Monday, March 28, 2011

Writing in my Car... with Nicholas J. Ambrose

Dialogue Dos and Don’ts

One of the things that I tend to struggle with is dialogue. Ironically, my trouble with dialogue doesn’t come from the dialogue itself – but the action that takes place around it. For a lot of writers, I suspect the problem is the same.

To write, I believe you have to be very adept at picturing things visually. When you’re in the middle of writing a scene, that scene should be playing out in your head. The same goes for anything you write – any piece of background or scenery, any of your characters, any action, and any dialogue. When I write, the scene plays like a movie in my mind.

That’s useful, because it means you can get everything down as you’re picturing it. As something happens in your mind, you can describe that action.

Enter dialogue, and with it, a problem.

My problem comes down to sometimes being too visual-minded. When I’m writing dialogue, I like to convey the action happening around it – and when I was newer to writing, still developing my style and voice, before I started to really hone the craft, I used to convey the action too much.

Cue many instances of dialogue brimming overfull with tags like ‘cried’ and ‘shouted’ and ‘yelled’ and ‘whispered’ and ‘muttered’ and so on ad infinitum. Cue even more instances of dialogue where each line is broken up by a snippet of meaningless action – someone turning to someone else, looking up sharply, swinging kicks, moving across rooms, staring into space. Conversation turned from conversation to something else entirely, the flow entirely broken to pieces.

This is something I still struggle with from time-to-time, although I am getting much better. Sometime after writing my first couple of novels, I began to read more, and started to pay attention to dialogue and conversation in books. Instead of ceaseless tags, a lot of dialogue is a perfect mix: subtle pieces of action peppered throughout, a scattering of tags to indicate the way someone is speaking (although you should try to use ‘said’ most, if you do, as it’s read but not consciously taken in), but mostly just solid dialogue. It was exactly what it should be: an exchange.

Think about what your characters are saying, rather than doing, when you write your dialogue. Try to turn that visual brain of yours down a notch, or you risk ruining the thing entirely. Remember that writing is art, and you should paint with subtle brush strokes and leave the rest to suggestion and imagination. Don’t insult your reader and spell every little thing out for them – let them put the picture together for themselves.

And if it doesn’t come out perfect? Well, no sweat – that’s what the second draft is for.


Nicholas, thanks so much for sharing all this. I love writing dialogue and I often eavesdrop on conversations between real people to get the flow down, the equivocations and half-lies, the hearing and not listening rhythm. Then, I read it aloud. Elmore Leonard is the KING of dialogue.

For you, Reader-Friend, please visit Nicholas at his blog, An Author's Journey and his site Regarding the Hive (pretty cool title, huh?). And. And! His book Progenitor is available at Amazon for only 99 cents. Check it out and tell him I sent you!

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