I’m Still Thinking About Dialogue…

In 2002 I participated in my first writers retreat. A fancy one on Maui. I was nervous about going public with myself — scary! — especially because I suspected I’d gotten in over my head with my chosen retreat course — called “Writing from an Idea” — which was all about the process of evolving an initial concept through many phases of story and character development to the point where you can start the first draft. Theoretically, I should have started with the beginner fiction retreat, but I wanted the instructor I wanted, period.

(Sidenote: This retreat also interested me because I’d previously written a novel willy-nilly and ended up with a 600-page first draft — talk about a learning lesson!)

End result: The instructor’s positive feedback — and as a New York Times bestseller she’s no slouch — started me on my slow path toward accepting that I might have talent and toward admitting aloud, “I’m a writer.”

But, lest you think I was riding high on a teacher’s pet wave (hardly), let me get to the point, which is the raw, painful, ego-busting lesson for all newcomers: dealing with critical feedback. As the culmination of our week, our instructor treated us each to an in-depth critical analysis of our imagined novels’ first scenes. After three paragraphs of positive feedback on mine, she hit me with my weakness. You got it: pesky, tricky dialogue!

And here’s the sad truth of it in her words:

Where you’re currently a little weak is in using dialogue well. Here, you run into several difficulties. I get the impression that you’re in a huge hurry to get to the end of the scene and, consequently, you tend to rush things a bit when the characters are speaking. You fall into the jumping conflict trap as a result of this tendency on page four, and the brief spurt of dialogue on page seven suffers from a lack of cohesion. I realize that, as Andrew is a dying man, his discourse might be wobbly and illogical. But art does not imitate life in all circumstances and in these circumstances, each line of dialogue could serve you much better if it’s causally related to the line that goes before it…Generally speaking, if you’re going to shift to another topic like that, you need to interrupt the flow of dialogue with some sort of related action.

(Another sidenote: She also mentioned that in places I went overboard with the figurative language. Oh, my injured ego!)

As you can imagine, I’ve given much thought to dialogue since then. Hopefully I’ve internalized many of her lessons: slow down, don’t jump to conflict without proper build-up, don’t write dialogue as people really talk (as described in last week’s post), strive for clarity and cohesive flow.

Funny thing about that first scene: It’s no longer in the novel! Over many revisions I ended up sprinkling its essence throughout as part of my protagonist’s backstory (Andrew being her father and not a nice guy).

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3 thoughts on “I’m Still Thinking About Dialogue…

  1. I love dialogue. It’s probably one of my favorite things to write because I learn so much about my characters through what they say to each other. It’s also, I think, how I stop my own voice from dominating because I am told I have a very strong voice.

    I am glad I found this blog.

  2. Thanks for commenting! Regarding previous comment (previous post): I’m an incorrigible eavesdropper myself, can’t help myself — sometimes I wonder if this is one of the telltale characteristics of a fiction writer…

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