Say What?

Dialogue is a central part of nearly every piece of fiction. Although it’s possible to write a story that has no dialogue–I can think of at least one that I wrote ages ago and another that had only one line of dialogue–that’s the exception rather than the rule. The ability to handle dialogue is therefore a key skill for every fiction writer.

You’d think it would be easy. After all, most of us spend a fair bit of time talking. Humans are a noisy species. How hard could it be to translate everyday talk into story dialogue? But it can be tricky. Dialogue is not conversation. Dialogue is conversation that has been cleaned up and sharpened to a particular purpose.

Read that again: dialogue is not conversation. You will find some writers who say that it is, but even they understand the difference, if you read what they have to say on the subject. If you recorded a conversation, you’d find something like this:

“Have you decided who you’re voting for yet?”
“Hey, these cookies are really good, did you make them?”
“No, I bought them at the store last week. They were, you know, on sale.”
(cough) “Yeah, well, Smith is an idiot and Jones can’t be trusted. I was , umm, talking last week . . .”
“I thought Smith made a lot of sense, I mean, about the budget. His budget. You know.”
“Um, but, I think he’s an idiot. His police ideas, plan, whatever. Did you hear that? God! I’m going to have another of these. These are great.”
“No, I didn’t, but I liked what he was saying about, oh, here, take the whole bag. You know?”
“I just think he’s a, well, idiot. Moron. Whatever.”

This may be conversation but it’s not good dialogue. To turn it into good dialogue, we’d have to eliminate the repetition and the umms and the you knows and anything else that is polluting the stream of words. While the aim is to make the dialogue sound like real conversation, in fact the impression given to the reader is partly illusion. Art often works this way: one conveys the impression of reality, but in a more orderly and structured way than reality presents itself.

Dialogue plays several roles in a story. Principally, it helps define characters and it serves the plot. No dialogue that fails to do one or the other should survive the editing process. If it doesn’t serve the story, it doesn’t belong. In the above, the cookie content may be deadwood, although it could perhaps serve character development if incorporated carefully.

At the same time, dialogue is not usually the right place to deliver background to the reader. A common mistake of aspiring writers is to put exposition into their character’s mouths. This doesn’t work because usually characters end up explaining to each other things that all of them already know. And that’s generally unrealistic. If John already knows that Mary earned her Ph.D. last year, she probably wouldn’t tell him that she did.

The words spoken by the characters should convey their personalities and backgrounds, meaning that different characters should sound different. Dialect and different modes of speech help to define and distinguish characters. Some characters may be more prone to using sentence fragments, others may be very proper in their speech. Different slang terms can indicate the eras in which different characters grew up. Even what people say (as opposed to how they say it) can be important. For example, some characters may be very straightforward, while others may be evasive.

Far from being easy, dialogue is an art that takes some practice to develop. The good news is, it does get easier with practice.

 Speech bubble image courtesy of

Short and Snappy

Years ago, I ran across an interesting writing exercise.  It goes something like this:

1. Write a paragraph describing an object.

2. Rewrite the paragraph, but use only half as many words.

3. Rewrite the rewrite, again using only half as many words.

This could be repeated several times.  Let’s give it a try.  Here’s a short paragraph I wrote describing a tree in my yard:

In my front yard stands a tall Norway spruce, with branches that swoop gracefully down and then turn up again toward the sun.  The dark green foliage seems to drip off of the branches, hanging down in long tendrils.  Taller than the house, its scaly trunk is about three feet in diameter, and twenty feet up it splits into three trunks.  A few years ago, the upper part of one of those trunks snapped off under heavy snow.  The bark is coated with white trails where sap has run down from holes drilled into the wood by the yellow-bellied sapsuckers that stop to feed while passing through late each winter.

My word processor puts that paragraph at 110 words.  Half of that would be 55, so let’s see if we can get there:

Towering over the house, the Norway spruce in my front yard drips dark green foliage from branches that swoop down and then rise sunward again.  Three feet across at its base, the trunk forks into three great spires pointing heavenward, one broken off, silent testimony to a past snowstorm.  Yellow-bellied sapsuckers on their annual migration drill holes into the tree late each winter, leaving white trails of dried sap on the rough bark.

Nope, that’s 73 words.  Back to editing:

Towering over my house, the Norway spruce drips dark green foliage along swooping branches whose tips turn sunward.  High above, the yard-thick trunk forks three spires pointing heavenward, one shattered, testifying to a past snowstorm.  Migrating yellow-bellied sapsuckers pierce the tree late each winter, spilling sap that dries in white trails on the rough bark.

That’s better: 55 words exactly.  Let’s stop there for a moment.  Compare the last version with the first.  What changed aside from the word count?  Not the information content: the tree’s height and girth, its form and color, the broken trunk, and its interaction with the birds are all present in both cases.  Rather, I changed how I conveyed the information.  The shorter version is necessarily more active.  Instead of standing in the yard, taller than the house, the tree towers over the house.  The birds don’t leave trails of dried sap; they spill the sap which dries.  And so forth.  I’ve also had to find stronger words—shattered instead of merely broken off—to describe the scene.

The general rule, then, is this: Shortening a passage without losing content makes it more active.  Not coincidentally, which version would you rather read?

Is it possible to cut this down by half again, to 27 or 28 words?  In this case, not without losing information.  Even so, it may be worth the effort, if only as an exercise, because that requires choosing which details are the most important.  For example, if the birds were the important thing:

Late in winter, migrating yellow-bellied sap suckers pierce the Norway spruce towering over my house, spilling sap down the rough bark to dry in white trails.

Or if the broken trunk were more important:

Towering over my house, the Norway spruce drips dark green foliage while, high above, its thick trunk forks three great spires, one shattered in a past snowstorm.

Less is not always more, but editing often requires shortening and removing in order to strengthen a passage and present the right details.  Give it a try.  You may be surprised by the results!

Writing on the Train

A couple of months ago, I started working in Washington, D.C.  I live in Baltimore, which is reasonably close to the nation’s capitol, but it’s still a fair commute, around 55 miles driving distance and well over an hour travel time.   That’s why I don’t drive.   I take the train.

Commuting by train doesn’t reduce the travel time, but it makes it a lot easier.  Instead of driving, I can read, write, stare out the window, or sleep.  Frequently, it’s some combination of the above.  With a book and my laptop in tow, I’m ready for anything.

At first, I wasn’t sure how well I could write on the train.  It’s not always a quiet environment, nor is it necessarily private.  I had visions of the person seated next to me reading my words as I wrote them, while people behind me chattered away to my intense distraction.  But it hasn’t turned out that way.   Commuters aren’t much interested in what the person next to them is doing, and once I start writing, I’m nearly oblivious to the noise.

Many of my fellow passengers, in fact, are plugged into their cell phones, listening to music.  Many others read, either from books or tablets or e-readers.  (Book readers like myself seem to be in the minority, but we are still a large minority.   Print isn’t dead yet–not by a long shot!)  Others close their eyes, possibly to sleep, possibly to shut out the world.

In this environment, I can get sufficiently lost in writing that the journey seems far shorter than it is.  Nor, it seems, am I the only one.  Just yesterday, a young fellow sitting next to me opened up his laptop and began writing.  Although I didn’t read over his shoulder, I couldn’t help but notice his fingers flying almost nonstop until just before we arrived at Penn Station in Baltimore, where he closed up shop and debarked.  Whether for work or school or a project of his own, he’d written an impressive quantity during the ride.

We both had discovered the same thing: writing is a great way to commute!


The offiical website of author Dale E. Lehman