Learning to Dialogue

Back in the 1980’s, when I was a returning student at San Bernardino Valley College, I also obtained a job there as an English tutor, mostly to students who did not speak English as a first language.  It often was a challenge to try to explain to them that the written word is different from the way we speak.  And when you consider the idioms, slang expressions, etc. they were learning (and which they usually couldn’t use in their essays), it could be quite a hurdle to overcome.

I was also starting my writing career at that time, and this experience caused me to think a lot about dialogue.  Whether my stories were for children or adults, I wanted the dialogue in them as true to life as possible.  However, I soon realized, from what I was learning and from reading my manuscripts aloud, that including ALL that transpires in a conversation is not necessary, or even wanted.

For instance, when people meet, the flow of dialogue usually goes something like this:

“Hi there, how are you?”

“Hi!  I’m fine.  What about you?”

“Oh, I’m doing ok. “

“So, what’s new?”

“Oh, not too much.  You?”

“About the same.  But I am planning a trip to Hawaii in a few weeks.”

“Really?  That’s super!  But I thought you said you were afraid of flying.”

Now, we finally get to the focus of the story, one of the main characters has a fear of flying.  It may, in fact, develop into a very interesting story about why this person is afraid to fly and what brought her to her current decision.  But most readers will never make to that point when they get bogged down by all those unnecessary sentences, even though that’s probably what would happen in real life.

How much better to pull the reader right in with something like:

I waved to Louise from across the street.  When we met, she told me she was planning a trip to Hawaii.  Hawaii?!

“But aren’t you afraid of flying?” I asked.

This short beginning contains action and gets right to the heart of the problem, and the story.  Now we want to know:  Is this true?  If so, what’s the reason behind the trip?  How will she cope with spending more than five hours flying over the Pacific Ocean? 

The above is just one small example of the differences between spoken dialogue and written.  Only when our characters’ dialogue is fresh and interesting, when it’s free of wordiness and keeps the plot moving forward are our stories ready to be submitted.  This is a daunting, time-consuming process, yet when we continue to work on our dialogue, we create stories that readers will love and won’t want to put down!

 Marjorie Flathers


4 responses to “Learning to Dialogue

  1. Great blog, Marge. The example you give helps illustrate your point so well.


  2. Shirley Shibley

    Great example, Marge. You do the dialogue bit so well, too.


  3. Thanks, Marge! I struggle with wordiness and how to keep things flowing. Your examples help me to see the difference.

  4. Thanks! I appreciate all your nice comments, and I’m sorry I didn’t do this sooner, or comment on any of your great posts. But this Tagged nonsense has left me OVERWHELMED…and it doesn’t stop!! A valuable lesson learned. Marge

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