Shoot for the Stars Tip #2: Make Dialogue Count

We’re shooting for the stars by adding some great stuff into our writing.

Shoot for the Stars Tip #1: Use Passive Voice … Occasionally

Last week, I wrote about how to use passive voice properly. This week, I’m sharing some tips that will help you write better dialogue.

Shoot for the Stars Tip #2: Make Dialogue Count

I used to hate writing dialogue. It’s still not my favorite thing to write. But I’ve come to appreciate it, and as with most things, I’ve learned that the reason I don’t like writing it is because I’m not good at it. It’s much more fun to do things we’re good at, right? So my “stories” used to consist of long passages of straight narrative prose, lots of flashbacks, pretty descriptions, insightful interiority, and miles of backstory. Back in the day, it would not have been out of the question for me to write a story without a single line of dialogue. I know now that it was self-indulgent of me to avoid writing dialogue.

What is dialogue anyway? It’s not just two people talking. I’m going to paraphrase author Rob Roberge here, who says that “dialogue is two characters saying no to each other in interesting ways.” At the heart of it, when two characters speak with one another in a scene, they have opposing wants and desires, and that is what makes a scene interesting.

Do our stories need dialogue? They do. Another author, Mary Yukari Waters, likens dialogue to an item of silverware. Narrative prose, she says, is like a fork, and dialogue is like a spoon. You can get away with using a fork a lot of the time, but sometimes, like if you’re eating soup, you need a spoon. Author Tod Goldberg is more firm about the need for the proper balance between narrative prose and scenes with dialogue, and if you read short stories and books, you’ll see this is pretty much the way fiction has been written since Jane Austen gave us the modern novel form: passages of narrative prose followed by scenes with dialogue.

Our stories need dialogue but not just any dialogue. Dialogue has to serve several purposes: It has to reveal character, infuse emotion, and advance the story. It also has to be engaging.

Take this scene from Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” for example:

“Well,” the man said, “if you don’t want to you don’t have to. I wouldn’t have you do it if you didn’t want to. But I know it’s perfectly simple.”

“And you really want to?”

“I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you really don’t want to.”

“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”

“I love you now. You know I love you.”

“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”

“I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.”

“If I do it you won’t ever worry?”

“I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.”

In this scene, a man and a woman are discussing whether the woman will have an abortion. The man wants the woman to have an abortion. He doesn’t want to come right out and say that, and the dialogue wouldn’t be as captivating if he did, but it’s in there—he wants to convince her to do it, so alongside him telling her she doesn’t have to do it if she doesn’t want to, he repeatedly tells her that the procedure is “perfectly simple.” He strongly implies that he’s going to worry, not about the abortion because it’s “perfectly simple,” but if she doesn’t have the abortion.

This doesn’t bode well for what the woman wants. The woman doesn’t necessarily want to have an abortion, but she wants the man to continue to love her. She wants things to be the way they used to be between them. She wants him to reassure her that, if she does this thing she doesn’t really want to do, their relationship will go back to the way it was, and everything will be okay. The subtlety in this dialogue is brilliant—the way the man manipulates and the woman wheedles, both angling for that thing they want, both avoiding the inevitable.

The passage of dialogue above does all of the things good dialogue should do. It characterizes the man and the woman, tells us something about each of them. It is emotional. And it moves the story forward toward its inevitable conclusion. It’s one of those open conclusions that I love, one that leaves the reader thinking, as the woman realizes their relationship can never be the same, no matter what she decides to do.

It’s important to remember what dialogue is not, too. Dialogue is not an opportunity to divulge information (an info dump), although you can sneak information in if you do it in a skillful and interesting way. Dialogue used as exposition is dry, boring, and annoying. In one sense, dialogue needs to sound the way people really talk, but in another sense, it must not sound like a real conversation because most real conversations transcribed word-for-word would be boring to anyone besides the two people talking, filled with ah’s and um’s, uninteresting bits of information, and bathroom breaks. Read your dialogue out loud to hear how it sounds, and ask yourself whether it’s pulling its weight in your story.