Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Fiction, the Good Lie – No. 2: Effective Dialogue

by Magi Nams

"I've found that good dialogue tells you not only what people are saying or how their communicating but it tells you a great deal – by dialect and tone, content and circumstance – about the quality of the character." (E.O. Wilson)

"Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a big slab of prose at the start." (P.G. Wodehouse)

            For winter 2012/13, Donna Morrissey was Writer in Residence with the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library here in northern Nova Scotia. Needless to say, I scrambled to enroll in her free classes offered through the library and was both inspired and challenged by them. Donna is an internationally acclaimed Newfoundland novelist who paints rich stories using vivid imagery and dialogue. I'm going to pass on a few tips I learned from her workshop on writing dialogue.
First off, dialogue in a novel isn't anything like everyday conversation, which is often a casual back and forth without a defined purpose other than sharing. Donna stressed that effective fictional dialogue "moves the story forward." It may 1) advance the plot, 2) introduce characters, 3) show emotion, 4) create mood, or 5) incorporate research. We've all heard that showing is better than telling, and one way to show is through characters' dialogue.   
Conflict – either internal or external, positive or negative – is the essence of good fiction. Donna told us, "Conflict indicates a change is about to happen," and challenged us to create conflict through dialogue in a number of exercises. She cautioned us to avoid dialogue pitfalls like goofy tags, using characters' names too often in conversation, having talking heads (make characters do something, not just talk), stilted conversation, dumping backstory, and explaining the plot (if a character has to explain the plot, the writer is not doing his/her job). She encouraged us to "spit it all out, then work on deepening it…Spontaneity is vital."
All of the dialogue writing exercises were timed, usually five minutes, which forced us to jump right in and spit it out. For one exercise, we wrote a brief scene in which one person overhears a conversation between two other people. Here's what I wrote:

Mandy slipped the egg basket off her arm and, hearing her mother's voice, leaned her head to the keyhole.
"You don't think she suspects? You don't think she knows?"
"How could she know? She's six years old." That was her father.
"What about all the trips to the hospital? All the visits to the doctor?"
"She's a child, Jenny. She goes where we tell her. Does what we tell her."
"You always make it seem like a game. It's not a game."
"What would you have me do? Tell her the doctors don't know what's wrong with her? That she might die?"
"No! No. I don't know. I just want the nightmare to go away. I just want my baby girl."
"You have your baby girl. Love her, Jenny. Smile at her. Hug her. And just remember, the doctors don't know. What they don't know may not be all bad."

In any piece of fiction, dialogue can do a lot of heavy lifting if it's genuine, uncluttered, and vivid. It can plunge the reader into the essence of your story and take them on an exciting emotional ride from your first page to your last. Let the characters speak! 

Writing as Jenny Winter, Magi is crafting effective dialogue in her first contemporary romance A Look Across the Sand, which features a wildlife photographer heroine and rancher hero. Magi also writes nature/travel non-fiction. Check it out at her blog


  1. Excellent advice, Magi. I would have loved to attend that workshop with Donna Morrissey! Good luck with the book!

    1. Thanks, Julianne. Donna is an amazing presenter. I'm so much more conscious of dialogue now. Glad to share a little of what I learned.

  2. Lucky you, Magi! It's wonderful when you feel inspired and challenged at the same time. Thanks for passing on the tips. Always useful! And good luck with your work.

    1. Pam, as writers, we all need both inspiration and challenge to produce our best work, don't we? I'm loving getting back into my WIP after weeks of processing fruits and veggies. Bring on the dialogue!