Dialogue: My Least Favorite/Most Favorite Writing Tool

What’s the toughest thing for me to write? Dialogue. What’s the writing element I probably revise the most? Dialogue. What’s my favorite, favorite thing to read in a book? Good dialogue.

(Hint: I’ve been reading & rereading some of S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin books. You want great, snappy, fast, real, funny character-specific dialogue? Go pick up some of this series.)

Usually, when I talk about dialogue, I put a lot of emphasis on the dialogue beats–the brief bits of action, reaction, or internal thought that surround the spoken words. Just ask my critique partners. But, in my own writing, I’m actually okay with that part. It seems to come smoothly and simply from my brain into the computer. It’s the actual words the characters are saying that I truly struggle with. Through many revisions.

Here’s a common process:

  • First draft, I just have them saying all the wrong things. I haven’t quite figured out a character’s scene goal or conflict and so I stick in some words, any words, just because I know I need some dialogue there.
  • Next draft, those words just disappear. I get closer to the things these people should be talking about, arguing about, but-oh, boy–are the new words clunky. Think a really bad ventriloquist. Or the villain with the big moustache in a melodrama.
  • Next draft, I’m smoothing things out. Characters are talking more like people, less like puppets. Except, often, they’re all talking like the same person.
  • Next draft, I work on differentiation. Again, I go through a clunky phase, using the same words too often or pushing phraseology too far toward an extreme. Finally, I start to see true individual traits and styles come through.

And it goes on from there. Sound familiar to anyone?

So why do I say that dialogue is my least andmost favorite tool? Because, when you get it right, it’s magic. Like Rozan’s. Good dialogue has more power in it than any amount of description or internal thought. It conveys story information, delivers characterization, causes conflict, and makes us laugh and cry.

And achieving that, in our own stories, is more than worth the struggle.

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11 thoughts on “Dialogue: My Least Favorite/Most Favorite Writing Tool

  1. Jenn Hubbard says:

    I love writing dialogue; I should’ve been a screenwriter. It probably comes from obsessively listening to people and analyzing what they said and what they meant while I was growing up! I still like overhearing conversations.
    The main problem I have with dialogue is when the characters say too much too soon–when I need to leave certain revelations for later.

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    • beckylevine says:

      So I’m just a LITTLE bit jealous. 🙂 I know what you mean about getting it all out there too soon. And then, when you take those words away, you have to figure out what they SHOULD be saying so early!

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    • I will go ahead and say it – I AM jealous. Dialogue is so so so difficult for me. First bursts sound so wooden because it is all he said and she said and he said and she said. I had a current run of 7 pages that was JUST dialogue. Ugh!

      Then there are all the tags and backstory and stage directions to weave in (sorry, Becky, I still have adapted to your term “dialogue beats” as I’ve never heard that before.) And when you weave them in, of course, they are supposed to sound so organic.

      I struggle because I either weave in too much and you lose the fact that there is a conversation going on or it feels so forced that I know it can’t be right.

      Funny you should just post this though since that’s right where I’m at with the WIP and it was something that was discussed at the Austin VCFA day, the importance of the “extra stuff” tucked in and around the dialogue.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your process. Understanding how other writers think as they work, how they go about drafting and revising, fascinates me. No book on the fine points of the craft of writing ever goes into this aspect of things, and of course it’s so personal.

    Since I write and teach memoir, character and plot development are a little simpler in most respects, but aside from the constraints of remaining true to the characters and events we know, writing technique is pretty much the same across genres. Many of my students struggle more with dialogue than any other aspect of the writing process.

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    • beckylevine says:

      I bet–I think dialogue would be even harder with memoir. Trying to juggle writing “good” dialogue with remembering what was really said, etc. Glad you liked the post-thanks for stopping by!

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  3. I, too, love great dialogue but also find it a struggle to get it right. Some people have that pitch perfect ear for mimicry but I’m afraid I’m not one of them. I have to work at it, over and over. Keep on, Becky.

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  4. Love hearing about your process, Becky. For me, it’s like trying to tune into the radio — sometimes the signal comes through clearly, and then a page later it doesn’t, so I have strong bits and pathetic bits right next to each other in early drafts. The trick is trying to bring it all up to the same level, while keeping in character.

    And since I write historical fiction, there’s another layer of challenge to everything: making sure the dialogue is true to the time, or at least keeping it from getting too modern.

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