Dialogue vs “talk”


A wannabe writer said to me the other day, when we were discussing dialogue, “You know, dialogue is just two or three characters talking. That’s all. There’s nothing to it. I don’t know why people make such a deal out of it.”

Well, after I picked my jaw off the floor and packed my teeth back into it, I tried to answer him. Here are a few of the things I said.

No. Dialogue =/= talking.

When I talk to my sons or my husband (or my dog), the words are frequently interrupted with nonsense sounds like argh, um, er, uhhhh (or eeeeeby, beeeeby, baby doggy — don’t judge me). You know what you don’t want a lot of in dialogue? Argh, um, er, uhhhh (and definitely no eeeeeeby, beeeeeby) — except for a particular effect.

You know what else you find a lot in talking that you don’t want in dialogue? Waffling, wandering, chit-chat, twaddling. Call it whatever you want. A book or even a short story filled with this — again, except in short bits for effect — won’t attract readers. Here’s the sort of thing I mean.

“Hi, George. What’s up?”

“Hey, Pete. What’s up with you?”

“Oh you know. The same old stuff. Wife’s down with the flu.”

“Man, I hate to hear that. Sue had the flu last month. She had a hard time getting over it.”

That is perfectly “real.” You can hear that conversation in any grocery store, hardware store, church parking lot, or bar in the country. What it’s not: dialogue.

Dialogue has to do more than one thing at the same time. It has to reveal character, show us something about the characters who are saying it. We don’t know anything at all about George and Pete except that they’ve both got wives (or significant others) who have had or are now suffering from the flu. The things they say don’t tell us anything else.

Dialogue also has to advance the plot in some way. Idle chit-chat doesn’t do that. Unless you’re writing a book dealing with a mutant flu that’s about to kill half the population, these women’s illnesses really matter only to them and their families.

And dialogue needs to pop. If the dialogue is flat — and what I wrote up there is deliberately as flat as I could make it — you’ll lose the reader. Dialogue needs to sound as if some human being said it — but a clever human being with a great vocabulary.

There are some good books out there to help you improve your dialogue-writing skills. I like James Scott Bell’s “How to Write Dazzling Dialogue.”  Robert McKee has also written several good books on dialogue.