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.