A Monologue on Dialogue

One of the common writing problems I have (and I know I’m not alone) is the tendency to “tell” rather than “show” details in my story. I have found it almost painful at times to excise a few paragraphs of exposition for something more subtle yet visceral. It’s one of those things that I have to practice until I find it easier to do, and so far I’m not there.

It doesn’t help that I’m also not yet very good at identifying when I’m doing it. If someone reads an excerpt and says, “too much ‘telling’!” I have a hard time seeing what they mean unless they’ve dropped an anvil on my head with accompanying line edits to point out instances directly.

When I do find a passage, though, I have one favorite “secret weapon” in my arsenal to beat it into submission: dialogue.

I know some writers struggle with dialogue. I’m sure everyone can name at least one film they’ve seen where, despite the cast’s best efforts, the dialogue feels labored and unnatural. For heaven-only-knows-what reason, that has not been one of my challenges (that is, I’ve been told dialogue is one of my strengths).

So when I find I’ve been rambling on at length about action that involves someone besides just my protagonist (once it’s been pointed out to me), I go back and have them talk it over instead. My technique, if you can call it that, is simply a form of roleplaying; I imagine myself to be the character, and write the words that come to mind as if I were actually engaging in the conversation at hand.

Here’s a brief example (not from the actual novel—sorry). To begin, a chunk of exposition:

The two of them spent the afternoon engaged in one of their favorite pastimes: making a crown cake. They spilled some of the acorn meal, got covered in flour, and snitched chocolate from the pan before melting it. All in all, it was one of the most innocuously memorable days Mabel had spent with Gran since going off to college.

Now here’s what it looks like as dialogue:

“So what do you say. Shall we make a crown cake?” The twinkle in Gran’s eye held a spark of challenge.

“You’re on!”

Soon Mabel was grinding the acorns. “Is that enough—dammit!” She scrambled to catch the bowl she’d bobbled as she proffered it for Gran’s inspection before all the precious acorn meal was lost. Gran burst out laughing, and Mabel glared.

“Oh, don’t be such a grumpy gus, Ace. There’s plenty more acorns.”

Mabel sighed. “I know. I just thought I was done!”

“The fun’s in the process, and setbacks are inevitable.” Gran winked. “Don’t worry about it.”

Mabel grumbled darkly with mock fury as she set back to work. Glancing to make sure Gran wasn’t paying attention, she casually reached behind her to snitch a few chocolate chips out of the pot that sat on the stove, awaiting melting.

“Grab a couple for me,” Gran murmured without looking up from the other side of the table.

Mabel shook her head in wonder. “You’ve got eyes where you shouldn’t oughtta have ’em!”

Gran smiled enigmatically and held out a hand for her share.

Laughing, Mabel obliged. “I don’t think we’ve had this much fun together since I left for college.”

When Gran’s hug got flour all over her T-shirt, Mabel didn’t even mind.

While this passage isn’t the finest example of my dialogue, I hope it’s better than the expository paragraph above. At least I’d like to think it involves you, the reader, in the characters more, giving a better sense of their personalities, relationship, and moods. Doesn’t hurt my word count, either (though that’s obviously a fortuitous side effect, rather than a primary goal).

Now the trick is to remember to do that more in the first place.

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