[Small Chirp] This is why characters should talk less

I’m about 75% of the way through The Magician by Michael Scott. Some of you might remember the review for the first book in this series, The Alchemyst, in which I was so flustered by the content of the book that I broke down into bullet points.  And for reasons that I still don’t completely understand, almost a year later, I find myself reading the sequel to what was arguably the most blah book I have ever read.

While reading last night, I found myself skimming the text. I rarely do that; I’m a slow reader because I take in each and every word. After I made several frustrated attempts to stop myself from skipping whole paragraphs, I realized the book was actually forcing me to be a bad reader.

“Just stop talking and do something already!” I finally yelled at the text.

And that gave me pause. The outburst had finally let me put a finger on what had been driving me crazy about this series from page one: The characters talk way too much.

One of the first things you will learn in a creative writing class (or from a good creative writing book) is that characters should only talk if they  have something to say. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it is a harder skill to pull off than it seems.

In general terms, as an author, you need to make sure the reader is following your story. That requires a certain amount of hand-holding as you reiterate key plot points. Typically, authors do this by having the character think about the Important Plot Point every now and again, or by injecting some consistent symbolism to keep the relevant issues from fading from the reader’s mind.

But sometimes, authors decide to plot-dump through dialogue, and that’s where things start to fall apart. In the real world, we talk in winding, schizophrenic snippets. Most of us don’t even use full sentences. Hell, my mother and I communicate mostly in made-up phrases littered with Italian and Polish.

This won’t work for a book, of course. No reader would sit through that. But the opposite doesn’t work, either. In The Magician, Scott’s characters speak in paragraph form, waxing poetic about issues the reader is aware of and doesn’t need to be reminded of in such a blunt, repetitive way.  It makes for an extremely boring narrative and more than a small amount of section-skipping.

For a writer, I have three recommendations for how to get around the dialogue dump:

1. Talk it out: Read your dialogue out loud. If you find yourself getting bored with the sound of your own voice, you need to go back and shorten the text. Make it natural. Fragment sentences in dialogue are a-okay.

2. Go for close reading:  Find authors whose dialogue you really love. For me, it’s Jim Butcher and Rick Riordan. Sit down and diagram the dialogue out. One of the hardest parts of conversationto capture is the tete-a-tete argument. Find a passage  where it’s done well, figure out how the author pulled it off, and apply it to your own writing.

3. Watch more TV: The best place to find intense dialogue is TV (or movies). Without the shortcut of literary exposition to get in the way, these stories are carried by conversation alone — and I challenge you to find me a show full characters speaking in paragraph form without letting anyone else butt in (Shakespeare remakes don’t count, sorry). So pop in a disc of The West Wing or tune in to an episode of Modern Family. And nothing will ever beat the dialogue of Firefly. That’s where the real gems of knowledge are.


What say you, Canaries? How do you spruce up the dialogue?

15 thoughts on “[Small Chirp] This is why characters should talk less

  1. I don’t think you want the dialogue to sound too realistic–it’s written, not spoken, so there’s no body language to go with it.

    On the other hand, the only way to learn great dialogue is to hear some great dialogue….

    • That’s a great point. Isn’t it something like 80% of all communication is nonverbal? You can’t go too realistic or else it wouldn’t make any sense without context. So it’s definitely about playing the middle field and not going too far to either side. No paragraph dumps, no nonsensical conversations without the context.

        • By filler do you mean like, “Uh” or “Er?” Or like extraneous words that just don’t really need to be there?

            • I’ve honestly never thought of the um/like filler words and their place in dialogue. I bet I cut them out completely. I’ll have to pay more attention, as there should be SOME in there in order to make it seem realistic. But going overboard would be gross too…hmmm…

  2. I couldn’t get through The Alchemyst so you are better than me. And I hate paragraph dialogue!

    I like your suggestions…I read out loud everything I write, of course you need to read it silently to yourself (not in snippets I mean but all together like a reader as one continuous chapter or section) as well. The words sounds different and come together differently and you’ll find some things sounds better out loud and some sound better silently…they need to sound fluid in both.

    I don’t like tv dialogue personally because there is so much exposition dump but I can see why you suggest it.

    There are merits to an all dialogue story (I’m thinking Ratking here from the Zen series) but it has to be well done. And if you read the first few pages you’ll see as theothercanary suggests that there are no paragraphs involved!

    Anyway I hope I don’t sound too pretentious here, I really loved this post. Cheers!

    • I should confess that I actually listened to The Alchemyst. The reader was quite splendid and likely the only reason I made it through the book. I am actually reading The Magician now, though — and spending a lot of time longing for the audiobook.

      You are definitely right about it needing to sound good in your head, too. This is all making me realize why I really hate writing dialogue. It’s so tricky!

  3. One of the best pieces of dialogue advice I’ve found was from a screenplay writing book talking about a tenant of acting. The actors learn the lines yes, but most of the time, what they really study is the meaning behind those words, so if they forget the lines, they can adlib and say the same thing. It’s the same for writing dialogue in a book. If I’m struggling with a portion of dialogue and it just does sound right, I sit back and think what are each characters’ motivation in the conversation? What do they want to express? What emotions are they feeling? And so on. Recently, I was working on a section where the dialogue just sounded awful. So I went back, realized that the two characters, though angry and hurt, would never outright insult each other out of mutual, if strained, respect for each other’s positions of power. So I added another antagonistic character who could get a rise out of the one guy, reworked the dialogue with each character’s motivation worked out in each part of the conversation, at least, in my head, and decided what it was they really wanted to say. It made for better dialogue, though I’m still refining it.

    If a character starts regaling some long lost history, I usually skim it. I find it dull, especially if it goes on for longer than a paragraph. Once in a book, I can stand, but once it goes past that, I usually skip.

    On the other side of the dialogue coin, there’s those books that have very little dialogue or fast paced dialogue where the characters come off as almost high on pixie stixs and can’t keep their minds on one topic for longer than a sentence or so. It feels like there needs to be some realism in the dialogue in order to keep it smooth and natural, so it doesn’t come off as sounding contrived (which was the problem in my first draft of the example up there). And of course, there’s the “As you know, Bob” problem with dialogue.

    I usually read out loud to myself. Sometimes, I push someone else I know into reading one half the conversation while I take another and we read it as a script. Surprisingly, people do speak in whole sentences more often than not in real life. I did a project for my dialects class where I had to record three conversations, and it was surprising how much people talked in complete sentences. However, they also talked in these INSANE run ons that never seemed to end, which would get really annoying in a book.

    • Hahahah high on pixie sticks. That is the absolute best way to describe dialogue like that!

      I really like that piece of advice–to always keep the character’s motivations in mind. I could see how that would completely open up areas of dialogue that aren’t working at all. It’s probably because you are putting the wrong words into a character’s mouth.

  4. My favourite dialogue to write is the stuff I have “heard” as I’m about to fall asleep. That always “sounds” the most natural, aloud or not. It’s just a shame it’s so hard to control! It either comes or it doesn’t. To make my own life easier, my characters are based on real people, or TV/movie characters (not entirely, but their outward characterizations are), so I just imagine the person/actor’s voice as I work on getting my character to say what they need to say and hopefully it comes out okay!

    I, too, hate dialogue that runs into paragraphs. I also find it unnatural to write. But, sometimes one character has a lot to say.

    So, I don’t have any particular hints or tips. But, I do agree with your watching TV/Movies. If you can pick what sounds crap, and just model off the other stuff as much as possible, then I’d like to think that would be enough.

  5. TOTALLY agree, TheOtherCanary! my son loves The Magician. I started the first chapter and put it down, there was too much needless dialog that was’t drawing me in. As I’m editing the second book in my series I’m struggling with that because I’m not big on unnecessary dialog. But this book is more emotional and I’m finding myself in the middle of paragraphs of conversation that I usually don’t write. I’ve been told dialog is my strongest point but now I have to go back and decide if I’ve gone too far. Aaaarrgh!

    • I think that editing your own dialogue is almost impossible. Do you have anyone you can rope into helping you with it?

  6. Pingback: [ Book Review ] Death, with feeling « thecanaryreview

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