Debugging Dialogue

dialogueDialogue is difficult to get just right. Most of the those I’ve worked with through my years of writing—whether it be through collaboration, writer’s groups or simple friendly socialization—have, at one time or another, wrestled with the demon that is realistic dialogue.

Right now, I’m working on a short story that’s giving me some trouble—for those of you playing along at home, this story is part of a compilation/collaboration with a few other authors on this site. The dialogue is tricky because…well, without getting into too much detail, it involves some characters that aren’t all there. This is all particularly maddening for two reasons. First, I usually have little trouble with dialogue. Second, this story relies almost entirely on dialogue, so if I can’t get the dialogue to work, the story will fall flat.

Generally, I don’t have too much trouble with my characters and what they say. Oh, the overall story may be giving me trouble, but that’s more of a story-direction problem than it is a problem of speech not sounding authentic.

So what’s an author to do? Aside from the most obvious solution—keep tinkering with the dialogue—I’ve come up with a few techniques to help myself out. Unfortunately, they’ve all fallen just as flat as my character’s voices. But a couple of days ago I stumbled upon a technique that’s helping quite a bit. And even if it’s not solving the problem, it’s making the tinkering much easier.

Several years back, someone in an online writing group I was part of posted an exercise: Write a short story of indeterminate length, with two characters, and nothing but dialogue—not even dialogue tags. The only attribution we were allowed was to write the story in play format—minus any stage directions (the results of that exercise can be seen here). I had quite a bit of fun with that exercise, and over the years I have tackled several writing prompts with the same approach.

So, a couple of days ago, on a whim, I decided to try this approach with my current draft. I spent a couple of hours stripping away everything except the spoken word. And once that was done, it was obvious why the story wasn’t quite up to snuff—the dialogue was flat in several places. Where I thought there was cute banter, there was nothing more than dry Q&A. Where I thought I was being circumspect, I wasn’t.

So now the problem is clear. My dialogue seems not-quite-up-to-snuff because I’m relying on exposition and narration to get me through the rough spots.

But now, stripped of all it’s cruft (it’s a techie term, look it up if you need to—call it a word for the day) not only were the problem spots apparent, but fixing them became drastically easier. Now, if I need to change what Character-X says I don’t have to worry about what it does to my precious sentence that I’m so attached to—that decision will come later.

So far it hasn’t been a panacea, but it’s given me an avenue of attack.

If you have a talk-heavy story that’s got you banging your head against a wall, try it out. I’d be terribly interested to know how it works for you.

Aside from fighting with the dialogue in his current story, Dale is also fighting a nasty bout of cluster headaches. If anyone thinks they have a future as a superhero who fights uninspired prose AND crippling headaches, he’s happily accepting applications.

Originally posted on where six writers talk about the trials and tribulations of their writing lives. And each Tuesday the soapbox belongs to me.

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