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I've realized that most of the short stories I've been writing recently are almost entirely dialog. The stories hinge on relationships between characters and associated conflicts, so it felt natural to write them almost entirely as conversations between those characters...but I worry whether readers would get bored with a story that's pretty much just people talking.

So how can I keep readers engaged in a story that's mostly talking? What sorts of things should I be paying attention to that are key to keeping things interesting? (For instance, I've already been making sure that there's always plenty of conflict, since I know that's generally an important part of narrative drive.)

Or, on the other hand, should I try to avoid stories being entirely talking and find ways to intersperse more action, description, etc?

As an example, a recent story I wrote could be boiled down to just a couple main scenes:

  • protagonist argues with her spouse and makes a bad decision
  • protagonist meets and talks with an old crush whose life has gone in a very different direction
  • having reconsidered her choices after talking with the crush, protagonist makes up with her spouse and they figure out together how to fix the bad decision
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  • This is a great post.
    – bvcolic
    Jan 4 at 18:54
  • William Gaddis's acclaimed novel JR is 725 pages of almost pure dialogue. Most of the dialogue is fragmented and elided, yet the characters appear and the story takes shape.Each character is distinct, their take on the world is clear and their dialogue individualized. Still, the reader has to make a real effort to fill in the unsaid and to be drawn into the story. Justification if you only heard the world, this is the way it would sound. Go for it.
    – Zan700
    Jan 18 at 22:38
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You've chosen to limit your readers to a single sense during their journey through your story. Limiting them to the words spoken will limit how deeply they can enter your world. How much they are limited will vary from reader to reader, with highly visual or tactile centric readers suffering the most. Deliberately limiting your audience to those who can relate to an entirely verbal telling doesn't sound wise, but if you get something valuable out of it, maybe it would be worth it.

One thing you might gain from this approach is distinctiveness. You are definitely doing something that most other writers don't do. That might make you stand out in a very crowded market. Distinct isn't necessarily good, but if the rest of your story-craft excels, then distinct could be the bait which brings future fan readers to your story's hook.

Another possible advantage is that an all verbal presentation might serve as a setup for an unexpected plot point. Perhaps several of your short stories are published together are purely spoken dialog while the last story in the series is a mental monologue, told by a blind narrator, who lives in the same building as all of the other characters. Perhaps the reveal is that all of the previous stories were actually that blind narrator ease-dropping on her neighbor through the building's paper-thin walls or shared vent-work.

You are your story's creator and as such, you can do anything you want with your world and with your words. Just make sure that each choice that you make, including whether to use dialogue exclusively, enriches your story and your storytelling.

Keep Writing!

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I'm always a huge proponent of 'less is more'. For example:

"As she took in the improvements that time had made on his face, she wondered just how much those new lines were rooted in the countless laughs they had shared."

is more engaging and evocative than them rehashing their history verbally.

Doing, not saying. It is an action. In this case, she's observing.

Whenever I get stuck using too much or too little dialogue, I try to write the scene in the opposite extreme. Too little dialogue? I write it in only conversation. At the very least, it helps me highlight what is important to communicate and what isn't.

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I can tell you exactly how to fix the problem and what mindset you're not in just by your examples you gave: You describe the story perfectly... you show the rising action (the fight), the climax (meeting the old flame), and the conclusion (reconciliation with her spouse). You got a good "Who" "What" and "Why" succinctly described... you forgot your setting questions: "Where are we in these three scenes?" "When do they happen in relationship to each other?" "How did they happen?"

For your first example, a fight between a couple can happen anywhere: Was it at home? Was it in public? What room? Where in public? Were other people able to hear it? Was it at lunch time? Bed Time? Wee hours in the Morning?

If it was at the house, clearly Old Flame didn't burst into their home on coincidence (or maybe he did... his radically different path in life is that he's a proffessional criminal and just happened to pick that moment to rob the house... but hey, I'm assuming that's not the case). Where did she meet Old Flame? Why did she think to go there? Why did he go there? Does she frequent this place or does he? How can both frequent it if she hasn't seen him in ages? Are they at a cofee place? What does he order? What does she? Is it unusual for them? Is it the same thing they've always got when they were dating? What's different about him now? What's the same? Is she happy for him in his new path? Is she disappointed with him?

When she makse up with spouse, how does she return? Where do they meet? What's he doing when she meets him?

Dialog does not take place in a vacume. It's okay to lean on the dialog for the scene, but keep in mind there is a whole world going on around them. Pay attention to the details... how do the characters move through the scene. Understand that in real life, people don't just communicate with words, but with tone and inflection on the words and with how their body moves when speaking.

"Yeah, Sure," She said tells me she's agreeing, but I can't read tone? Is she agreeing to an offer to do something wacky and unusual for her to help lift her spirits? Or is she conceeding to her dialog partner's painful truth that she knows is right, even though she doesn't like that it's right? Or is she sarcastically responding to the dialog.

To help, you might want to go to places that inspire your story settings and play the dialog in your head... don't read it from the paper, but get into your characters heads... then move through the scene as if your actually engaging with someone in this dialog. In theater, the term for this is called "blocking" and actually has to be considered in the set space because not all stages are built equal. Actors and directors will work through where the characters have to move as the give their lines and set up for future actions. While story writers can just picture it in their mind, some will often block out the scene so they can describe the flow of people through the room.

Another way to practice is to pay attention to people beyond their words when you talk to them.

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Stories that hinge on emotional relationships are often inclined to an excess of dialogue, but these verbal conflicts between characters are only going to feel tense and meaningful if you also give them some alone time. After your characters have shouted themselves hoarse or reminisced aloud, leave them the space to process it in quiet. The introspection afforded in these moments is going to help you do a lot of very dense development legwork for your perspective character(s) in a relatively short amount of time, and it allows the audience to process alongside them.

This is, of course, presuming that you're just worried about there being an excess of dialogue in your story as opposed to intending a dialogue-exclusive structure. In the latter case, I'd focus on making each of your characters' voices and deliveries distinct. Verbal tics, regional vocabulary, rhythm, and word choice can all come together to give your characters completely unique cadences and tell the audience about their backgrounds without resorting to more traditional descriptive writing.

"Oh, no!" Cries Character A. "It's a dog! I think it's been hit by a car. We have to help it!"

Character B says, "Stop. It's already nearly dead. It wouldn't be fair to torture it any longer. Give it here... poor thing. Least I can do is make it quick. I'm sorry."

Character C says, "How childish. You claim to abhor cruelty, yet you seek to preserve this life. Would it not be kinder to put the creature out of its misery? I will do it... What a terrible waste."

Even communicating the exact same position, these two modes of speech make for very different characters; B is down-to-earth and empathetic, while C is distant and conceptual in their thinking. Is B myopic and impulsive? Is C callous and domineering? We don't know from these lines alone, but they're things that can be built up to as your characters converse, drip-feeding the appropriate information in this fashion as time goes on. Give them illustrative introductory lines and build on them from there. Ideally, by the time your story reaches its climax, your characters will have amounted to fully-realized people -- or at least as close as one can get in snapshots alone.

In general, if you want to write a story exclusively (or close to it) in dialogue format, it's of utmost importance that each of your characters has a distinct voice that's strong enough to compensate for sparse or absent descriptions of body language, expressions, and so on. Having a profound or completely original plotline, I find, can come secondarily, so long as your cast has the stage presence to carry it.

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If you have seen any movie of Tarantino you will know dialogue is quite important. Sometimes you can even have two characters just discussing of a random topic. And even if is nothing important at a first view, it can still add to the story because it let us see how the characters are in their "natural habitat". After all, is not like people lives were just infinite non-stopping conflicts. Sometimes people just talk.

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I used to write like this, and I've learned that there are many readers --my wife is one --who cannot and will not read work without strong visual descriptions. As @HenryTaylor mentioned in his excellent answer, we have five senses, and good writers touch on all of them in order to fully immerse the reader in the narrative.

In any real, face-to-face conversation, there's a lot going on besides the words. People "talk" with their hand gestures, their faces change expression, they touch each other, they fiddle with things, they shift around in their chairs, and so forth. They might even react to the smell of the other person, either negatively or positively. I suspect you're like me --when you're in a conversation, you get absorbed by the words, and don't pay attention to the rest. But the next time you talk to someone, take the time to observe everything else that's happening. You'll be amazed.

Also, good descriptions are never merely a bland catalog of tactile details. They convey symbolism, point of view, emotion, mood, subtext and many other things as well. Consider this: "'No really,' and here, his face contorted, just for a second, so quick I almost missed it. 'It's fine.'" That gives so much more information than just the words alone. "She smiled as she spoke, and I had a sudden impression of a cat smiling at a mouse."

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Read the greatest classics like Shakespeare.

Play scripts and screenplays are mostly dialogs, and they are definitely interesting and captivating by themselves. What playwrights do is they cut all the fluff of lengthy descriptions and present everything that is important in a form of a dialog (or soliloquy). Everything that the reader needs to know should be put in the words spoken by a character, and everything else is left to reader's own imagination.

It is not often an easy transition for a fiction writer to switch to an equally good screenwriter or playwright, but if your work is already mostly dialogs, maybe that's actually your talent?

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