Give Them Something to Talk About: 4 Tips For Improving Your Dialogue

Give Them Something to Talk About: 4 Tips For Improving Your Dialogue, guest post by CS Farrelly

Years ago, The New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs section featured a tongue-in-cheek piece gently mocking playwright Eugene O’Neill’s stage directions.  O’Neill, the only American playwright to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, famously wrote elaborate stage directions that 1) sound more like prose from a novel and 2) are essentially impossible for actors to perform.  See an example below from his play, Lazarus Laughed:

Give Them Something to Talk About: 4 Tips For Improving Your Dialogue, guest post by CS Farrelly
LAZARUS: (His voice is heard in a gentle, expiring sigh of compassion, followed by a faint dying note of laughter that rises and is lost in the sky like the flights of his soul back into the womb of Infinity.) 
Fear not, Caligula! There is no death!

While the New Yorker piece was all in good fun, O’Neill’s prose-like stage directions echo a problem that many writers (myself included) struggle with: how to balance narrative description with dialogue during interaction among characters and scenes. 

Writing dialogue can be difficult.  You need it—to establish chemistry between characters, to keep the plot moving, to provide critical background information – but when it’s time to write it, it doesn’t always flow.  It’s more comfortable to use first-person or omniscient narrative to let readers in on what characters are feeling.  But then what do you do when your characters have to talk to one another?

Plays, of course, are made almost entirely of dialogue, which is why I began studying them to help me solve this very problem and how I found the New Yorker article above.  

After years focused on churning out pages of written description, I struggled to make the transition to conversation.  My dialogue, on the rare occasion it came to me immediately, was stilted and unnatural.  More often though, I lost hours staring at the screen trying to figure out how to get past the conversations I struggled to write.

So I took a time out from working on the manuscript for my debut novel, a political thriller called The Shepherd’s Calculus, to focus on improving my dialogue skills. Here are some tips I learned along the way: 

1)  Listen Out Loud
Practice the exchanges out loud with friends, family, or colleagues to see how they sound.  When you’re in the thick of writing it, it can sound fine in your head.  But when you hear it out loud – most importantly when you hear someone else say it out loud – it can help you pinpoint immediately where it’s weak or sounds too “speech-y”.  I learned this watching a one-act play of mine being performed.  Fred, one of the actors, took lines I’d intended to be heartfelt and profound and delivered them with unexpected humor. And it was so much better than the way I’d originally written it. But before he said the words out loud with the other cast members, I’d never heard them spoken and couldn’t evaluate how they sounded.  And it showed.

2)  Leave Your Comfort Zone
Try out a writing form that forces you to almost exclusively write dialogue--like writing a scene from a play.  The action is meant to happen on stage in a contained environment and places limitations on you as a writer.  The descriptive actions or narrative licenses that you can use in fiction aren’t available to you.  Stripping all that freedom away leaves you with characters who have to convey what you need them to through a very controlled conversation.  It also means that what they say and how they say it needs to be realistic and true to the relationship they’re supposed to have.  Setting up practice scenarios driven purely by dialogue can really help you sharpen your ear for how natural conversations can and should flow. 

3)   Don’t Let Getting It Perfect Hold You Up: Go Back Once You Know Your Characters Better
No matter how much you sketch-out the back story of your characters before you begin writing, your characters generally won’t feel solid until you’ve hit your stride.  And that’s okay.  It’s part of the process.  If you find that you’re stumbling with dialogue in earlier chapters, write something down to get the ideas out and plan to fix it later.  Once you’re several chapters in, you’ll know your characters better and they’ll take on a life of their own in a way.  By the time you finish a first draft, you’ll really know who they are and what makes them tick.  That’s a perfect time to go back to those earlier sequences and fix where you were stalled before.  

4)  Get Comfortable With Slash and Burn
Be prepared to cut most of your dialogue in half after you’ve written it.  Much like you have to overwrite in your first couple of drafts while you’re getting your footing with plot pacing and building character development, you’re probably going to have to overwrite your dialogue while you try to figure out exactly what you need characters to say to one another and why.  As with the tip above, by the time you’ve spent months or even years with your characters writing their stories, you’ll know them well enough to fix the dialogue to suit them better.  Take advantage of it.  

Give Them Something to Talk About: 4 Tips For Improving Your Dialogue, guest post by CS Farrelly
C. S. Farrelly was raised in Wyoming and Pennsylvania. A graduate of Fordham University, her eclectic career has spanned a Manhattan investment bank, the NYC Department of Education and, most recently, the British Government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She was a 2015 Presidential Leadership Scholar and obtained a master’s degree from Trinity College Dublin, where she was a George J. Mitchell scholar. Her debut novel, The Shepherd’s Calculus, was released in October 2017.

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  1. Since I read this book, I can say the dialogue was very realistic.

  2. Thanks so much for the opportunity to share my tips and connect with fellow writers. Hope your readers find it useful!


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