Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Dialog

Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Dialog


Firsts in Fiction

Gross Anatomy of a Novel: Dialog

What is dialog?

  • “Dialogue is not a break in the action. It’s an intensification of the action. Here’s something else dialogue is not: It’s not the way we speak. Dialogue must appear realistic without being realistic. It’s not natural, but must suggest naturalness.” –John Dufresne
  • Dialogue is people saying “no” to each other in interesting ways.
  • Dialogue is about people talking, but it’s also (or often can be) about people NOT communicating.

How do I write dialog?

  • Should be authentic.
  • Avoid too many tags and/or adverbs in tags.
  • Should sound like your character (age, gender, job, etc.)
  • Less is more.
  • Use action to set scene and internal feelings.
  • Avoid fillers (yes, no, I guess, I suppose, not really, etc.)
  • Do not present exposition (summary).
    • Characters should not say things to characters who already know it.
  • You can’t moan words, smile them, chuckle them, or fume them.
  • Omit lines that a character says simply to advance the other character’s speech. EX: “Really? Then what happened?”
  • Characters do not sound alike and should not sound like the narrator.
  • Characters seldom speak precisely and seldom respond exactly to what has been said.
  • People seldom speak in unison.

Dialogue Checklist

  • Is it brief?
  • Does it add to the reader’s present knowledge?
  • Does it eliminate the routine exchanges of ordinary conversation?
  • Does it convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk?
  • Does it reveal the speaker’s character, directly or indirectly?
  • Does it depict the relationships among the characters?

Types of Dialog

  • Summary Dialogue
    • No quotation marks, more of a summary than a quote.
      • Yvonne told him that she wanted a divorce.
  • Indirect Dialogue
    • More specific, better portrays the feeling of what was said.
      • Yvonne said that she wanted a divorce, that he was selfish, that he had always been selfish, that he’d never given a thought about what she really wanted.
  • Direct Dialogue
    • Exactly what comes out of the characters’ mouths.
      • Yvonne said, “I’m done with you. Paint the house any stupid color you want.”
  • Intermixed Dialogue
    • A little of each:
      • Yvonne listed his faults—too selfish, too domineering, too petty. “And cheap too. Cheapest person I’ve ever met.” She unfolded some yellow paper and read out loud what the lawyer had told her about equitable property division.

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