The Secret to Sparkling Dialogue

Recently, I’ve started to read a book. By all estimations, I should have loved it. The synopsis was awesome. The cover was beautiful. And I believe the person who wrote the book is talented. 

Problem is, I don’t like it. In fact, I’m struggling to get through the book because of one big issue. 
Dialogue. 
Don’t get me wrong. Dialogue is awesome. It serves a great purpose by the plot along speedily. It’s a great way to have characters bounce off each other. It’s a great indication of conflict between characters. 
But ONLY is used simultaneously with narrative. In other words. Unless you’ve written a play, don’t only use dialogue. Incidentally, even plays give us clues like: angrily. caustic. sing-song. etc. which give us readers a clue as to visualizing what’s going on. Even then, most plays are a lot harder to read than to watch. For a good reason.
Dialogue, no matter how good, is dead if it doesn’t have description and/or narrative. See the thing with reading is that we aren’t “seeing” things the same way one would watching t.v. We need clues from the writing. So if there aren’t any, it “looks” like the characters are standing stiffly and talking. It “sounds” like the characters are speaking in monotone. 
For example. 
“My baby died,” I said. “From SIDS. Long ago, but it still hurts.” 
“I’m sorry,” Mike replied. “I can’t imagine what it must be like to go through something like that.” 
“The worst is that people thought I killed him.” 

Yeah. Serious stuff, right? Emotional dynamite. Except… it’s not. Because the reader has NO idea how the character’s feeling as they talk about it. And them saying that it hurts just doesn’t have as much impact as it could. Without these clues, the reader is lost. 
So let’s see how much the dialogue changes by adding some narrative. 
“My baby died,” I said. Years had passed and saying those three words made my throat burn. My eyes stung from many tears I still hadn’t managed to finish crying. “From SIDS. Long ago, but it still hurts.” 
“I’m sorry.” Mike’s expression softened and he reached for me. I kept my distance, hugging myself instead. After all this time, I still couldn’t let someone share in my pain. If I went to him now, I’d break down.
He averted his gaze, slowly lowering his arm. “I can’t imagine what it must be like to go through something like that.”
No. No one got it. Only people who lost people knew what true pain was. At least Mike acknowledged that he didn’t know. Unlike quite a few people who callously insisted that I get over the death of my first and only child.  
“The worst is that some people thought I killed him.” 
Immediately, the narrative parts give the dialogue depth. Now, we know the POV Character deals with some crushing pain at losing her child. We also see some sort of tension between her and Mike. He obviously wants her to be there for her, but she won’t let him. All this information in a neat dozen sentences. 
“But MISHAAAA,” some of you might say, “That slowed the pacing down!”
Firstly, it’s important to slow the pace down for important bits. Readers need to linger there, to absorb what’s going on. 
Secondly, if you really want to cut on the narrative, feel free, but never cut it out completely. Even if you only have brief flashes of thought, or mentions of facial expressions, actions etc. 
Those little bits you add could make the difference between a dead book and a sparkling one. 
Do you tend to write more narrative? Or are you a dialogue-heavy writer? 
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21 thoughts on “The Secret to Sparkling Dialogue

  1. I think I tend to be fairly balanced, BUT I just wrote a dialogue heavy scene yesterday. It was full of painful, emotional stuff. Reading this reminds me that when I go back and look at it with fresh eyes today, I will probably need to add more narrative. It is a tricky balance.

  2. I end up heavy in my narration in some projects, and in others, during the first draft, I'm heavy on the dialogue. But I agree. I prefer having narration with my dialogue when reading.

  3. I started to read the article until the dialogue used as the example then I stopped. Sorry, but I have a six-month old baby boy. Next time, don't use such a heavy subject as example.

  4. I do use a lot of dialogue. Sometimes the words the characters use can stand alone – but there are times when the reader needs a bit more information.

  5. Misha, I'm not sure I agree with you on this point. I agree you cannot use dialogue only for a whole book. But if someone is talking about their baby dying, I have a pretty good idea of how they feel.

  6. Hi Misha,

    My writing style is mostly a direct conversation to the one reader. I try to have them feel like they are part of the story. That's why, on my blog, I address my writing in such a way that I'm writing just to you and not an audience.

    A highly informative perspective, Misha.

    Take care, my friend.

    Gary 🙂

  7. Dialogue is definitely tricky to nail down. I've read some authors who use lots of dialogue really well, but I also like to get in some of the prose you mention too.

  8. Well-written dialogue makes or breaks a story for me.

    I tend to balance both. Sometimes the dialogue needs those strong internals, other times it needs a fast pace. Then there are spots where narrative is needed between dialogue scenes.

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