Crafting Memorable Dialogue #1

Joni Fisher

Joni Fisher will be presenting a workshop on crafting dialogue on March 31st at 8 pm Eastern time. To give you a taste of what’s to come, we’ll be posting excerpts from her articles here. She has some excellent advice and techniques that will animate your prose into dynamic works of pure genius. Obviously, you are interested in doing that because you are reading this post. You are one smart cookie! Now on to the beef…

Think of dialogue as value-added, condensed, poetic, crafted simulations of conversation.

Learning how to craft dialogue well matters because up to half of a novel is dialogue.

In general, in literary fiction, the ratio of narrative description and dialogue runs low on dialogue. Literary fiction tends to present story through a character’s inner life, with longer sentences and longer paragraphs that emphasize the beauty of language and imagery, rather than on the action of the story. When a story encompasses a decades-long history, it demands the use of narrative to summarize, interpret and present the events within. Examples: Faulkner, Dickens, Kingsolver, Tolstoy, and Michener.

In commercial fiction, or genre fiction, the ratio of narrative to dialogue runs closer to 50/50. Readers of commercial fiction prefer the immediacy of experiencing the story over the look-back-at-one’s-life kind of story. Because of the influence of television and movies, reader’s attention span has grown shorter and this, too, affects the narrative/dialogue ratio. With almost half their story presented through dialogue, genre fiction writers benefit from developing this aspect of their craft. Examples: Elmore Leonard, Irwin Shaw, Mark Twain, Richard Price, and Tobias Wolff.

Dreadful dialogue comes from using it when narrative or exposition would work better Click To Tweet

When writers use dialogue to deliver backstory, present flashbacks, to reveal character’s thoughts and feelings, or to explain complex issues, history, or technical information, the dialogue suffers. It’s like a carpenter using a wrench to hammer in a nail. Sure, it can be done, but why work so hard with the wrong tool for the job?

Delivering backstory through dialogue is storytelling within a story. Generally, anything longer than three consecutive lines of speech by one character comes off as lecturing, so, even if your character is supposed to be a bore, demonstrate it once, then move on. Backstory should be sprinkled, not shoveled. Can you spread out the delivery of the details of backstory for revelations?

Examine your reasons for telling backstory through dialogue. Why is one character telling so much to another character? Would it be more dramatic and interesting to have the other character discover this information in bits and pieces and then confront the ‘telling’ character for more? Allow the listening character to challenge the teller to break up the lecture.

That was a peep into what Joni will be covering in the upcoming workshop on March 31st. BUT… the deadline for submitting your own work for critique is March 17th. Polish up your 5,000 words. Then, if you are not a member of Authors Community, join so you can take advantage of the special pricing. Register for the workshop, submit the excerpt from your WIP, tell all your writer friends about what you are doing, go to the workshop (or view the replay), and then come discuss what you learned at the special, private forum created just for this discussion.