Monday, September 13, 2010

My Trouble With Dialogue

I've been listening to some of the old "Shadow" pulps on my Kindle while I commute lately. They're interesting, although there's a lot of sameness about them. One thing did occur to me today on my trip in.

The Shadow stories are 'heavily' dialogue driven, probably because of their close relationship with the old radio serial format. As a result, they work pretty well as audio works. But one thing I've noticed is that there is hardly any "music" to the stories at all. Except for the rare descriptions of "The Shadow," the sentences and paragraphs fall leaden on the ears.

I believe it's largely the dialogue that is to blame, and that this is probably why I typically don't read books that begin with dialogue or are heavy with dialogue. Descriptive prose, or action-driven prose, can develop a rhythm, a kind of poetry in prose form.

"All morning the moon hangs frozen on the sky, and the wind-bell rings unheard on the hard east wind." (Matthiessen)

Dialogue seldom obtains even a fraction of this kind of poetry, and then only in the hands of true masters. And I'm realizing, from listening to the "Shadow" stories, that I need the rhythm. I need beautiful, poetic prose and imagery to fully lose myself in a story.

I understand that dialogue is a necessary evil. I try to write it as well as I can. But it'll always be a weak sister to me. Maybe I really am a poet at heart. Some form of a poet anyway.
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49 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Listening to any book on audio points out the problems or strengths authors have with dialogue. 1) Many writers have all the characters speak with the same voice 2)It takes on a sing-songy character 3) Too much dialog is wearying 4) Too much narrative and you fade away 5) The reader is so important.

Sidney said...

You know, there are some novels within The Shadow series written by Theodore Tinsley featuring a villain named Stark--Murder Genius, The Prince Of Evil etc. Those are standouts to me, a little harder-edged that the ones actually penned by Walter Gibson. I've never listened to a Shadow novel. I'll have to give that a try.

the walking man said...

"Rhythm, nothing more just rhythm. I like knowing I can spell the word correctly without using spell check."

Ron Scheer said...

Dialogue in fiction uses so many conventions that are not like actual speech between people. I think it's hard for a writer to make it work let alone "sing."

Jo said...

I totally agree. I think that's why I stopped reading fiction and I read only non-fiction now. I especially detest "chick-lit" because it's all dialogue and very little narrative or story. I want the author to paint a picture for me.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'm not great at writing dialogue, but prefer a good balance in the books I read. I tend to skip over large chunks of description.

jennifer said...

When I do writing exercises, I find that dialogue comes easily to me where as descriptive writing is difficult. Maybe it's because I love relationships in stories and find the way people interact to be more interesting than the setting (though I'm not discounting the importance of setting). Also, I get impatient with too much detail. I want to get to the heart, which for me, is the characters and their story.

Or, my shorter comment...

I like dailogue :)

Heff said...

...Only The Shadow knows....

Charles Gramlich said...

Pattinase, yes indeed. And in "THe Shadow" books so much dialogue is of the "as you well know," type, which is irritating.

Sidney, I've listened to one by Tinsley so far and it is my favorite so far as well. Much better written.

Mark, I've misspelled it a lot. I have to write it down on my notes so I'll spell it correctly in class.

Ron, it is very hard, and too often I think writers sort of give up because of that.

Jo, yes, "snappy" dialogue is usually not very snappy to me. Just boring.

Alex, I skip over large chunks of dialogue, although description can certainly become too much too if improperly used.

Jennifer, I think that may be the more common attitude of readers than mine is. Too me, though, in the stories I really care about the setting is as much of a character as the people. SO I like to see it get its due.

Heff, and not even he knows very much!

iasa said...

The audio books I have listened to recently have disappointed me because they are overly descriptive. I feel like the authors leave no room for my imagination to be a part of the story. A picture may be worth 1000 words, but please don't use that many when to describe something to me.

David J. West said...

I was thinking about this just last night in relation to stories that grip me from the start, and I think you're right.

I'd like to know the setting a little at first-so that I understand just a bit about why I should care what the characters are saying.

Charles Gramlich said...

Don, less is often definitely more when it comes to description, but it depends on the genre. For essentially realistic fiction you need less description but for fantasy you often need more.

David J. West, for me too. I can't get to the characters in a vacuum. I need to have some placement in a setting.

BStearns said...

I cannot write poetry to save my life. I am much like you, I prefer the action driven prose, and deep, beautiful descriptions as opposed to dialogue. That is probably why I enjoy Lord of the Rings so much, because Tolkien puts very little emphasis on the dialogue, it's all about the descriptions. A really cool thing I noticed with his writing is that whenever a character speaks, its only ever "said" or "yelled." Kind of off topic, but I found it a very interesting thing that he does.

Deka Black said...

i see what dialogue is a personal nemesis to many, many writers. To me too. Is hard write good dialogues, and make each character different. Must be a way, of course, but is harder than i believe.

But i keep trying. because, in fact, i am a very stubborn teller of stories.

A trick i used sometimes is to limit the vocabulary of the character.A woman from a wealthy family from for example, Berlin, do not talk the same eway as a construction worker.

What tricks you use to make good dialogues, Charles?

Lana Gramlich said...

Next thing you know you'll be downforking, too. ;) *L*

ArtSparker said...

You might want to read Mathiesson's Far Tortugas, to be fair in your comparison. There's action and description, but the dialogue is quite poetic, and the speakers are identified only through their words.

Not that I'm ever fair, myself.

BernardL said...

When it's done right, I enjoy a book telling a good story through its characters' dialogue. It always makes me feel like I'm in the middle of the plot when the characters tell the story. On the other hand my barf reflex can kick in quickly if I read scenery for five pages straight. :)

G said...

I love writing dialogue, but I will admit that I have mixed feelings about reading fiction that starts with dialogue. A little is okay, while a lot would throw me off for awhile.

Which is odd considering that my recently completed WiP (finished phase one and will be moving on to phase two) opens with a phone conversation. The interesting thing about about this WiP overall is that because of the subject matter it was forced me to tone done the amount of dialogue that I normally use and insted forced me to lean heavily on description that I would otherwise normally use.

Steve Malley said...

Two words: Elmore Leonard. :)

jodi said...

Charles, we are all still learning. Don't be too hard on yourself.

Richard Prosch said...

Indeed. For a long time I read stuff that relied on deeply rich and flamboyant words outside the dialog. Bradbury and Ellison are two that come to mind. Hadn't thought of audio books as a revelation of a writers' strengths there.

Travis Cody said...

Here's my rules about writing dialog:

1. Write it as simply as the story will allow.

2. Make each voice as unique as possible.

3. Dialog must advance the plot, describe a key setting, or reveal something about a character.

4. Beware of idioms, jargon, and slang. They can be used, just be careful.

5. If the speech doesn't sound realistic when read aloud, rewrite it until it does or eliminate it.

Erik Donald France said...

Yeah, I agree mostly, it's hard to get the same driving feel when leaning on dialogue too hard. Probably exceptions as with everything.

I used to love to listen to the Shadow radio stuff my parents had, kind of sinister.

Vesper said...

You are a poet, Charles.

Dialogue is an art. I can't be entirely like in real life but at the same time it must be true to the story and to the characters.

Have you read "The Friends of Eddie Coyle"? Of George V. Higgins, the critics say "The quality of his dialogue is nearly unmatched in twentieth-century literature."

Scott said...

Charles,

Nuthin' wrong with bring a poet...you're the warrior poet, after all!

laughingwolf said...

true...

i find writing dialog for the screen is far more difficult than for anything read, you can't 'say' what's going on in front of you already....

Charles Gramlich said...

BStearns, fantasy fiction, in particular it seems to me, needs those rich descriptions or it just doesn’t work. You’ve gotta create that world.

Deka Black, if it’s a short piece I like to find a tag that I can hook onto dialogue. For example, one person might curse frequently while the other curses not at all. Or one person might say “eh” or “you know,” a lot.


Lana Gramlich, I see no reason to stand here and be insulted. ;)


ArtSparker, I’ve read it, and it is definitely an exception to the rule. But I consider Matthiesson to be one of those masters.


BernardL, except in very short pieces of a few pages, a story carried all in dialogue will simply be discarded by me. I feel like I’m reading a play. I admire the few writers who can pull it off. I’ve seen Hemingway do it, but it is incredibly hard and most writers just can’t do it. AS for the description, it depends on what’s being described. If it’s description of a mall or a doctor’s office, or a modern setting then I’m with you. But I can handle quite a bit of description if it is an alien world or a fantastic one. Maybe not 5 straight pages but a pretty good amount.


G, I’ve written flash fiction pieces all in dialogue, or mostly in dialogue, and it is challenging but doable. But that’s a few hundred words. Long, unbroken stretches of dialogue just tire me out.

Steve Malley, some folks can do it. Leonard is good with dialogue. Most can’t though.

jodi, sometimes I refuse to learn. ;)


Richard Prosch, Bradbury might be the person who spoiled me the most for beautiful description and narrative. I just so loved and love his work.

Travis Cody, good rules to follow. I recognize that dialogue is an indispensable part of a story but I don’t want it to be too much. It’s like listening to music in which one instrument is too dominant. I like the right mix.

Erik Donald France, there are definitely sinister elements and moments in the Shadow pulps, and that comes through even today. Probably why I’m staying with them.


Vesper, I’ve not read that one. Will have to have a look. I find myself skeptical, of course. I think I’ve been burned by what was supposed to be great dialogue too many times. I will check it out though.

Scott, thankee man. I’ve actually had poems published in a magazine called Warrior Poet!

laughingwolf, that’s why I find reading screenplays to be the most boring experience. I want to use the Cartman phrase, “Lame, Lame, Lame.”

ivan said...

Dramatization in the forties.

Why is it that after sixty years, Lamont Cranston sounds like a martinet, a Marine sergeant, slightly gay.
Ha. Only the Shadow knows! :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, lamont definitely had some issues. As we would say today.

writtenwyrdd said...

I have to agree about dialog being less important to me. It communicates a lot, for certain; but it doesn't satisfy like the poetry of good prose.

I think that part of the problem with the audio books, though, is that people need to read the dialog a bit more poetically and less like they are Acting, lol. It might come across to teh reader better that way.

Carole said...

I like a good combination of both for reading or listening on audio. I listened to one book which was mostly dialogue and thought it was awful.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Chandler was a master of dialogue - as are a lot of the harder edged American crime authors - Richard Stark's Parker books are also good on this score. I also think Michael Connelly does dialogue well. Good dialogue flows and can speed up the pace of a story when done well.

Charles Gramlich said...

writtenwyrdd, that's probably true about the reading. Of course, the Kindle has only one voice anyway and it isn't the prettiest. but even when I try to read teh dialogue to myself it is sometimes painful.

Carole, both are definitely needed for a full experience. I don't deny that dialogue can do good stuff. It's just not my favorite.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin, it can definitely heighten tension at times. I like the style of the noir writers for dialogue because it is generally sparse and lean.

sage said...

Dialogue is both important in setting a scene, but can quickly become over done--I like listening to books, but mostly funny books or mysteries. I see what you are saying about dialogue

Charles Gramlich said...

Sage, yes, I agree, it certainly has its role.

ivan said...

Oh Didn't we old cats and kittens, now so long in the tooth, enjoy old WKBW Buffalo, or WEBR,Boston,NIck Carter, Master Detective, The Lone Ranger, complete with horse whinneys, George Burns and Gracie Allen, cowboy Lee Moore with his guitar.

Now old Lee Moore had troubles of his own
He had an old yeller cat
Who wouldn't leave home
Tried everything he knew
To keep the cat away
But the cat was a terror
and he wouldn't stay away
But the cat came back
the very next day
the cat came back
...thought he was a goner
but the can came back
'Cause he woldn't go away...

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, growing up in the Bible belt as I did, with very religious and conservative parents, I never heard any radio plays or broadcasts at all. I never even knew they existed until I was an adult. I wish I had.

Dayana Stockdale said...

I agree. When I read (or write) something with too much dialogue, I find it awkward, and often annoying. That is part of the reason I think the Hunger Games is so easy to read aloud (I'm reading the series to hubby). Suzanne Collins knows how to avoid dialogue. At first, I thought it was odd, since so much of YA is heavy with dialogue, but then I sort of fell in love, definitely not with the story, but with how it is told.

Jodi MacArthur said...

Now this is interesting. I would say the exact same thing only flipped around. ;-)

Too much setting drives me insane. But that is more my personality, I don't like being told what to do or what to think. Give a little to lead me in and lets get on with it already. ;-) I like witty clever dialogue. Nothing pushed, but natural within the setting the author creates. Dean Koontz is my favorite dialoguer (all though I will be the first to admit he DOES tend to go to far- but that normally ends in a giggling fit for me). At the same time, Koontz has poetic, clever settings (that I often skip over). To me, what it comes down to is this. If the writer has a true passion for writing, there is typically a good balance of dialogue, setting, and action. If it goes too far one way, I read it anyway because I appreciate a good story. If the author is going for status he will overdo it on something that might ooo and awww the literary world, but bore the average readerly person.

Great post! I like your site here.

Charles Gramlich said...

Dayana Stockdale, the very nature of dialogue is to have two different speakers speak in different rhythms, which definitely interferes most of the time with the poetry of the whole piece.

Jodi MacArthur, I definitely think there needs to be a balance. However, it's interesting that you mention Koontz because one of the main reasons I read Koontz is because of the great settings and descriptions he gives. I scarcely ever remember his dialogue much. I imagine there is a lot more to explore on this topic. Some clearly prefer one thing and others another. We both seem to like Koontz, but for different reasons. Interesting.

Deka Black said...

In a sort of way, the comments here are also a dialogue, i believe.

Charles Gramlich said...

Deka, tis true. A pretty good one.

Natasha Fondren said...

I love dialogue! But too much. My biggest challenge as a writer used to be that I hardly wrote paragraphs... it was all dialogue. I love human interaction and relationships. It's my favorite bit. I often think I should've been a playwright or a screenwriter. (I did once try to write a screenplay.)

I've been writing in mostly first person lately, so I think even that's cheating, because that's a dialogue between the MC and the reader, almost.

Charles Gramlich said...

Natasha, I don't mind first person at all because there is still description. Strange to say for a writer, perhaps, but I'm not as interested in human interactions as many folks are. I'm interested in the exploration, the inventiveness of imagination moreso.

JR's Thumbprints said...

This could also be why some well written novels, as poetic as they are, make crummy movies.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

So happy - my internet is back! As for dialogue, I love it, but it took me forever not to have my characters sound like hand-puppets that were translating from another language. Now I listen to people and write down the interesting things they say -- my Texas upbringing serves me well in this regard. But I agree, too much can be fatal to the story. It's that crucial balance -- always trying to find it! My favorite piece of dialogue comes directly from my old friend Hank. When someone told him he would ruin his eyes by reading so close, he said "Too late you noisy bitch, I'm already blind." With friends like these, I'm wealthy! :)

Jess said...

First thing I do when I pick up a book is thumb through it to see how much dialogue. If I don't see much, the book usually goes back on the shelf. I just bought The Professional by Robert B. Parker. I'm in "dialogue heaven." Mmmmm Mmmm good!

Charles Gramlich said...

JR, hum, that's a good point. I hadn't thought of that. Maybe so, and maybe why I don't care much for movies typically.

Michelle, Good dialogue certainly can be memorable. And you've got to have that proper mix for sure. That's why I've forced myself to try and write it better, although I still have miles to go.

Jess,I know lots of folks who are just like you. I have done the exact opposite of course. Good thing there is a lot of variety in the writing world. :)

Naomi Johnson said...

'The Friends of Eddie Coyle' - It may not be poetic, but the book is heavy with dialogue, and it's a classic crime story.