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  1. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    How to add excitement to dialogue

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by GuardianWynn, Feb 18, 2015.

    So if a scene is purely about two people talking. How do you make it less as my style has been called "two floating heads?"

    See, I get how atmosphere and little character actions can break it up but sometimes that almost seems like unneeded fluff. I mean. Two characters in a room sitting in chairs talking. I might mention the scene. I might mentioned they are taping fingers or looking away when answering a question but beyond that I got nothing. Sometimes even that seems like too much.

    Anyone else having this problem? Not sure what the right balance is.
     
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  2. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    The idea is not to add filler just to break the dialogue up, but add elements that move the story forward.

    In the scene I'm writing at the moment, I break the dialogue to describe the sun getting higher in the sky, the heat, the change in insect activity. The reason is to show time passing and create the atmosphere that will progress to hiking in the heat of the day.

    Later I'll add in relief when they reach cooler air higher up. Being higher up also indicates the further they are going to reach their destination, an isolated village deep in the forest.

    Why are they tapping their fingers? Are they uncomfortable with the discussion? You shouldn't just randomly break up the discussion, you want the characters' actions and the location to contribute to the story. Is the room sparse or cluttered? Are there awards on the walls but no pictures of family? That might reveal a self absorbed character, or a person who gave up love for career.

    Think of the setting as a character. Think of the dialogue as including body language.
     
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  3. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    Why is the scene two people sitting in a room talking to each other? Unless it's a domestic drama where husband and wife are talking about something (like how big the children are getting, or something equally important) you probably don't need to put them there. If there is a reason (like me asking my boss for a raise) you can put in (as GingerCoffee says) details of his office to indicate what he's like, or details of how my mouth is dry because I'm nervous.
     
  4. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Excitement could be whats being said or the reactions to what's being said. In one of my favorite children's books - Mrs. Fish, Ape and me, The Dump Queen by Norma Fox Mazer the mc, Joyce, is sitting in the school cafeteria having lunch by herself. She has no friends and has been ostracized because her uncle ( who she lives with ) runs a dump. A new girl comes over, sits at her table and starts talking to Joyce. She is kind and friendly and the dialogue isn't really anything too special but what brings it to life is the dynamic between these two characters. Joyce is suspicious - what does this girl want, why is she talking to me, she's so pretty she could've sat with anyone. To the new girl who doesn't know anyone and is desperate to make a friend despite Joyce's almost standoffish manner.
    Look to the personal dynamics of the characters. Add some introspection/insight, action, feed in the details of the setting to help the situation and mood.
     
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  5. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    The way you make dialogue exciting is to insert subtext. Don't have your characters always say exactly what they mean.

    This can be done through information the reader already knows. Maybe the reader knows one character is dealing with the death of a family member, so the way in which he speaks reflects that but is not verbally acknowledged by the character. Or maybe one character is planning on killing another, and it is reflected in the dual meaning of his dialogue toward his future murder victim.

    This can also be done through information the reader does not know. Maybe two characters are speaking about another, and one seems cautious of that third character. There is no explicitly stated reason for why they are cautious, so it becomes subtext.
     
  6. Renee J
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    Renee J Contributing Member

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    If there's a POV character, you could show their reactions and thoughts to the conversation. (If this adds to the story.)
     
  7. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'd need to see the scene. Do you have something to put in the Review Room?
     
  8. PeterC
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    PeterC Active Member

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    One approach to consider is to take the characters out of the room and into a place where something is going on. This might not be possible in your case, of course, but it is something to think about.

    One nice side effect of this approach is that it gives you an opportunity to describe some new and interesting venue while the characters are talking about important, plot-forwarding topics. If world building is a problem for you (I write science fiction so I'm always fussing with world building) this can be a nice way to add atmosphere without info dumping.
     
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  9. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    You already mention this, but nobody just talks. Good actors know this. Good writers know this. Even when people are 'just' talking, they are fidgeting, moving, creating inflections, scratching itches, sipping coffee, getting distracted, acting worried, acting nervously, acting suspiciously, acting surprised. They cry, they laugh, they glance, they frown, they grind their teeth while listening.

    Words are only the basics of a conversation.

    Lastly, if what they are saying is interesting, the talk can be almost enough. Heart of Darkness is set on a ship docked on the Thames while the narrator listens to Marlow's story. But it's his story, what he says, that's interesting.
     
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  10. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    @ Everyone. All your advice is good. Thank you.

    I could have a piece. I am horrible at forums. Where is the review room? Does it have a post count requirement?
     
  11. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Good OP question, @GuardianWynn !

    Reviews are given under The Writing Workshops on the home page. Just pick what category suits you best (short story, novel, etc) and click the category. You should find a bit at the top of the category page that allows you to start a new thread.

    It looks like you've been a member long enough, if you joined in November of last year. In order to post in the workshop you must have given at least 2 critiques of other people's work somewhere in the workshop. And made at least 20 general posts—which you seem to have done. If you haven't done any critiques for other people yet, just dive in and do a couple.

    Once you've done two critiques, then post the part of your story that troubles you. Forum members will give you direct feedback. (@ChickenFreak is particularly good at this sort of thing, so take her advice and post your stuff. :)) You'll get a lot of specific help. Tell us something about the piece at the beginning of your post that gets us up to speed on your story, thus far. For example, tell us what has happened just before this snippet, unless it's the start of your story. It also helps if you can let us know what it is you are trying to accomplish in the snippet, so we can better direct our suggestions.
     
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2015
  12. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    This has been something I've been struggling with myself, latelty.
    I'm going to disagree with some of the suggestions here. "Describe them scratching," etc. The result of that sort of back and forth between dialogue and mundane pointless descriptions is a very monotone piece that winds up looking like a script. Forget about the words and just look at the larger patterns made by the "ink" on the screen. It looks scarce and week and plain. And then you go and you read it and it's like duh dah duh dah duh dah. Zzzzzzz.

    I personally think the way to do good dialogue is to put it in the form of the narrative experience, whatever it is. Maybe it is mainly dialogue and a few choice descriptions, so perfectly done, like how Hemmingway does it, or maybe it's lots and lots of reactions and introspections and a few choice dialogues. Either way it's done with flavor because it's in the form of narrative, not screenplay.

    Lately I've been going through chapters, and highlighting only the dialogue bits that I think are interesting and GREAT. If it's just information, even slightly important information, I usually don't highlight it and then delete it. If it's only very important information, I'll keep it but make sure it's supported appropriately by the narrative.
     
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  13. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I like what @123456789 wrote, regarding dialogue as screenplay. I do think that's sometimes the problem. People think dialogue works on its own in a story, as it does in a screenplay. It rarely does, except in very very short exchanges.

    What happens when we watch a film is that we get to see everything else that's happening while the dialogue is spoken. We get to see the setting, facial expressions, body language, the pauses between words and sentences ...the lot. Okay, when you write a screenplay, you probably leave most of this out, and it's up to the actors and directors to fill in the gaps. But in a story or novel, there is only you, the writer. So you have to fill in these details, enough so the reader can form a picture of what is happening as well as the words being said.

    I think there is a great danger in relying too much on dialogue to convey a story. Some writers believe it makes the story snappy and 'fast' ...and I suppose in the hands of expert writers, it can do. But I feel long stretches of uninterrupted dialogue are tiresome to read, and if the dialogue is badly attributed, confusing as well. The minute I lose track of who is speaking the lines and have to start backtracking and counting, I tend to give up.

    I think the trick for writers is to truly envision the scene, and feel the emotions contained in it. Watch how the characters behave and interact non-verbally. Watch how non-speakers in the scene react as well. And pay attention to how the setting impacts on the speakers. Is the sun glaring into somebody's eyes, interfering with their ability to see the other speaker clearly? Do a pack of noisy children running past serve to make the speaker raise his voice, or maybe frown in annoyance? Does a sudden gust of wind cause the speakers to become chilled, so they move behind a wall for a windbreak while they continue their conversation? Does the kettle start boiling and require attention? This kind of detail can instantly add life to a scene.

    I also liked @Ben414 's point about subtext. That is subtle and very effective when you can work it in. If the speakers don't actually say what they are thinking or tell the truth–and you, the reader, knows this—the evasive dialogue can become very intriguing indeed. Great point. It won't work in all dialogue exchanges, but it's incredibly effective when you find a place for it in your story.

    I admit to cutting wads of dialogue from the first draft of my novel. I originally wrote entire dialogue exchanges as I envisioned them happening, so there was a lot of it. During the edits I went through and pared dialogue down to just the essentials. I tried to retain only the speeches that actually moved the story along, and tried to edit out the ones that were there just for 'flavour.' I think it helped my story immensely. Dialogue is an instance where less truly is more—at least most of the time.
     
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2015
  14. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    I remember reading The Time Traveller's Wife, which I strongly disliked. Part of the reason was the long stretches of largely irrelevant, and slightly pompous dialogue, which made me hate the main characters. But this wasn't the major reason, the major reason was the pointless descriptions of trivial nothing inserted between lines of dialogue. Things like he said before cutting off a tender slice of steak and allowing the buttery succulence to melt upon his palate. Always some overly flowery description of bollox all. She said and dabbed at the corners of her mouth with her napkin before folding it lengthways and resting it over her knee. I couldn't give a shit what she is doing with her fucking napkin.

    This to me was an example of how not to write dialogue.
     
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  15. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'd ask myself what the dialogue scene's supposed to serve, and depending on that, one line of speech could be enough to carry the entire scene, or you might need a full 2 pages of it. I don't think a dialogue scene should really ever go on for longer than 2 pages, pregerably shorter - and long exchanges that last that long should generally be snappy. Eg. none of the speakers should have paragraphs of speech, but more like one liners, two lines, couple of words, that sorta thing.

    Long exchanges should serve a definite purpose, not just to show the daily comings and goings of the characters. I like to use it for character development - if I want to show a certain relationship, deal with a character's past trauma or grudge etc, or emphasise the situation with character emotions that are actually crucial to show for the scene. Such exchanges would be longer, but not always would they be necessarily continuous. But that I mean it is one scene where the dialogue is the only "event", but I'll likely interjet plenty of character observations and internal thoughts/emotions in between. These things should all be related to the topic of the conversation the characters are having, so definitely not the precise way someone's folding her napkin, as per @Chinspinner's example, unless of course I wanted to show how pedantic a character is and she's supposed to annoy people lol. But I'd choose things that might show the character's unspoken reaction to things.

    In scenes where a lot of detail is needed, I don't think dialogue is really a good option for it. Better to have more narration and then really throw in 1-2 lines of speech that really drives the point home.

    You just have to be selective really. Think of it this way - if you were eavesdropping on someone's conversation, would you really pay attention to everything? Not really, cus actually, 99% of what someone else's conversation consists of is downright dull. And when you go back to your friends to relay the conversation, do you tell them everything, word for word? No. You sum up the setting, basic details they need to get the idea, and then you repeat 2-3 lines of actual speech that really sums up why you thought this conversation was worth sharing/gossiping about.

    So here's how you should NOT write dialogue:

    A: How're you today?
    B: Oh fine. It's raining again.
    A: Yeah, it's been going on all week. What's the point of the weather forecast when it's always wrong? They said there was supposed to be sunshine since last Saturday!
    B: I hope this doesn't drag on. We're hoping to take the kids out for a picnic this weekend.
    A: Huh. Good luck with that. What will you do if the weather sucks?
    B: Guess we'll take the kids to the ice cream parlour.
    A: How about an indoor picnic?
    B: That sounds like an idea! Dress up and put a movie on or something.
    A: Speaking of movie, have you seen the latest Batman film?
    B: Oh don't even talk about Batman. I went to see it with Sarah and her boyfriend - you know Sarah Haylin? We came out of the cinema and her boyfriend was acting all weird.
    A: Gosh, why?
    B: He was just fidgetting and everything, and wehn Sarah offered to buy everyone waffles, the guy just snapped. Started yelling at her about always spending money, how once she gets home he just knew she'd ask to borrow from him 'cause she's spent it on her day out just now. I had to excuse myself to the bathroom! When I finally came out, the poor girl was crying her eyes out and her boyfriend nowhere to be seen. The guy just dumped the girl after basically screaming at her in public.
    A: Oh gosh, that sounds terrible. But then again, Sarah's a big spender, isn't she?
    B: She should marry a bank, but still, no girl deserves to be treated like that.​

    I got bored writing that myself lol. (also a reason why I can't stand most chick lit - that genre's filled with mundane detail like that in both dialogue and narration) I actually smiled when I wrote the line "I hope it doesn't drag on" because I could already feel the dialogue dragging by the time I reached that line.

    Now imagine if I'd just written:

    Steph couldn't take it anymore. She had to share the story with someone. Her relief was near palpable when she saw Mary waving at her across the empty school yard amongst a row of other waiting parents.
    Steph rushed over, not even bothering with a greeting. "I've got to tell you something."
    Mary quirked her brow. "What's it?"
    "You know Sarah Haylin?"
    "Sure. She's Tony's mother."
    "Well, she just got dumped."
    "What?"
    "Yelled at too - right there in front of everybody at the cinema. I couldn't watch. It was awful."
    "But... how's she gonna support her kid now? Isn't she still jobless?"
    "Well, that's part of the problem. See. The guy was fed up with her spending all his money."
    Mary let out a whistle between her teeth. "Well, that does make sense."
    "Yeah, but no one deserves that. I could hear him shout at her all the way in the bathroom."​

    It's still about mundane chick lit stuff lol - but personally I think the second round was a lot more fun to write, and more fun to read too. Get to the juicy details, make your lines work with the character rather than just relaying info like a textbook. The second one was far shorter, too, while relaying everything I needed it to. Somehow I also feel like the second one was actually more detailed, despite using fewer words. I feel the scene is much clearer and the characters more concrete, with much more personality.

    I didn't include a lot of other detail beside the dialogue mostly because it simply wasn't needed. I don't think you should feel pressure to add unnecessary fillers - but think of what actions would show character emotion best. I added the whistle between the teeth because that's quite telling of Mary's thoughts and reaction that's not already relayed in the line she chose to speak out loud.

    In short, I think you probably just need to think harder about the purpose of your dialogue scenes, and how to sum them up better.
     
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2015
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  16. Bryan Romer
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    If you are writing mostly dialogue, I would focus on adding body language. Movements and gestures should not be in there just to break the monotony of speech. They should have a significance of their own. The raising of an eyebrow, the tilt of the head, the leaning forward of the body, the crossing of the arms. Each can change the meaning of a sentence or add emphasis.

    "Don't," she said, her knuckles whitening as she clenched her fists.
     
  17. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Your first example with the steak is silly, isn't it? ...he said before cutting off a tender slice of steak and allowing the buttery succulence to melt upon his palate. It's as if he's a MasterChef judge, which—unless your character IS a Masterchef judge, overwhelmed by the texture and taste of his steak and totally forgetting his dinner companion—should not be there. The writer has focused attention on the steak, not the person chewing it. It's irritating, and serves to yank you right out of the story.

    However, your second example with the napkin ...that one could be useful.

    She said, and dabbed at the corners of her mouth with her napkin before folding it lengthways and resting it over her knee. This attribution has nothing to do with the napkin, but everything to do with how she handles it. This description conjures up a strong visual image (dabbed ...a great choice of verb!) and probably works well to develop her character. Here is a woman who is fastidious, probably the sort who would not have a hair out of place either, and would detest 'mess' of any kind. Or, since this line is taken out of context, the opposite might be true. Maybe she's normally a slob, but she's out with a guy she fancies and she's being meticulous about how she eats in order to impress him? Or she's stalling for time during an uncomfortable conversation...?

    See what I mean? This is the kind of detail that can really make a significant contribution to a section of dialogue.

    The fact that you brought this up, however, makes me think that The Time Traveler's Wife, which I have not read, may have overdone this sort of thing. Or—like the steak bit—the detail was irrelevant to the story and disconnected with any character development. If this happens after nearly every line of dialogue, it will certainly get old fast, as you point out. Anything that is done too often becomes irritating, doesn't it?
     
    Last edited: Feb 28, 2015
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  18. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Study comic book dialogue. It is ruthlessly winnowed down to the bare minimum for the reader to get the gist of what the characters are communicating to each other. The same can be said about Hemingway's style.

    Dialogue does not need to be a complete transcript of a conversation. As a reader, I am content with dialogue that consists of an important sentence here and there, glued together by summary of dialogue and narration of actions that lead up to said sentences. I am not alone.

    Not a perfect formula for adding excitement to dialogue, but it does give the author freedom to avoid things that might weigh the dialogue down unnecessarily.
     
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  19. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    It's good to study these things—comic books and Hemingway (if you must! :meh:)—to develop the knack of creating succinct but pithy dialogue. However, if you're reading a comic book, you have visuals to help you along. A novelist or short-story writer doesn't.

    The comic book can show a character with a red face and bulging eyes screaming BOO (in a huge comic-book font) at a scared wee girl. However, if a character just says 'Boo' in a novel, it's not going to have the same effect on the reader, is it? It's the novelist's job to provide not only the dialogue, but the visuals and sound effects as well.

    Some writers spend less time doing this than others. And some writers spend less time doing this than they should. If all you've got is a string of comic-book-styled dialogue exchanges and nothing else? Talking Heads....
     
    Last edited: Feb 27, 2015
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  20. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    I get you and I agree. But in this circumstance (and I made these examples up, but they are a pretty accurate representation) it really was the author just clawing around for some filler text between dialogue.

    But the napkin example could be quite revealing about the character if handled correctly.
     
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  21. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it's important to give the reader a reason to really care what's being said. Which should seem obvious, but in most of the examples of "bad" dialogue I'm reading about, that's what's missing. I don't care about the dialogue.

    If your dialogue is telling me important things that I care about, I don't care how long it is or what else the characters are doing at the same time. If your dialogue isn't telling me important things that I care about, it doesn't matter where the characters are, what they're doing with their various body parts, or how much subtext there is. I still won't be interested.

    I really think it comes down to content. Don't use dialogue as an excuse to infodump, and make sure you're conveying something important to the story/character/whatever else you expect readers to care about.
     
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  22. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sorry everyone how inactive I have been this past week and a half. Work got intense and I got sick. I feel bad for asking help and then just being gone. I have read every post. You all have nice suggestions.

    I have noticed I might be making this problem often. So I plan to use chicken's advice and post an example in a workshop. Better to make sure I am making a mistake before I try and fix it.

    Thank you all again.

    Couldn't that be unneeded filler though?
     
  23. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Am I getting the notion here that some folks think : Dialogue=Good, Narrative and Description=Bad?

    I hope not. It's perfectly possible to write good dialogue, good narrative and good description. When done well, this makes a rich story for the reader to enjoy. It's also possible to write bad dialogue, bad narrative and bad description. We've all seen this as well.

    It's important not to become fixated on eliminating narrative, description or dialogue, but rather to learn how to use them well. Sometimes your story needs to slow down. Dialogue tends to speed a story up. Pacing is the key, and your reader sometimes needs a bit of a rest, and also needs something to focus on besides what the characters are saying to one another.

    Think of your life. Chances are the vast majority of time you spend in your life (excluding sleeping) is NOT talking. You do stuff. Watch stuff. Make stuff. Make stuff happen. Feel stuff. Write stuff. Read stuff. Go places. See things. Think about things. Walk, run, drive....

    So why create a story where nothing ever happens but conversation?
     
  24. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    But I have also had moments where I spent hours straight talking to people with nothing in between . The issue I have that was ; a moments where a group was talking and they were reaching a conclusion in their dialogue and by the end of it I had realized that I had a long segment with nothing but dialogue there . I was wondering if that's a problem or if good dialogue reaching a conclusion can stand well on its own ? It seems that breaking up the dialogue with with things late twitching or tapping or looking the other way would be more filler or unneeded . What do you think?
     
  25. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would try to place my dialogue in an interesting scene and have some pertinent action interspersing it. I wouldn't have filler between lines of dialogue.
     

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