow too much narrative to dampen scenes or they use too much dialogue. If you write a scene with a lot of narrative (telling) chances are that your story will feel remote. Action and dialogue are what animate a story so that readers can live it vicariously. If you simply tell the story, readers miss out on critical emotional and sensory information.

On the other hand, if you write a scene with almost all dialogue, readers may become easily confused on who says what, as well as missing important sensory or emotional cues from the action. If you’ve ever read a scene with too much dialogue, you know how easy it can be to feel lost in the conversation—even with sufficient dialogue tags or attributions (the he said she said stuff). A long string of only dialogue can also become “talking heads,” where the action fades away and readers can’t envision the whole scene.

Balancing dialogue to other scenic elements takes time and practice, but I often tell my students to start with my Rule of Three: If you’ve written three sentences of dialogue, think about adding in a sentence or two of action or interior thought to re-anchor readers in the scene. I often call these sentences “beats” as they help to round out the reader experience as they read.

Mix in the Beats

If you follow the Rule of Three, you’ll likely see the need to insert action or interior thought of the protagonist. These beats don’t need to be long-winded. If they are short and to the point, readers won’t lose the flow of the scene as it unfolds.

As you add these beats you can vary their placement. Use your intuition to see where the best place for a beat might be. In life, we often interrupt our conversations with actions or thoughts. You can do the same in your scene by mixing beats in before the dialogue, after the dialogue or in the middle of the dialogue.

Try to vary the type of beats you add. For instance, don’t rely too much on sighs, eyerolls or sips of coffee. If you place the conversation in a setting that requires more action, it will be easier to be creative in these beats. For instance, we all write far too many scenes around a table. It’s convenient for dialogue but static for action—all readers ever see is the characters from the waist up. Try to set your scenes in ways that force your characters to be active.

For a good dialogue pace, use the Rule of Three.

Careful with the Info

Another possible pitfall for dialogue is conveying important information. If you write dialogue that reveals info you the author need to convey, it’s more than possible to make the dialogue sound wooden or encyclopedic.

Remember, characters never tell each other things that both of them already know. If you need readers to know where a character works, resist the urge to put an unwieldy mouthful into the dialogue. Better to add a bit of narrative or find another way to tell readers what you need them to know.

Effective dialogue helps animate and move your story forward. Use the Rule of Three, action beats and careful release of information to up your dialogue skills and keep readers turning those pages. What do you find most challenging about writing dialogue?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

6 comments on “Writing: More Effective Dialogue, Part II

  1. Linda, do you have an article about cover letters? I took your advice about changing names in my memoir to protect the innocent, and I also changed the names of locations. I’ve thought of a pen name to use as well. Do you recommend I hire a copy editor to make sure I avoid any possible pitfalls? I enjoy your posts and will your review the one on book proposals.

    • Nancy,
      Oops I didn’t answer about a copy editor. Yes, I think it’s wise to get fresh eyeballs on your work–and I do recommend someone who is a pro rather than your aunt who is a retired English teacher or your mom, etc. We get so familiar with our work that we can miss glaring errors. Be sure the person you hire is only doing copy editing if that’s what you want–other types of editing would deal more with content or the writing itself.
      Good luck!

      • Thank you, Linda, for both responses to my questions. I value the insight and information you are sharing with your readers. Sincerely, Nancy Drummond.

  2. Hi Nancy,
    I don’t know that I have a post only about cover letters, but in general, you want to distinguish what your letter’s purpose is. Is it a sales pitch? Then it’s really more of a query letter and I have posts on those. If it’s to respond to a request, then you would just remind the receiver of that request and outline exactly what you are enclosing with your submission. It all comes down to whether you already have relationship (as in you queried and got a positive response/request) or you’re “cold calling” to try to interest the person in what you’d like to send (a query). Does this help? Hope so and keep writing!

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