4

Everybody knows how an important part of writing is the ability to compose proper dialogue. I've even heard that publishers tend to jump to the first conversation in a received draft and see if it works. This makes sense to me as nothing sets a reader further from the story than unnatural dialogue.

There are plenty of videos, articles and even questions on this site covering the topic. They usually focus on making characters' speeches organic. People often wonder about hero's lines presenting their personality or how to make them unique.

One would also easily find texts regarding the flow of dialogue. About the hidden conflicts and pushing the action forward. How they impact the plot.

In other words there is a lot of coverage of actual words being said in dialogue.

I have concern about another part of the matter: the background. The didascalies. The description of the second plan.

It comes from self-analysis of my own writing. I've noticed that in my stories conversations tend to have a repetitive setting. They usually happen at a coffee shop or in a park. Characters sit, eat or walk. It all comes from my own experiences as I tend to chat in such circumstances.

While writing I always try to expand the actual meaning of a dialogue with descriptions. A person being nervous will spill some wine. Characters having some mystery would hide their hands. A guilty individual can point a finger at himself.

I'm starting to feel though like I wander around a very small room, if it makes any sense. Following the aforementioned settings, it seems like all of my dialogue is the compilation of finite and quite small pack of activities. It's like I have a bunch of metaphors, all surrounding benches and tables, and I use them over and over again.

At this point I want to break out of this limited room. I would like my dialogue to vary as far as my imagination can reach. I want to use symbolism that is unique to the scene. I want each of my dialogues to be a fresh story.

I hope that makes sense to you. Thank you for reaching the end of my question and if any advice or thought comes to your mind, please share it.

2
  • 1
    Forgive me if you're already doing this, but a tip I've learned is to have one of the characters doing something else. Maybe they're eating, maybe one of them is cleaning, reading a book, etc. It would give them opportunities to interact with the environment and show their personality or connection with the area. It also helps avoid dialogue tags since you can infer who's talking by the actions instead :p
    – GammaGames
    Nov 24, 2021 at 23:52
  • @GammaGames that's a great tip, thanks!
    – Rico
    Nov 25, 2021 at 11:01

4 Answers 4

1
+50

I've been told by professional critics my dialogue is excellent.

Within a single story, I try to never have a conversation in the same place twice. Sometimes this is truly unavoidable; but usually it is not.

I am extremely conscious of "talking heads" syndrome; in which the conversation becomes a half page or a page of just quoted text, to the point the reader's imagination turns off and it is just like a talk show on TV, two disembodied heads talking at each other. This is boring.

I just hate having my characters sit and talk at each other. As much as possible, I have them talk while doing something else. It doesn't have to be important, but their hands are not idle. They could be washing dishes, playing cards, throwing darts, walking with the scenery changing, watching a movie, working, eating together, walking through a trade show or museum, whatever. But it is not static, change of some sort is going on, even if it is unimportant change.

For me, that is all the metaphor I need; change. Conversation exists to change something. Sure, if somebody is nervous, they may spill their wine or fumble their coffee cup, but I don't find that necessary.

"Talking Heads" is a sign of an under-imagined scene. The conversation takes place in a setting, and to break up dialogue I intersperse the lines with descriptions of the setting as it changes.

The job of the writer is to assist the imagination of the reader, to make sure the reader is seeing, at least approximately, the movie reel playing in the writer's head. The reader needs this assist relatively constantly, a description lasts only ten seconds or so. 40 to 60 words. The length of this paragraph.

That is how often you need to prompt imagery, hit the refresh button on the imagination. You want visual imagery throughout the read, no exceptions.

I try to never have a conversation in the same place twice for my own convenience: It is easier to imagine a new place than to try and come up with new stuff to describe in Charlene's office, once I have already described Charlene's office for a previous conversation!

If the plot makes a place the only sensible place to hold a second conversation, I may resort to something else going on IN that place.

From an insider point of view this may seem like an obvious literary device, that my conversations are never in the same place twice, when in real life we may hold three conversations a day in the kitchen alone. But none of my outspoken readers, ready and willing and encouraged to criticize anything that seems weird, have ever even mentioned this as a thing. I think it flies under the radar, and it gives you the freedom to thoroughly embed your characters in a visualized setting, with action, doing something, without boring the reader with describing the same place a second time, or a third time.

I would also follow the "Hollywood" maxim for dialogue as exposition: The more expository, explanatory, or background-y the dialogue is, the more noisy and exciting the background is. Tell it at a circus, a raucous Pride Parade, during a heated political protest. Have it shouted on a roller coaster. It gets told while our characters are being shot at and fleeing. While they are dangerously free-climbing a cliff. (And now that I've told you, you may notice it in movies. Sorry.)

6
  • I feel like there is some great advice in here, but it's lost because the posts tone is ironically more conversational than instructional? Nov 27, 2021 at 22:47
  • 1
    @Pureferret Oh well. To each his own.
    – Amadeus
    Nov 28, 2021 at 18:00
  • @Pureferret that's right. It's showing the guidelines instead of telling it. :D
    – Rico
    Dec 2, 2021 at 16:46
  • @Amadeus no offence meant, by the way, only that I found it harder to read through this post than ant of the others. Dec 2, 2021 at 17:46
  • 1
    Ahhh it makes a lot of sense that you're a teacher who's used to talking to students. When I was a student, conversational lecturers/teachers were some of my favourites. I find, to be as engaging, the written medium requires quite a different style; however, as you said to each their own. Dec 2, 2021 at 19:41
4

Motives!

You are choosing natural places to talk. In order to move to more unusual ones, you need to give character motives to talk elsewhere -- or possibly create characters who would have motives to talk elsewhere. Two hikers talking on a mountain trail. The client and the employee while one is doing the other one's nails. Two people in a courtroom waiting to fight their traffic tickets.

One advantage this gives is that it offers chances at raising stakes by the place. If two employees are arguing down the stairs and out of the building to the carpark, they have a limited time to work with.

One disadvantage is that you can forget it and have the characters talk as if in a coffee shop over a table, which not only throws away the setting but makes it look stupid. If they are hiking, bridges, trees, muddy spots, songbirds flying by, on the path may all feature.

2

Conversations in repetitive settings isn't necessarily a problem. Although it is a television programme, think of 'Friends'.

Conversations about repetitive topics can be.

Maybe think about what you want a piece of dialogue to show a reader and then think where it might take place. Do you want to show Denise as a bully at work? Is the purpose to show Bill is paranoid? Why does Janet hate Jill? Can Sarah convince herself to dump Bronwyn?

Can I suggest you avoid words like 'didascalies' in questions?

Consider what your story needs instead of what you usually do. Stories are not real life: they aren't documentaries. They are constructed. Could your characters meet in a lift that breaks down, a bus queue or a doctor's surgery? If so, the dynamics are changed.

Can they message each other instead of speaking?

3
  • What is wrong with didascalies? I'm sorry, I'm not a native English speaker.
    – Rico
    Nov 15, 2021 at 7:43
  • 1
    The only meaning I can find for it in English is: a catalogue of ancient Greek drama, their writers, etc. compiled by Aristotle and others. The Oxford English Dictionary says it is likely to occur less than 0.01 times per million words in modern English. If you meant the French meaning of 'stage directions' or 'blocking', it isn't used that way in English at all. Nov 15, 2021 at 15:04
  • Ok, good to know, thanks.
    – Rico
    Nov 16, 2021 at 8:11
0

I have concern about another part of the matter: the background. The didascalies. The description of the second plan.

Read anything from literary realism and you'll find a dozen pages just describing the surroundings before the dialogue begins. If you want something more contemporary magical realism and Gabriel García Márquez come to mind.

They usually happen at a coffee shop or in a park. Characters sit, eat or walk. It all comes from my own experiences as I tend to chat in such circumstances.

Break your routine and go for a walk in a place you don't know, that will be the surrounding.

I wander around a very small room

Literary naturalism is one alternative but that comes with the difficulty of adequately describing your objects. Small towns are made of daily activities, local folks and routine. The surrounding can be trivial and familiar objects, but that doesn't mean an absence of events or that the surroundings are any less interesting.

(I read a book recently about an historical figure who spent his entire life in the same village, since events around him were constantly changing there was never any repetition of flow although he did have the same routine almost every day of his life.)

While writing I always try to expand the actual meaning of a dialogue with descriptions.

Entire books have been written on a long interior monologue/dialogue where the character blends into the surroundings, an example would be The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.

(This example invalidates what was said in another answer, because entire chapters of dialogue and surrounding are built on repetition.)

I want each of my dialogues to be a fresh story.

Assuming every pairing of interlocutors is different no two dialogues will be the same.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.