dialogue / writers tips

Writer’s Tip #17: Use Dialogue Correctly

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

Today’s tip: Use dialogue for character development; put exposition and story details into action scenes

There are a lot of rights and wrongs of dialogue. This one you might not have been aware of. It’s from Screenwriting U, but fits us fiction writers as well.

Beginning writers often fill their dialogue with exposition and story details, thus reducing the amount of character and creativity that shows up in that dialogue. Don’t do it.

Instead, put the exposition, information, and story details into the action and situations.

For example, instead of a trainer telling a new boxer that a certain philosophy doesn’t work, have him put the character in the boxing ring and learn it by having his ass kicked. Now, the trainer doesn’t have to lecture. In fact, he is free to talk about anything – breakfast, politics, his favorite dog, etc. – because the real meaning is being delivered through the action.

Please add comments with your favorite dialogue fixes.

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Jacqui Murray is the editor of a K-6 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, creator of two technology training books for middle school and six ebooks on technology in education. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blog, Technology in Education featured blogger, IMS tech expert, and a bi-weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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7 thoughts on “Writer’s Tip #17: Use Dialogue Correctly

  1. I got this comment via email from my good friend Shari:

    Wow, I didn’t think I would ever disagree with you on any topic, but I have to say that on this one I have at least some reservations. Keeping in mind that the original source of this was an article directed to screenwriters, I think some of this advice muddles the differences between those writing for film and those writing books.

    Film is always enhanced by so many other aspects, visual and auditory: the sets,props, and locations, “extra” actors, background music and noise, costumes, make up, the mobile ability of the camera to follow the actors, to pull away from them, to switch from one to the next, or completely cut away from a scene. A book has to accomplish all those tasks without boring or swamping the reader with details too numerous to track or irrelevant to the story line. Nice little bits like a view in the background of the gas station with the globes at the tops of the gas pumps don’t need to be described in a movie. But the amount of written description needed in a book for the reader to understand what such an old fashioned gas pump looks like would likely be a paragraph.

    And there’s the problem. You can’t afford to throw away words in a book. Each one must count. Dialogue must promote the story, all the details that place the story, the action as well as the character’s voice and motivation, even the fact that what they say may obscure their real goals, fears, or understanding of what’s happening around them. Yes, showing a boxer getting his lights punched out as he – or she! – learns the craft is better than telling the viewer the guy is passed out on the floor, but a casual conversation about walking his dog might be a distraction that makes the reader close the book. So the dialogue has to revolve around the way that boxer feels as he’s taking that punch, or how his coach pumps up his courage to force him to go back and do it again, getting it right the next time.

    I am leery of trying to apply screenwriting skills to book writing. Screenwriting is only part of the package, and the rest of that package is created by others. A book is its own single-authored universe. The relationships are there but the crafts are different. We love each other, but chimps can’t mate with gorillas. (Just wait, some biologist will prove me wrong on that one!)


  2. Pingback: The Art of Dialogue « the daily creative writer

  3. Good and timely tip for me. One problem I worry about, what is a good balance between dialog and exposition. I have long passages in my 1st-person YA novel in which the dialog runs 60% of the total text. Whereas 30% seems to be typical.


    • There is a lot of flexibility in how much of a novel should be dialogue vs. narrative or exposition. As long as the goals can be accomplished with the intimacy and immediacy of dialogue. readers seem to be fine with it.


  4. What a great piece of advice not to use dialogue for dog’s dinner. I will share this with my CR course colleagues at the UEA. Thank you Jacqui. Arun


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