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?