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Talking About Dialogue

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

March 2012

"One of the key things about dialogue is that it needs to move the story along."
We’re all looking for verisimilitude in writing—getting the scene to sound real, adding the details that will ground it in the readers mind. The one area that you don’t want to do this in is dialogue. Real dialogue as you would hear it in your lobby when you try to be pleasant to a neighbor on your way out the building.



Me: Hi. Nice jacket.

She: (eyes lighting) It was a steal. I found um found it at Loehmann’s and it was half off, but then I, you know, saw that a button was missing and I asked to speak to the manager and the manager, she said, uh, it was half off because the button was missing. But I told her that it would cost at least twenty dollars to find large buttons like these, not to mention the labor for sewing them on. And, you know, she said to me—-

Me: (looking at your watch) I’m on my way to the dentist. Enjoy the jacket.

She: (chasing you to the front door) I told her, um, that I had been shopping at Filene’ since my daughter was six and now she’s thirty-six and—-

Even if you were a Loehmann’s shopper and were dying to hear more about how the woman managed to get her half off, halved again, you wouldn’t want to read this in a story. One of the key things about dialogue is that it needs to move the story along. This bit of dialogue wasn’t going anywhere. Also, her “ums,” “uhs,” and “you knows” get in the way. Unless you’re using them to imply that the person speaking is needy of approval and that’s key to the plot line, leave all the hemming and hawing out.

Readers enjoy dialogue, so it should be entertaining in some way, which doesn’t mean jokey. If you’re writing a horror story, entertaining can mean, “Her blood is the nector of the dark gods.” Dialogue has to reveal character, situation, and plot, and has to be oriented toward the future, even if it’s something in the now.

Think of dialogue as not only having to be engaging to the reader, but to the character or characters who are listening to it as well. Remember, engaging doesn’t necessarily mean endearing.

Instead of the neighbor boring me with her half-off, partially buttoned jacket, what if the exchange went something like this.

Me: I haven’t seen your husband lately.

She: He’s passing away.

Me: Passing away?

She: It hasn’t been arranged yet.

Now that’s dialogue that’s repellent, creepy, but boy, wouldn’t I like to hear more? A good piece of dialogue has to raise more questions than it answers, because its main purpose is to reveal character and to gallop the story to the climax, then roll to the denouement.

Here’s an example of how dialogue reveals character:

She: Honey, did you like the meatloaf.

He: It’s meatloaf.

She: I know it’s meatloaf. What I asked you is if you like it.

He: It’s meatloaf.

"Talk is like action. It should be dynamic, not static."
If this is the same woman who seems to be arranging her husband’s “passing,” we can see why. She wants a little pat on the head (maybe the tush) for making him a meal and look at the way he won’t acknowledge her effort. Or maybe, looking at it a different way, the man is annoyed because the woman wants too much approval. I had an aunt who would stand over me, asking me if I liked the tuna fish salad she’d made over and over. Once, on my fifth “yes,” I began to choke. But this functions well as dialogue because it reveals conflict. Talk is like action. It should be dynamic, not static.



Dialogue is most revealing when the character is upset.

“I’m not nutso about medical stuff, but when I have to get on the scale at the doctor’s office, I’m shaking so that the nurse has to fiddle with the little weight. I know once that balance balances, and the number is written down, I can’t go moving the scale to another part of the floor to get a number I like better. It’s final, terminal.”

Dialogue needs air around it. Try not to go on for more than a few lines. You can always interrupt with the other person’s reaction and then let the first person continue.

Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf is full of shouting scenes between the professor and his wife. But sometimes countering the angry person with one who placates (or at least tries to) can be dramatic.

“Didn’t I tell you to turn off the damn lights when you leave a room?” she screamed.

“Sorry, dear. I meant to. Really, I did,” her husband said.

“Meant to. That’s what you’re famous for. All the things you meant to do and never did. Like get a job,” she told him.

“I had one,” he said. “I lost it. Half the country lost their jobs.”

“But the other half didn’t. Like me, your wife, working to keep a roof over our heads.”

Don’t you hate the wife even more because the husband is trying so hard?

"For the best help in dialogue, read plays."
For the best help in dialogue, read plays. Because plays depend solely on dialogue, you’ll be able to quickly see how to develop character, scene, theme, and plot through dialogue alone. And then you’ll be ready to tackle anything else that comes to you!
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro





Rochelle Shapiro is a regular columnist for Authorlink.
Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink.

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed. by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension. Visit her at: www.rochellejewelshapiro.com or http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/