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Dialogue is my favorite thing to write. I tend to use a lot of dialogue in my writing, which sometimes results in long, talky passages -- a bit similar to this question about breaking up exposition. The dialogue I'm talking about isn't necessarily infodumping, however. It's just long stretches where my characters are mainly talking to each other.

What's the best way to make this more interesting for the reader? Is it a sign of deeper, structural issues? Or is it something that can be tweaked?

10

I'll say what has been said in my own way: A long block of JUST dialogue is generally an under-imagined scene.

The dialogue takes place in a setting, with its own sights, sounds, smells and temperature and humidity and interruptions. If the characters are telling each other things they don't know; they have reactions and private thoughts. Most people are doing things as they talk (or you can make sure they are doing things).

Take a drink. Look up to think. Take a deep breath. Your MC can think of an argument, but doesn't argue it.

Anytime you see a stretch of dialogue that is not explicitly a speech to several others, it should be interspersed with actions, thoughts, conversational conflict (misunderstandings, interruptions for clarification, arguments against a claim, etc), facial expressions, etc.

Have a conversation while somebody is getting dressed, or cooking, or doing laundry. Or at work, dealing with interruptions, or constantly getting text alerts on their phone and reading them.

Dialogue IS action, but it should be fully imagined, in a setting, with emotional reactions and real life happening around them. Even minor throwaway conflicts (meaning they don't change the plot or characters, jump up when the microwave beeps to get your warmed over coffee).

Keep the reader grounded in your imagined reality, don't go a hundred words without touching something real. Don't let them disconnect and drift into a white room of just noise.

Imagine yourself trying to hold a conversation from a sensory deprivation tank, with your eyes closed, only able to hear a voice on the phone. It is an incomplete experience to just have a wall of dialogue.

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  • While there is excellent advice in all the answers, I'm giving this one the checkmark, because I think your last sentence best sums up the general principle behind what is wrong with pure dialogue, and how to address it. – Chris Sunami supports Monica May 24 '18 at 18:39
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Make sure to pair up your dialogue with "action". (By action I don't mean running and shooting, but rather any non-dialogue things happening to your characters).

Take the following example: you need a scene of a heated conversation between a couple who are having troubles in their relationship.

Do not write the scene simply with them sitting at the kitchen table and having a chat. Set the scene at a ball or a party. Have them throw accusations at one another between the steps of a dance. Have them quickly change the topic when one of their acquaintances comes up to talk to them. Have one of them leave the room to get a drink when they get too angry. And so on.

This makes the scene more dynamic and breaks the monotony. It helps you avoid a theatre-like effect of talking heads, and lets you sneak in other information in the telling (that friend who interrupted their talk - who was it? why don't they want to talk when he's there?)

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11

I can't stand it when people speech at me rather than giving me the opportunity to have a two way dialogue with them. In the same way, I'm not keen on characters in stories talking without letting the other character(s) have their turn. And, when you think about it, the character's probably aren't keen on it either.

Plus - be nice to your characters. Give them a drink of water every now and again. Let them cough, clear their throat or think about what they're trying to say. It just ain't natural for someone to talk for a long time.

So yeah - break it up.

Remember Physicality Remember that your characters are in a physical location and let your readers perceive that scene. Tell them about the sights, sounds and that disgusting smell when the person they are talking to burps after eating that chilli-dog for lunch.

Stick to the plot Just as you don't often get descriptions of people going to the loo in books, cut out the banal parts of conversations. Focus on the words that contribute to the story. No-one (apart from the odd grannyphile) wants to know what the character's grandma said when they spoke to them the day before yesterday if Gran does not otherwise appear in the book, so leave that sort of stuff on the cutting room floor of your mind. That should cut down on the dialogue a little.

Cut the exposition But you know this already. It's infodumping's brother by the same mother.

Silence speaks volumes Don't be afraid to let your characters pick their nose and stare out of the window every now and again. Okay, maybe not the picking the nose part, but definitely give them time to pause and take stock. Let the reader see their thoughts if your POV allows. A sweet spell of introspection can break up speech quite nicely all by itself.

But if you can't or don't want to do any of that, then at least make what is being said interesting. Show rather than tell by making the characters give us strong images to tickle our jaded mental palettes. Build tension and drama by letting the characters move the plot forward with their words. Reveal the inner workings of the characters by what you choose to let them tell us. Just make it all juicy.

One of the nicest things about a page of dialogue for me is that I can turn the page more quickly. This is down to bigger percentage of white space. Don't take that away from me by letting your character talk too much.

I, as your reader, thank you in advance.

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10

I'm starting to grok that the narrative that accompanies dialog has a fair amount of internal thought that is not immediately recognized as such. Unspoken reaction, deepening of the story. This means you want to be in your character's head as you're writing. Here's a meaningless example:

"Hey let's head to the beach."

"Alright. I'll grab my keys."

"Sounds good."

But break up the dialogue with some of the internal reaction of the PoV character, and it's fuller:

"Hey let's head to the beach."

In March? This guy was full of bizarre ideas. Still, it would give her thirty minutes of uninterrupted time with him, and she could drill into his back story a little, get a handle on why he had come out to Portland to begin with. If she took a wrong a turn, she might even stretch that to forty minutes. "Alright. I'll grab my keys."

"Sounds good."

More broadly, it feels to me like writing dialogue uses a different, less descriptive but punchier part of the brain than writing narrative. Maybe these are different sets of writing muscles. Both are important and give a balanced story.

Your question: What's the best way to make this more interesting for the reader? Is it a sign of deeper, structural issues? Or is it something that can be tweaked?

My answer: It depends. A quick back-and-forth is sometimes best. Still, assess your writing overall (and take a look at the books you read) and see if the story would benefit from including more of the inner life of the characters. :-)

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I'm going to assume the passage is written in the perspective of a character, rather than in the point of view of an omniscient narrator.

The two primary uses of dialogue are to:

  1. Advance the story, often by supplementing or contrasting with what the reader knows, thereby building tension.
  2. Provide occasional levity, often in the form of a quip, or radical deviation from what would be expected.

I don't find that attempts at levity often lead to excessive dialogue, so I'll focus on #1.

The perspective character's observations and thoughts should be emphasized. His speech should generally be concise, because elaboration can be provided outside of the dialogue with more color. Often the perspective character's speech reveals no new information to the reader, but conveys to the reader the extent to which the perspective character is forthcoming with the other characters. What isn't said can convey every bit as much information as what is said by the perspective character.

The speech of non-perspective characters often reveals new information to the reader. The implications of the new information can be conveyed with more elaboration in the thoughts of the perspective character.

A common pattern might be:

  1. Antagonist talks.
  2. Hero contemplates.
  3. Hero talks, and speech contrasts with thoughts.

"I would be happy to look after your interests while you are away," offered Villain.

Heroine suppressed a mix of surprise and shame. She should have expected Villain to know of her summons to the capital. He had purchased abundant influence since assuming control of the family estate, following the convenient deaths of his two older brothers.

"I gladly accept your kind offer, though I feel unworthy of such generosity," Heroine replied. "Let us discuss the matter tonight over wine."

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5

The way I look at it, a scene should ideally have at least three actors in it, most commonly two characters and the scene’s setting. But it’s not enough to simply make your characters look around the room, or having random stuff happen here and there.

That, in and of itself, isn’t interesting. You could have your characters chatting in the middle of a war zone; that setting isn’t going to make things interesting if all it does is make your characters speak louder, or move a couple of feet every once in a while to avoid a mortar shell. If the war doesn’t impact them directly, then who cares that they’re in a battlefield? Why are they even there?

In order for your setting to be an actor in your scene, it needs to become a character.

Imagine you’re writing a love story. Husband and wife are sitting on a bench at the park, talking about having a baby. The husband is still scarred by the death of his first wife and baby in childbirth.

So far pretty dull, right? Okay, so you could apply the usual advice: throw in some arguments, some conflict, some shouting… But all that’s going to do is artificially delay a result we already know (he’s going to accept, because that’s the only way the story progresses), or lead to a result that produces no forward motion (he stands his ground, thus causing the entire scene to be pointless). Still pretty dull either way.

What about if there’s a pickup basketball game going on next to them? A stray ball rolls over to the husband. He picks it up, and just touching that ball reminds him of the joy of expecting the birth of his first child. Now you’ve got the setting speaking to one of your characters.

Cliché? Perhaps. What about if you told the scene from the point of view of the wife? She sees her husband change his mind out of nowhere after picking up the ball and staring at it blankly for a few minutes. She doesn’t understand why. Maybe the wife doesn’t know her husband as much as she thought she did. Now we get an excuse for delving into his state of mind.

Think of it as an invisible third character whispering something into the first character’s ear. And here’s the cool thing: in so doing, that invisible third character also speaks to the second character, albeit whispering something else.

Anyway, I’m sure you can come up with something more elaborate as it pertains to your story. That was just an example to give you an idea. But just think of the possibilities if you can turn something boring like chatting on a bench into something interesting.

The key here is subtext. It is subtext, and more generally nuance, that will make your dialogue come to life. This includes double-entendre, misdirection, foreshadowing, things thought but left unsaid, modulation (commentary interspersed with the dialogue that adds layers of meaning to your characters’ interactions), etc.

I’ve read books with giant walls of dialogue that didn’t particularly bother me and that have, in fact, been very successful. People don’t care that something is long if it’s interesting. Make your dialogue interesting and you’ve solved your problem.

KM Weiland of Helping Writers Become Authors also cites the following example from The Ten Commandments:

There’s an early scene in which the jealous crown prince Ramses is dropping weights into a scale to emphasize each of his accusations against Moses.

By the time his accusations are finished, the scale has enough weight on one side to clunk all the way down against the table.

Moses then rebuts the accusations by picking up a brick, saying starving slaves can make no bricks, and then thunking the much heavier brick down on the other side of the scale.

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  • 3
    +1 I like the suggestion of viewing setting as a character. That may be helpful for me, since I'm so much more interested in characters than in settings. – Chris Sunami supports Monica May 28 '18 at 13:37
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Further to all the excellent advice already given, I'll just mention you may not need as much dialogue as you think you do, which means you can prune it during the redraft. I'll list a few reasons; if anyone knows more, leave a comment. Addressing these will often bring your scenes to life.

  • Maybe characters are saying things they'd already know (not just exposition, but what's expected of them or how someone else feels).
  • Maybe a character anticipates what another will say or do, and heads them off (this also breaks up what dialogue remains, when we hear what people are doing or thinking).
  • Maybe some of what is said can be succinctly paraphrased, briefly interrupting the paragraph otherwise devoted to another's speech.
  • Maybe a simple thought would be conveyed in body language, or even in silence or inaction.
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