I love dialogue. I love writing it and I love reading it, and I love how versatile it is. It’s one of my favorite things about shows like Buffy and more recently, The 100 and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I love Tom Stoppard’s works more than life itself. And in our glorious age of cinema, I think it’s easy to be influenced by the dialogue styles of our favorite screenwriters and playwrights, and to try and write novels as if they’re screenplays with just a little more description.

Novels are a different medium than scripts or screenplays, though, and this 90% dialogue approach doesn’t work for every (I’d say most) manuscript(s). I’m not saying that a lot of dialogue is a bad thing. I’m saying the ratio of dialogue to description should be better balanced in novels than in scripts meant for visual mediums.

Based on the manuscripts I’ve seen and worked on, I have to assume that a lot of writers these days are dialogue-first writers, which is a great strategy for first drafts because dialogue can be a really effective and interesting way to give information and move the plot forward. However, subsequent drafts need to add more details, otherwise you’re left with disembodied dialogue that fails to elicit a reaction in the reader. When dialogue stands unconnected to subtextual characterization (behavior, internal emotions/thoughts), it makes it hard to connect to a character because they’re basically just this disembodied voice, just a collection of words arranged into sentences without any indication of how to interpret or contextualize those words.

I encourage authors to add more of what I call transitional details. I call them transitional because their job is to lead the reader through the escalating plot and character arcs in a calculated way; generally speaking, I put them in the following categories. [Disclaimer: as with all writing advice, apply in moderation. Too many of these details will bog down a manuscript. Always strive for dialogue and description that is relevant to the scene, adds to the character arc, and/or moves the plot forward.]

  • Stage direction. This includes not only blocking (where characters move in the ‘set’, crosses, etc) but business (what characters do where they’re sitting/standing/lying). So for example: “Bob went to the sidebar [blocking] and poured himself two fingers of Scotch [business].” This is important to include, not only to keep track of where everyone is, but to characterize them (what do we learn about Bob from his drink choice?) and to add authenticity to the scene. As the wonderful Chuck Wendig says, “Characters don’t stand nose-to-nose and take turns speaking.” They move, they fidget.
  • Emotional context. Usually (especially in the case of dialogue) this means an emotional response to what was just said or done that precedes and gives context to the POV character’s next action or line of dialogue. Your Love Interest just accused your Protagonist of cheating on them–odds are they’re going to have a physical/emotional reaction before speaking (though if words fly out of their mouth first, that’s characterization too–but don’t forget to let emotions catch up soon!). It doesn’t have to be an in-depth reflection, and probably shouldn’t be. But as you can see in the following examples, even a handful of words can give different characterizations:

My jaw drops. “How could you think that?” Here the character is shocked, or at least pretending to be.

I grit my teeth. “How could you think that?” The character is angry! What kind of character gets angry at an accusation of cheating?

Bewilderment numbs my mouth for half a breath. “How could you think that?” I whisper as my lips tingle back to life. This character is dumbfounded and seems non-confrontational.

  • Thought processes. If your character is having an epiphany, show us how they get there! Some characters talk through their epiphanies or decision-making processes, which is fine, but for the ones who don’t–you can still show us, especially if you’re in a close POV. This, again, helps to characterize your POV character and helps to smooth any apparently illogical intuitive leaps, which keeps the story realistic and immersive. You don’t want your reader going “Wait, what, why are they doing this now, what the hell are they talking about?” Describe how they get from A to B to C, etc.

I spotted Mrs. Jones and her tiny dog, farther up the sidewalk, just as her dog was coming up from a squat and kicking out its bony legs in some kind of victory dance. She didn’t even look down; my eyes widened as Mrs. Jones and the little beast just walked away from the poop without picking it up! [A] There was a free poop bag dispenser not two feet from where the damn thing did its business. My jaw dropped and I ran over to the small pile of fecal matter. As I stared down at it, I realized it was rough the same size and consistency of the piles that had dotted the community lawn for months. [B] This isn’t the first time she’s done this–and my Yorkie’s been getting blamed for it the whole time! [C] This was the last straw. I’d get proof–next time I’d photograph her–and then we’d see what the leasing office had to say about it. [D]

IN THE COMMENTS

To illustrate the phenomenon of disembodied dialogue, I’ve edited an excerpt from an old short story of mine down to resemble some of the manuscripts I’ve noticed this in, as they are when I first read through them. Version One has had most of the transitional details removed. Compare to Version Two, the original, and discuss!

Version One [Disembodied]

“Oh good, Miles, you’re here,” the manager said. “Have you two introduced yourselves yet? Caroline, this is Miles. He’s our new night janitor slash cook. He’ll be doing all the prep work during the night, so our line cooks don’t have to come in so early and then work all day. Miles, this is Caroline. She’s one of the hosts.”

“Caroline. It’s a pleasure,” he said. His voice was…viscous. Thick, deep, smooth. Like honey.

“Nice to meet you,” she replied.

The young man looked at Caroline and took her hand; he turned it over and lifted it as he bowed slightly. Not quite a kiss, but gentlemanly all the same. He kept his eyes on her the whole time. She became very conscious of how often she blinked.

“Do I make you uncomfortable?” he asked.

“That’s an odd thing to say,” Caroline replied.

“Perhaps, but I often wonder it,” Miles said. “Well?” The single syllable oozed from his mouth.

“Well, what? Do you make me uncomfortable?” Caroline asked.

He nodded.

“No,” she said.

“Oh,” he said.

Caroline held her ground a moment, then said, “I’m leaving now.”

“Because you’re uncomfortable?” Miles asked.

“No,” Caroline said as she took her coat and walked away.

 

Version Two [Original]

“Oh good, Miles, you’re here,” the manager said. “Have you two introduced yourselves yet? Caroline, this is Miles. He’s our new night janitor slash cook. He’ll be doing all the prep work during the night, so our line cooks don’t have to come in so early and then work all day. Miles, this is Caroline. She’s one of the hosts.”

One of the hosts. There was that anonymity again. Miles had had a new position created for him and she was just one of the hosts. She already felt insignificant in his eyes.

“Caroline. It’s a pleasure,” he said. His voice was…viscous. Thick, deep, smooth. Like honey.

She wanted to say something classy and intriguing, but nothing came to mind; and instead of lifting her hand delicately, perhaps for him to lightly kiss, she stabbed her rigid phalange-carpal combo into the air.

“Nice to meet you,” she replied, a bit brusquely.

Miles looked at her hand, then glanced around. By this time Jennifer had wandered off. They were, for all intents and purposes, alone. The young man looked back at Caroline and took her hand; he turned it over and lifted it as he bowed slightly. Not quite a kiss, but gentlemanly all the same. He kept his eyes on her the whole time. She became very conscious of how often she blinked. Somehow, the average number of sixteen blinks per minute seemed far too many.

“Do I make you uncomfortable?” he asked.

“That’s an odd thing to say,” Caroline replied.

“Perhaps, but I often wonder it,” Miles said.

Caroline supposed that was acceptable. He released her hand and straightened. He was a good deal taller than her, and now that she was closer to him she realized that he gave off a strange odor. It was like a withering flower: sweet, but sort of sticky, with an underlying pungent sharpness, the kind of smell that went straight up your nostrils and stayed in the bridge of your nose, tickling you and ruining all the things you smelled after it.

“Well?” he said in his sticky honey voice, brushing a lock of honey-gold hair out of his face. The single syllable oozed from his mouth.

“Well, what? Do you make me uncomfortable?” Caroline asked.

He nodded. She considered it.

“No,” she said.

“Oh,” he said. He seemed surprised. He took a step closer to her, and another, invading her personal space with clear deliberation. The action had a “how about now?” feel to it. Caroline held her ground a moment, then said:

“I’m leaving now.”

“Because you’re uncomfortable?” Miles asked.

“No,” Caroline said as she took her coat and walked away.