Stop Talking and Tell Me Something: Using the Dialogue Scene

Let’s face it. Dialogue is the bane of many a writer learning the craft. We overuse it. We unnecessarily pretty it up. Frankly, we overthink it.

The talking part isn’t really all that difficult. We all know how to talk. The only thing you really need to do if you’re having trouble writing realistic conversation is to listen to real life. A nice trick is to record a conversation between real people and play it back, writing it down word for word. Scenes from movies work well for this, too.

You’ll learn pretty quick that with spoken dialogue, less is more.

The truth is that most of the dialogue shouldn’t be spoken. The majority of communication between human beings happens through body language, part of that elusive phenomenon we like to call subtext. Even when we’re not talking, we’re still having a dialogue. In fact, people tend to believe a speaker’s body language over what they’re saying. This, I think, is why it’s so difficult to write a story only using dialogue. Real people need context to fully understand the meaning of what’s being said.

Think about it. You’re main character’s girlfriend is telling her about a conflict at work. While your main character is responding to the girlfriend as if she’s listening to every word in a tone that says she cares, she’s also watching a little boy play with a toy two tables down. Does your main character really care about what her girlfriend is saying? Not really, or she would give her complete attention to the conversation.

What about the protagonist who can’t keep his eyes off the gorgeous woman in red across the room, even though he tells his date he’s not interested in her? Which do you believe-the glances or the words?

Once you understand how this works, it’s a great tool to help you stay engaged in the writing and keep the words flowing. Let’s face it, it’s so much more interesting to write a scene where people are being active, and character’s talking to each other is the most engaging activity in most novels. It’s a fantastic source of conflict, especially when someone’s words don’t match their body language.

Take the first example above. Our main character isn’t really paying attention to her girlfriend, and the girlfriend knows it. She gets irritated and calls our main character on it. Maybe there’s someone at the table next to theirs who is paying a little too much attention even though he’s not saying a word. In the second example, the protagonist’s date isn’t stupid. She knows her man has his eye on the woman in red. And maybe that gorgeous stranger has noticed it, too.

You can do all kinds of things to kick-start a flagging plot by introducing a dialogue scene. It’s where the characters figure things out and mess things up. It’s where they proclaim love and outright lie. It’s where characters show themselves even when their words say otherwise.

Your story, after all, isn’t about car chases or sword fights. It isn’t about the nefarious scheme your villain has hatched. Your story is about the people dealing with all that, and people don’t live in a vacuum or always agree with each other. They don’t always act rationally or know what they’re doing, and while it’s possible to show this in narrative, that can get boring for you and the reader. Get one or more other characters in the room to show it through dialogue and bring the situation out of the character’s head and into the real world. You’ll be amazed what can happen.

2 responses on “Stop Talking and Tell Me Something: Using the Dialogue Scene

  1. Frank Morin

    Great post, and excellent advice. In my next run-through of my manuscript, I plan to look at the dialogue for these types of weaknesses, and spice it up with the kinds of conflict you suggest. Keeps it interesting.

  2. RD Meyer

    I agree that we overuse dialogue(I’ve found myself doing it on occasion). However, how do we convey tone of voice, body position, and all the essential, and nonverbal, parts of what we’re saying.

    I’ve found the hardest part of describing a scene is in giving just enough description to paint a picture without going into so much detail that the page doesn’t allow the reader to use his or her imagination.

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