Dialog Part One

Dialog is a major part of just about any story. Unless you’re writing a Castaway or something similar you’re going to write a fair amount of it as you go along. I’m sure a whole book could be written on just the art of writing dialog, but for now I’m going to try and keep it down to two posts. In this first one I want to look at the basics of framing a scene with a lot of dialog. Next week I’ll look at the methodology I use to “debug” a dialog intensive scene that isn’t quite working.

So without further ado, what do you do with a lot of dialog?

  1. Set the scene. It almost goes without saying but all scenes happen somewhere; describing the setting gives you an idea of where your scene happens and lets you set up props or prompts for later. You don’t have to set the whole scene at the start, but at least sketch a basic layout for the readers to keep in mind as the scene progresses.

  2. Have your characters move around. The vast majority of people don’t just sit and stare at each other the whole time they’re talking. They fidget, they get up to get things or gesture with their hands, sometimes they even bury their face in their hands. You don’t have to mention every little tic or gesture, but mentioning these things from time to time keeps the scene realistic and keeps the scene from devolving into huge chunks of talking, which gets tedious.

  3. Place things in the setting your character can use. Have someone at a dinner party gesture with their knife and fork, or a dishrag left in the kitchen can become an impromptu weapon in a squabble between siblings. You don’t have to have a lot of these, in fact not every scene needs them. But a few from time to time are a big plus.

  4. Let the setting of the scene put ideas in your character’s minds. A picture on the wall might prompt a detective to ask about a family’s children, or a pile of clothing left in the corner can spark an argument over whether or not a character is a slob. As with the previous point, you don’t need these in every scene but they help keep the reader grounded in what’s going on.

  5. Give a few of the character’s inner thoughts. People do occasionally stop to collect their thoughts or recall some detail in the middle of a conversation. This is a great way to add background information but you have to be careful not to overdo it. Too much is both unrealistic and interrupts the flow of the scene but the right amount helps break up the dialog and helps the reader get a handle on elements of the scene that might not be entirely clear to them.

  6. Try and keep chunks of dialog short. If you have one person talking for more than a couple of hundred words, at the very most, it’s probably a good idea to find some excuse to break things up. Have the other character interject, or add some business for the character to do.

  7. Try and keep the number of characters in the discussion to a minimum. It’s not natural to have half the characters in the room keep quiet for a page or two at a time, but it does make the scene easier to read. Dialog refers to two people talking, after all. Two isn’t always the ideal number, but fewer is generally better.

When I write a scene with a lot of dialog, those are the things that I keep in mind. Next week I’ll look at some of the things that I do to make a dialog-heavy scene work.

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