Writing Right: The Blog

Building Dialogue Right

May 26, 2018

Tags: Writing Tips: Dialogue

Reports of dialogue’s death, to misquote Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated. We’ve seen a swing away from effective dialogue and toward more ineffective narrative recently. Why? Because narrative is easier to write, even good narrative, than dialogue. So why dwell on the spoken word?

Because it's desirable and even necessary to most stories. Yet, setting dialogue up in the wrong way can take a devastating toll on the reader. Take this example:

"I wanted to tell him that I needed him," Mary told John's mother. "I wanted him to know that I still cared.” She had to break the news to her. “He's the father of my child." She stifled the urge to cry. "And even if I can't be with him for the rest of my life, I wanted to tell him that, for my sake and for the sake of little Max, he would always be welcomed in our home.” She paused before continuing. “But when he began running around with that other woman, when he began using drugs and staying away for days and sometimes weeks on end ..." Mary felt the anger welling within her. "I felt I had to draw the line. So I did."

Now, that's quite a chunk of dialogue (and narrative!) to throw at a reader in one chunk. It's so much, in fact, that it ends up sounding rambling, disjointed, and unnatural. People don’t normally talk in Shakespearean soliloquies. They speak in short, curt, clipped sentences. And interspersing all those expository sentences in an attempt to clarify the dialogue (She had to break the news to her - She stifled the urge to cry) only creates a sense of confusion and frustration within the reader. Is that really what you want?

Sure, readers want dialogue. They crave dialogue. They long to know what a character says in his or her own words. But there's a better way of using long blocks of dialogue effectively. One way is to break up those blocks into shorter, more easily assimilated sections, such as in this example.

"I wanted to tell him that I needed him," Mary told John's mother.

She glanced up from her knitting. "Oh?"

" I wanted him to know I still cared."

"And why, after all he’s done to you, would you still care?"

"Because he's the father of my child."

John's mother shrugged, started to speak, and stopped.

By breaking up a long, rambling block of dialogue, you can make the scene move along more quickly and more naturally.

But what of those times when you don't want to break the dialogue down, when you don't want to add various asides and responses from another person? Well, why not place the entire block of dialogue into italics as in this example:

Mary turned to John's mother to explain why she had given up on her husband.

I wanted to tell him that I needed him. I wanted him to know that I still cared. He's the father of my child. And even if I can't be with him for the rest of my life, I wanted to tell him that, for my sake and for the sake of little Max, he would always be welcomed in our home. But when he began running around with that other woman, when he began using drugs and staying away for days and sometimes weeks on end, I felt I had to draw the line. So I did.

John's mother said that she understood. She didn't agree with Mary, but she said she understood.

By placing the long block of dialogue in indented italics, you accomplish the same thing as you did previously but in a format that's easier to read and less confusing for the reader to follow.

Dialogue? It's mighty tasty stuff in nearly any work of fiction. But knowing how to use it so that the reader finds it a helpful tool--and not a major stumbling block to the story's flow--can make all the difference in the world.