Let’s Talk Dialogue (Plus,Tell Me a Tune)

Dialogue. The Big D. The Cheese Burrito. (Don’t ask me why I threw that last one in– just roll with it.)

It’s a fundamental part of fiction: one of the best ways to show rather than tell (i.e., let your characters speak for themselves…literally), a great way to communicate information quickly, and an excellent pace-quickener, among other things. Perhaps more than anything else, it’s natural.

…Or should be.

Although our dialogue will ideally read like speech, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it sounds like writing…and sometimes there are other challenges. Have you ever, for example, had trouble with one of these?

  • Someone talking with food in their mouth
  • A character with an accent, twang, or dialect
  • Getting the pauses/hesitation/stutters right
  • Dialogue interrupted by action
  • Putting the tags in the right places and knowing when to exclude them
  • Punctuation-related grievances

Talk about issues!

What challenges have you encountered with dialogue? And (if applicable) how did you read, teach, or talk yourself out of them?

BONUS QUESTION OF THE DAY, completely unrelated to writing and usual Forum Friday material: can you think of any pop songs that tell a story as the story is happening?

Think “Stan” by Eminem, where you hear letters as they are being written, or “Internet Friends” by Knife Party, where a crazy stalker shows up at her new Facebook friend’s house when they block her (and you actually hear the doorbell, knocking, phone ringing, etc.) Heads up– both songs contain language/contentious material!

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20 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Dialogue (Plus,Tell Me a Tune)

  1. When I originally started writing I used to think I was really terrible at dialogue, but I’ve had a lot of readers mention that they love the dialogue I do produce. To me dialogue is the most crucial when it comes to actually writing a story. The dialogue is all your real meat and ‘action’ to a story except in really rare cases like Wall-e and even then it needed a human and robot talking to really push the important parts of the plot forward.

    My biggest issue right now is actually dialogue between protagonists and antagonists. I can write friends talking to each other, and allies, and lovers all fine. When it comes to interaction with two characters who are on opposite sides though… for some reason I fall back really fast on all the cliches like villain monologues and such. I’m working on it, but that’s probably because my villains aren’t amazing, I don’t always flesh them out as much as should, which is something I’ve started to work on.

    • Oooh yes, villains! Villains can be tricky. I’ve encountered that problem (contrived, cliche dialogue) myself, although more in short stories than books. The master villain of Shifters is mostly behind the scenes in book one, but not in book two…so I’ll have the old challenge ahead of me!

      • Oh, I had a ‘behind the scenes’ villain as well in the first book. But I also had other villains on the fore front. I think the only villain I really did any justice for was my ‘Big Bad Wolf’ and she didn’t even come across as a real ‘villain’, more like an anti-hero. But that’s probably because she was the only villain that I sat and thought about her motive and reasons and such ahead of time.

        • I’m starting to wonder if that’s a trend in trilogies/ongoing series: having the arch villain (did I just invent a term there?) enter slowly, from behind the curtain and other antagonists… (thinking now of Harry Potter and Voldemort). Hmmm.

          Maybe I’m too much of a planner, but I definitely like to know people’s motives going into the writing (maybe not everyone’s, but definitely the protagonist’s and antagonist’s)!

  2. It’s not eves dropping if its research!
    Jokes aside, dialogue is tricky. In fantasy there’s always a balancing act between over the top, heavy and too modernized in my own experience. I try to remember things I’ve heard in conversations, store them as back-ups for a rainy day.

    It’s not pop but… The album Under The Grey Banner by the band Dragon Land tells a story, classic fantasy, over the course of the album. Each song being a chapter if its own. πŸ™‚

    • LOL, yes, eavesdropping: one of the many liberties us writers can claim. Listening to how people really talk is important: what does an artist do but imitate reality? At uni we even had an assignment where we HAD to go eavesdrop on people and write conversations down, just for the practice!

      Thanks for mentioning Under The Grey Banner. I listened to the first song that came up and the style reminds me a bit of a musical– something like Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog πŸ™‚

  3. Hurricane by Bob Dylan tells the story in the present tense and sometimes past tense. Not sure it is pop though. Mr. Brightside by The Killers also tells a story and is in present tense (as are many Killers songs).

  4. Punctuation – where a character is quoting someone else…who might even be quoting something themselves 😯 A pet hate when reading dialogue is to have to backtrack to tell who’s speaking 😦

    Pop song – ‘Take It Easy’, Eagles.

    • Oh man, quotes inside of quotes…don’t even get me started! I seem to have trouble every time I need a character to read something aloud, too: do I use quotes, or italics? Thank goodness for answer-all tomes like the Chicago Manual of Style.

      Thanks for sharing, and also for pointing me to ‘Take it Easy’!

  5. My biggest problem with dialogue is my characters sounding similar to each other. I read the dialogue aloud so I can hear how the characters sound but I ask myself, can my readers distinguish one character from another? If not, what should I do to make this happen?

    It’s difficult but I’m working on it πŸ™‚

    • Oh yeah, definitely been there, too. I think that’s where taking the time to do character sketches beforehand can really come in handy– if you know a character’s personality and how they talk going into it, it’s easier to write the first time! Not the most practical approach for short stories, though…

      Good luck πŸ™‚

  6. “Gee, Jules,” he said, in an overfriendly way. “I really dig your smoke on the cheese burrito.”

    “Yeah, girlfriend,” responded his altar ego, a drag queen desperately trying to seem 30 years younger. “But I just can’t catch your tune on a pop song,” s/he said, laughing uproariously until his/her teeth fell out.

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