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3-D Writing, Part 1: Dialog

By Robb Grindstaff

A couple months ago, my wife and I went to see the movie Avatar in 3-D. I hadn’t seen a 3-D movie since I was a kid in some distant century. 3-D technology has come a long way, even though we still had to wear those silly glasses.

It was amazing. The characters, the scenery, tiny alien creatures seemed to float out of the screen and surround me. I felt as if I were a part of the movie rather than apart from it, merely watching on a screen. It added a sense of realism and believability to a movie set in the future, on a distant planet with very different life forms.

Afterwards, I wondered what it is that makes some writing feel flat, two-dimensional, like watching it on a screen, while other writing surrounds me and pulls me into the story and the characters, makes them more real and believable. What makes words on a page become 3-D?

When I was recently invited to write an article for a writers e-zine, I joked that I’d discuss the three Ds of writing: Dialog, Description and Despair.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized the best writers are those who can nail all three of these facets. The key in all cases is not too much or too little, but just enough so the reader forgets it’s fiction and lives inside your story for a few hours.

How much is just enough will be different for every writer and for every story. Each genre, style, and voice has different demands. There is no formula here – just some general observations. Learning to apply them takes practice. First up:

Have you ever read a book with too much dialog? Or even a scene or chapter within an otherwise good book where the dialog goes on a bit too long? It feels like reading a screenplay with no stage direction. Talking heads, back and forth, and soon all you have are disembodied voices floating in space. Nothing is grounded in reality.

These passages are like when a child is playing with dolls. Holding a doll in each hand, the child provides the voices and the dialog. Ken and Barbie stand there, or are suspended in mid-air, talking back and forth. For hours.

You’re writing a scene with two people at a kitchen table, a restaurant or driving in a car. Your characters are talking and you, the writer, get wound up in the conversation. Nothing external happens for three pages. Yawn. Make your dolls do something.

How do the characters sound when they’re talking? What are they doing that’s interesting? Where are they? What’s going on around them? What are their facial expressions? And who the heck is talking? Have you ever lost track because of too much dialog, too few dialog tags, and no differentiation in the voices? Did you have to go back up and count down to keep track? ‘This is Bill, this is Susie, this is Bill, this is Susie.’

Too many dialog tags can be even worse, especially if the writer tried to get creative.

“This pail of water is too heavy,” Jill whined.
“You’re never happy,” Jack snapped.
“I hope you fall and break your crown,” Jill blurted out.
“Aaaahhh!” Jack screamed.

A page of that and I’d fling the book across the room. Good thing I don’t have a Kindle yet.

Do your characters have unique voices? Can the reader tell from the line of dialog who is speaking? If so, use as few dialog tags as you can reasonably get away with. And ‘said’ is still the most useful and invisible tag there is. If the reader can’t tell from the words in the dialog and the action beats how something was said, change the dialog or add some action that conveys the tone of voice and manner of speaking. Going for a cheesy dialog tag is the easy way out and doesn’t help the reader hear the voice.

If your characters’ voices are indistinguishable, go back and get inside each character’s head a little deeper. How does she sound? What words would he use if he’s an attorney or a plumber? Real people don’t sound exactly alike even if they’re from the same geographic location and have similar backgrounds. Let their personalities come through in their voices.

Read the dialog out loud. Have a friend read it with you to get the sound of two people having a conversation. Read it like a script – no dialog tags or action. See where it falters, bogs down, sounds too similar, gets boring, or doesn’t sound realistic. Are you using dialog to dump info or back story? Don’t. Tighten it up by trimming the realistic but unnecessary bits of conversation, and pare it down to the essentials of what is needed for the story.

On the other hand, have you ever read a book with too little dialog? The narrator describes what is going on. There might even be some action, maybe a spoken line thrown in here and there – the disembodied line. Who was she speaking to? Page after page of narrative, even well written, with no people speaking will drive a reader to fling a book across the room and find something else to do.

There is no formula that says for every 150 words of narrative, you should have 75 words of dialog. Or for every six lines of dialog, you should have one dialog tag.

Each genre, each book, each writer’s style has different requirements and expectations. You will have to find the right balance for your story and your characters. How do you know when you’ve got it right? Your readers will let you know.


Robb Grindstaff is managing editor of an international English-language daily newspaper. He writes short stories and unpublished novels, does freelance fiction editing, writes guest posts on other people’s blogs because he can’t be bothered to start his own, and enjoys the occasional tub of chocolate ice cream whether or not he’s received any rejections.