dialogue or summary

by Ben
(Tucson, AZ)

Question: I am writing a novel in which a survivor of the story is actually writing the book from events that happened 5 years prior. I would like to add dialogue but think because it is so long ago that the character telling the story would be more believable summarizing conversations than actually having dialogue. Am I right? Should I replace all dialogue with the character summarizing it?

Answer: Traditionally, most books have been written in past tense from the point of view of a narrator who already knows the end of the story, and therefore is usually writing about events that occurred many years before.

Whether the narrator is the main character, a minor character in the story world, or omniscient (the voice of the author), readers are quite used to the convention that the narrator knows very specific details of the story's events.

Narrators are good story tellers (otherwise, why would we read their stories?), and good story tellers provide detail, including the actual words spoken by the characters.

Rather than making your story more believable, leaving out dialogue is more likely to make it less believable, because believability emerges from specific and authentic details.

Summarizing events (including conversations) creates the feeling of hearing a story second or third-hand. It puts more distance between the reader and the story, so that it feels less real.

Giving readers the specific, sensory information, including the actual words of dialogue, creates the illusion that they are present at the events and receiving the information directly--which makes the story seem more real.

Think of it this way...

Reading a summary is like having your friend tell you about a movie they just watched.

Reading the actual dialogue and other sensory details of events is like watching the movie. It's a much more real experience.

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by: Anonymous

Thank you! I cleaned up a lot of dialogue I liked but left some in before I asked after what you said I think I will put some back in and just try to keep it split evenly. Maybe just summarize where I feel an elaboration of dialogue is needed and just try not to overdo either

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Question: Okay, I know this question seems quite stupid but I'm asking it anyway.

I was wondering how do you know if your story has too much dialogue? I know I have a bit of a descriptive problem. Lots of my scenes consists of dialogue, conversation between two to three characters. Is that terribly bad, I mean to me, it's how I can comfortably depict my characters, through the way they speak.

Do you have any tips to overcome this issue?

Answer: The fact that you ask this question suggests that you think you may have too much dialogue.

Assuming you're right, here's a couple of things you might do...

1. Don't let dialogue happen in a vacuum. In other words, don't just write ping-pong dialogue with nothing else happening in the scene. Dialogue is great for revealing character and relationships and how they evolve. However, scenes can involve other things such as...

a) Plot. Having your characters do something while they talk - ideally something that forwards the plot - lets your scene do double duty.

b) Inner conflict. Have you included the main character's internal responses, thoughts, and emotions? It can be rather fun if the main character is trying to carry on a conversation while thinking about something completely different or observing something happening in the distance.

c) Setting. Little reminders of what's present or happening in the environment can help ground the scene and help it feel authentic.

d) Body language. While you usually can't relate what's happening in the head of anyone other than the main character, much can be communicated through other characters' physical gestures and facial expressions. Gestures are a great way to add subtext.

2. Always go through your dialogue and take out every line that isn't necessary. Make sure you know what the core of the conversation is (the relationship change) and cut the rest. Put as much exposition as you can in narration rather than dialogue.

3. You might also try breaking up a dialogue with an action event, and then resuming the conversation afterward. Variety can help a lot with pacing.

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by: Anonymous

Thank you so much for the suggestions, I find that I do a few of them, but thanks for the other suggestions, I will try and include more of the setting descriptions and some of the other suggestions.

I do this too
by: Jennifer

I'm not sure if the original question-asker is still following this, but I struggle with how much dialogue to include as well. I think I'm pretty good at writing it, and I find it fun to write... probably because it's something we do every day (i.e., talk to people). Writing prosy descriptive scenes is much harder, because we don't think that way in our heads (well, most of us don't, anyway). This makes me wonder if leaning too heavily on dialogue to advance the story is common amongst new writers.

I do think dialogue can be valuable for revealing things about your characters, but I agree with Glen that it's good to make sure that it serves a purpose toward advancing the plot. Additionally, instead of constant "he said" or "she said," mix it up a bit with other markers, such as:

He glanced at his watch. "We really need to get going. The babysitter is charging us $20 per hour."

She frowned. "I know, but I'm having so much fun. Can we stay just one more hour?"

Or you can use different verbs that give more color to the dialogue (i.e., substitutes for "said"), or, for a few turns, you can skip the "he said/she said" altogether and just trust that the reader will follow along. Usually, it's easy enough to do if it doesn't go on for too long without another marker dropped in.

Maybe you're already doing all of this, but I figured I'd just throw it out there.

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Advancing the plot without dialogue

by Jennifer
(St. Paul, MN, USA)

Hi again, and thanks again for your help. It's simply fantastic that you are willing to lend a hand.

I find that I'm leaning really, really heavily on dialogue to advance my plot. It's almost as though I feel like nothing can really happen in a story unless at least two people are talking to each other. I know in my head that this isn't true, but I keep falling back on it over and over again.

When I think of some of my favorite books, I realize that many of them don't have nearly as much dialogue. "Huck Finn," for example - Twain has long stretches with no dialogue and when he does use it it's often only to punctuate a scene. Sometimes it's only a few lines of dialogue, to give color, with the rest of it summarized by Huck's first-person narration. I'm not using first-person, and I can't figure out how to summarize and advance the plot in a way that is interesting. I also feel like I can't get to Point B or C without putting every detail out on paper (even if I take it out later), and part of that includes the things the characters say to each other. It's like I can't really know my own characters or understand their relationships until I see what they have to say. I really enjoy "watching" them get to know each other - it's almost as though I insert myself into the scene.

I wonder if other writers do this - maybe I can just go back later and edit out big chunks of the dialogue and summarize them...? Can you think of specific works that are more dialogue heavy (other than plays or screenplays, obviously)?

Augh. Not even sure what I'm trying to ask at this point. Any insights at all are appreciated!

Answer: A lot depends on the type of story you are writing. In a story where character relationships are the foreground, dialogue is a powerful tool for exploring those relationships. But it is not the only tool, and in some books there are other features that demand attention.

A few tips...

1. There's nothing wrong with writing an extensive conversation and then going back and editing out everything non-essential. Good dialogue, it is often said, is conversation with the boring bits cut out. You pare it down so that the final product says a lot in as few words as possible.

2. Remember that action can reveal and explore relationships as well--whether that means simple things like a meaningful look or a casual gesture, or big deeds such as the hero rescuing the princess from a dragon.

3. Sometimes, long conversations between two people without action can turn them into disembodied voices in a vacuum. Giving them some activity to engage in while they are talking can reinforce the reality of the scene. In film, this can get a bit silly at times (people talking while furiously pacing through corridors, or evaluating their relationship while they defuse a bomb). As Shakespeare said, you must "suit the action to the word, the word to the action."

4. It is more common to find very long passages of dialogue in literary fiction, where the emphasis is more on style than plot. A writer may deliberately push the boundaries of dialogue for stylistic purposes in such a work. In genre fiction, readers may have a stronger desire for a plot. Again, you have to decide what type of story you are writing and for whom.

5. Readers like variety. Alternating among fast and slow passages, dialogue, exposition, action, reflection, etc. can make the prose more energetic. Your own emotions can guide you as to when it is time to vary the pace, but getting comments from others helps too.

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Too much dialogue?

by Dawna
(Davie, FL)

Question: I am currently writing a book where a vampire pursues a woman and the ending will not be a happy loving one. His obsession leads to her demise and I am rereading through for areas I can expand or change to fit my novel better.

My question is:
Is it possible to put too much dialogue in a novel?

Answer: Too much of anything is possible. That's what "too much" means.

What you have to ask yourself is whether the dialogue adds to the story. If you can cut large sections and still have illustrated all your story points - your themes, your conflicts, your plot developments, your main character's inner journey etc. - then you probably have too much dialogue.

On the other hand, if you cut a section of dialogue and the result is that the story feels like something important is missing, then maybe you need to put it back in. (Do this with a copy of your manuscript or file, not the original.)

As a writer, you may have a hard time separating material that is necessary for the story from material you like a lot but actually weakens the story. That's when it helps to have someone you trust read your work and give you an opinion - a critique partner or group, an editor, etc.

Something else you can do is see if you can replace a long conversation with just a few lines of dialogue and still convey the same information, emotion, and character interaction. This is a good exercise to do throughout your manuscript when you are working on a second draft.

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Dialogue Layout

by Doran
(New York, NY)

Hi. Was wondering if the dialogue should always end with she responded or he asks, etc.? Can it be written in script format with the character's name first and then his/her dialogue or are both ok within the same story? For example..

"I'm not talking to you" Claire yelled.



Thank you.

Answer: You don't need a speech tag (e.g. "Clair said") with every line. In a two person dialogue, most tags can be left out once the speaking order is established. However, a few tags now and then in long passages of dialogue can help the reader keep track of who is speaking.

An alternative to tags is to use action beats. If you have a character perform an action followed by a line of dialogue in the same paragraph, the reader knows the character who did the action also spoke the line. Sometimes a character's thoughts or feelings can serve the same purpose (e.g. "I felt my face flush").

The nice thing about beats is that they reinforce the reality of the scene. It can also be more efficient to have characters carry on a conversation while they do something rather than talk and act at different times.

However, as with speech tags, you shouldn't use action beats with every line. The general rule is that you don't want tags or beats to distract too much from the dialogue, unless for example a particular action is important to the story. So use both sparingly, just enough to help the reader be clear about who says what.

Under no circumstances should you use playscript format in a novel. For that matter, don't use all caps or more than one exclamation point. If it isn't obvious from the words that the character is angry or distraught, rewrite the line or use a stronger verb (as in your example of "Claire yelled").

Most of the time "said" is the best verb to use in speech tags because it doesn't draw attention to itself, putting the focus on the dialogue itself which is where the characterization usually is found.

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All Caps
by: Uchiha Sasuke

Is using all CAPS really that bad? Harry Potter often does it, and so do John Green Books

to Uchiha
by: Glen

There are very few absolute rules in writing, however all caps is something that should be used very sparingly. With due respect to Rowling and Green (who I don't think overuse this technique), showing emotion with typographic effects is somewhat lazy writing. A reader should be able to deduce the emotion and the characterization from the words alone.

You will see some aspiring writers who use all caps for almost every other line of dialogue -- with the result that the technique becomes ineffective. For the reader, it's like the writer is shouting at you constantly. It becomes annoying very quickly.

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Question: I'm not sure how to write my dialogue should it be just in one line like

"We have to do it." "Why?"

or in separate lines like

"We have to do it."

Which way do books usually have it written?

Answer: The general rule in writing dialogue is to start a new paragraph each time you change speakers. This helps let the reader know when the change occurs and keep track of who says what.

This is especially important in cases like your example, when there are no speech tags (e.g. "said John"), action beats (e.g. "John scratched his nose."), or any other cues to identify the speaker of each quotation.

I'm sure you can imagine that if you had a long back-and-forth conversation with no such cues and all in one paragraph, could become very confusing.

Let me also point out that, whenever you are in doubt about something like this, the easiest way to find out is to pick up a few books and look for examples. While literary fiction often plays fast and loose with the rules (because it tends to prize a certain style over clarity), most books follow the standard rules for the country where the book is published.

(There are a few differences between the American, British, and Canadian style guides, but they are minor.)

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dialogue tags

Question: How do I make my dialogue tags less repetitive? For example, if I were to express the same emotion throughout many scenes and run out of dialogue tags, is there a way I can use dialogue tags without making the reader notice that it appears too many times?

Answer: Don't worry about using a variety of verbs in speech tags.

Truth is, "said" is almost always the best verb to use in a dialogue tag. English teachers may disagree, but they're not writers. The great thing about the verb "said" is that it doesn't call attention to itself. Most people skim right past it, which means their attention goes straight to what the characters are saying, which is the interesting part.

I know it seems boring and repetitive to keep typing the word "said" in tag after tag. But that's because you're the writer. You have to pay attention to each word you type. When people read, the "saids" don't feel boring because, as I say, people pay very little attention to them.

Using verbs other than "said" in a dialogue tag can be distracting. It takes attention away from the characters' voices, and can be a little redundant. All you want the tag to do is let the reader know who is saying what. Then let the readers "listen" to what the characters are saying, which is the interesting and important part.

As for conveying emotion, if your dialogue is good, the reader should be able to tell the emotional state of the character by the words they say, without any help from the tag. If they can't, you need to spend more time improving your dialogue and your sense of the characters' voices.

Even if you're characters are in a similar emotional state in different scenes, they will never use the same words twice. The situation and other characters states will always be different, which means there will be plenty of nuances to everyone's speech.

Remember too that every good scene is about a change -- either external or a change in someone's attitude or in a relationship. That's what makes scenes interesting. So let the reader watch this process of change through the dialogue.

All that said, sometimes it's okay to use other verbs in a dialogue tag, if they convey some meaning that doesn't come across in the dialogue itself and you can't figure out a way to re-write the dialogue so it does come across. Sarcasm, for example, is sometimes harder to convey in dialogue, especially when it's subtle. But use other verbs sparingly.

In fact, you should look for opportunities to reduce the number of tags altogether. Use them when you need to make clear who is saying what, but no more often than that.

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Dialogue Tag Preferences

by Mike Chiero

Hello, sir. I was wondering which you prefer and would be more likely to use:

"Hurry up, Jane. The bank closes at 3:00 p.m," Frank said.
"No, it doesn't. It closes at 4:00 p.m.," Jane said.
"Hurry up, Jane. The bank closes at 3:00 p.m," Frank said.
"No, it doesn't. It closes at 4:00 p.m.," Jane corrected.
"Hurry up, Jane. The bank closes at 3:00 p.m," Frank said.
Jane corrected Frank. "No, it closes at 4:00 p.m.

Thank you, sir.

Response: Usually I don't comment on specific writing samples, but as this is brief...

If I had to pick one, I'd pick the first one because the verb "corrected" is a little redundant. We can tell from the dialogue that Jane is correcting Frank, so there's no need to say it twice.

That said, you might want to vary your structure a little. Perhaps use a beat rather than a tag in the first paragraph. You don't want to get into the habit of writing...

dialogue, tag
dialogue, tag
dialogue, tag

... especially if all the tags are in the same format ("X said," "Y said," "X said," etc.).

Whenever you fall into a pattern, you risk making your prose boring for the reader. Variety keeps the reader interested in finding out what you will say next.

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Dialogue Preferences
by: Mike Chiero

Thank you very much, Mr. Strathy. Much appreciated.

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Struggle with 1st person dialogue

by Lucy

Question: I am trying to write a story with a two person protagonist using a present tense 1st person narrative. I am struggling to write my story in 1st person narrative without always using the word "I." I am trying to work on my 1st person dialogue which is mostly between to teenage girls.

Answer: By "a two person protagonist" I assume you mean two main characters?

As for your questions...

If you are writing in first person, you are going to use the word "I" a lot. Or more precisely, your main character is going to refer to herself as "I" (unless she is one of those strange people who uses her first name in place of the word "I" which can get annoying, to be honest, but might work if she is supposed to be an odd person). At any rate, don't worry about using "I" too much as long as you are using it in a natural way that reflects how that character would tell her story.

In dialogue, it is also perfectly natural for each character to refer to herself as "I." When necessary, your narrator should make it clear to the reader who is speaking.

You do need to be careful about who your narrator is. Regardless of direct speech (which appears within quotation marks), only one character should narrate a scene. Don't switch narrators in the middle of a scene.

If you want to switch between two narrators, make sure there is a distinct break in the text (e.g. a chapter break) so the reader knows a shift in the narration has happened.

Best of luck.

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Question: I have real trouble creating dialogue between characters, it never seems realistic enough or sincere to me. Are there any tips you can give me on how to write dialogue for my characters?

Answer: Writing good dialogue is a tough assignment, because you must do several things simultaneously. On the one hand, you want dialogue to be realistic and an appropriate expression of the character who's saying it. At the same time, dialogue that reflected real speech accurately would be full of trivial and irrelevant verbiage. Dialogue in stories must be streamlined – including what is needed to reveal the characters, advance the relationships and the plot, and nothing else.

Many people find it helpful to listen closely to other people's conversations. Eavesdrop in restaurants or other public places and really pay close attention. Transcribe people's actual words if you can, without being caught. Take note how people of different ages, social classes, genders, backgrounds, etc. actually talk. See what you can deduce about the relationship between two strangers just from things they say to each other.

At the same time, consider reading some of the great contemporary playscripts and screenplays to learn the differences between dialogue and real speech. Plays are, after all, mostly dialogue. Practice reading them out loud. Pay attention to the characterization and how the conflicts and plotlines play out. Notice how much can be said with very few words. If you see a great scene in a film or television show, replay it a few times. Try copying out the dialogue to get a sense of its structure.

Obviously, that's a long-term assignment. In the short term, since you have a sense that some of the dialogue you have written doesn't sound sincere or realistic, here are a few things you might try...

* Think of a person like your character, either someone you know or a character in a film, and imagine how they would say what your character needs to say. (Ultimately, you want to be able to imagine your characters so clearly that you can hear how they speak in your head.)

* If you're good at acting, say the dialogue out loud, imagining you were the character and improvising until you find the right words to say what you want.

* Alternatively, if you have a friend in real life similar to your character, ask them use their own words to say what you want your character to say.

* If you have friends who do any acting, see if they will improvise some dialogue for you.

* If you're writing historical fiction, you really have your work cut out for you. You'll need to immerse yourself in historical documents and literature to learn the vocabulary and speech patterns of that age, and then soften them a little, so your dialogue doesn't sound too archaic for a modern readership.

* Don't worry about correct grammar when you write dialogue. People often break the rules in real speech. But don't be so colloquial that the dialogue becomes impossible to read.

* It's usually better to convey action with narration rather than dialogue.

* Don't have characters say too much information at once. A little at a time is best.

* Cut out any unnecessary dialogue. There's no need to have everyone say “Hello” and “Good morning” to each other. Just cut to the part where they say the important stuff.

* Remember too that dialogue in a story must have a point. It must illustrate the next step in character growth or plot. Your characters will have different points of view, different goals and intentions, different approaches to handling situations. And these may be revealed by what they say to each other.

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good movies can help too

Reading good books in your genre is aways the best way to absorb a skill like writing dialogue. But if you know of some good movies in the category you're writing in, they can be quick lessons if you re-watch and pay close attention. I don't know what you are writing, but say it's a romantic comedy... watch something like "Sleepless in Seattle," and notice how the dialogue entertains while ALWAYS forwarding important elements of the story and characters. If the movie is is really good, there are no wasted words - everything has a purpose. Good luck!

Act it aloud
by: Anonymous

Try reading dialgue aloud mimicking how the character has to say it eg angry, whispered etc. Look for words that are naturally emphasised, where you take a breath because if your punctuation doesn't match up it can sound false even when the words are great. You don't have to have a partner, just be in your characters heads

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changes in character dialogue

by Tina
(London, England)

Question: How do I change a characters dialogue when talking to different people; ie. Boss, friend etc?

Answer: Everyone does this, and I'm sure if you think about it you will realize you do do.

When speaking to authority figures, we tend to use fewer colloquialisms, fewer swear words, etc. out of respect and because we want to be more careful what impression we make. We want to maintain their respect (except in rare instances, such as when we are about to quit a job in anger).

For example, if your spouse of twenty years asks you a question, your reply might just be a grunt. (No need for formality with a secure, intimate relationship.) However, if your boss or clergyman or professor asks you a question, a grunt from you would be considered rude.

We might not share as much personal information with an authority as we would with a close friend. And we would share even less with a stranger.

On a first date, we might share a lot of personal information, but we would be consciously trying to present ourselves in an appealing way.

Another instance: most people censor themselves to some extent when speaking to or around children, to set a good example.

And, of course, we sometimes speak differently to different friends or relatives if we know they are sensitive to certain topics, opinions, etc.

These are just a few of the ways our speech changes according to who we are speaking to. Watch carefully, and you'll see other examples.

And, of course, a lot depends on the particular character and the feelings or attitude they have towards the person they're speaking to.

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Question about dialogue tags

by Mike Brandon
(Sacramento, CA)

Auestion: Must one always use a "he/she asked" while putting a tag on a question? For instance:

"Are you going to the store?" he asked. I assume that is acceptable, of course. But what about:

"Are you going to the store?" he said. Is there a strict rule or are either proper as long as one mixes them up?

Thank you very much, sir.

Answer: The short answer is no, but it's a matter of personal preference.

Some writers feel it is actually a bit redundant to use "asked" when the character's statement is obviously a question -- especially when it comes with a question mark. "Said" is perfectly acceptable.

Also, you don't always need a speech tag. Often you can leave speech tags out when it is clear who is speaking, or you can use an action beat to establish the subject of the paragraph.

That said, there's nothing necessarily wrong with using "asked" either, especially if the dialogue is a bit vague in the matter. (Some questions can seem like statements in written text, without the voice inflection that would be present in life/drama.)

The objective is clarity of story-telling, which means including what is needed for the reader to fully appreciate the story, while reducing unnecessary noise.

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Thank You Sir
by: Mike Brandon

Thank you so much for answering my question, sir. I was pleasantly surprised by your quick reply and I greatly appreciate your aid. You didn't just give me a "yes or no" answer but thoroughly explained your reasoning. You are an excellent teacher, Mr. Strathy! blowup

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by Luke

Question: I am currently writing a science fiction with dialogue and this is my first time writing. I'm well into the book with a word count of over 45,000, however my question is; how I can make the transition from narrator to dialogue easier without the, he said, she said or replies. Because I have found it difficult to do this any other way.

Answer: There's actually nothing wrong with speech tags such as "He said," even though it seems like you type them over and over.

If you have a long stretch of dialogue between two people, you only need a few tags at the beginning to establish the speaking order, and then you can largely omit them after that.

Writing a conversation among three or more characters will require more speech tags so the reader does not get confused about who says what.

You can vary things by using verbs other than "said," but do so sparingly. The nice thing about "said" is that it doesn't call attention to itself, so that the reader's attention remains on the dialogue itself.

Another option is to use action beats in place of speech tags. Action beats are small actions characters do. For example...

Susan draped her arm over the back of the sofa. "Come join me."

If a character does an action in the same paragraph as speech, the reader knows it is the same character speaking.

As with speech tags, you shouldn't overuse action beats. However, they have the advantage of helping the reader imagine what that characters are doing and what the setting looks like.

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