1. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    less dialog

    Discussion in 'Dialogue Development' started by deadrats, Nov 10, 2022.

    The more experienced of a writer I become, the less dialog I find myself using. I'm wondering if this is true for any of you. Early on as a writer, I found myself writing pages of dialog at times. It seemed like an easier way for a story to unfold. And I was told I was good at dialog in one of my first creative writing courses so I think I sort of ran with it.

    But now I've sort of learned how to better play with prose. And I think dialog can have a more profound effect when used sparingly. For me, I like this change in my work. My writing and my stories seems more mature and polished under this approach.

    What is your approach to using dialog and how much do you rely on dialog? Have you changed your approach like I have or have you found something that works for you and you're sticking with it? What about as a reader? I'm not a fan of long bouts of dialog in stories. Of course, some is good, but I don't like it when it's overdone or goes on for too long. What are your thoughts on this?
     
  2. AlyceOfLegend

    AlyceOfLegend Active Member

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    I have the opposite thing happening because I wasn't that good at dialogue early on. I do like a balance, though. Too much of either and I lose the sense of the story.
     
  3. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    I guess I sort of disagree with you. I don't see it as a balance and I don't think you want it to be. I guess what I'm saying is I've found less dialog to be more effective.
     
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2022
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  4. AlyceOfLegend

    AlyceOfLegend Active Member

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    For your stories, less is good. For mine more dialogue was needed. It's working better for my characters and the story arcs.

    When I say balance, I don't mean equal parts narrative and dialogue. I mean for each scene I need to weigh the importance of dialogue to further push the story along. Some need more than others.
     
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  5. w. bogart

    w. bogart Member

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    Some interesting points here. But this debate seems to be, do I want or jog to the store? Either way you will get there, it is really about choosing the method thar works best for you, and you needs.
     
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  6. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    Robert McKee's advice is to first write scenes with no dialogue, and only then add in as little as you can get away with.

    The reason is because it's all too common for lazy writers do things through dialogue that should be done in scene. A corollary is that in early silent movies a director had two ways to explain things—either through title cards (where the words show up on screen while people are flapping their mouths), or by actually cutting to for instance the stage coach being robbed. Obviously using title cards is a lot easier, but the lazy directors would do everything that way and end up with what's known as 'talking head' movies. At their worst it's nothing but people standing there, arms hanging by their sides, moving their mouths and words appearing onscreen. Dull stuff. Another way they would cheat is to show a closeup of a newspaper front page with a headline: "Stage coach robbed by Dalton Gang!"

    The powerful movies in those days took a lot of work, but were far more engaging for viewers. It's a lot easier for us. We don't have to go out into the desert and film a stage coach robbery, we just sit in our comfortable chairs and write.

    And if you do have to do something through dialogue it can take place during some kind of action, rather than the characters just sitting or standing and talking to each other. Spielberg was big on this in his early movies. He was also good for doing things through scene. One of my favorites is the one in Close Encounters where they had figured out that the coded message being received was a set of coordinates, but they didn't know where exactly those numbers indicated. He could have just had somebody point to a spot on a map and say "Devil's Tower, in Wyoming." Instead he created a tense scene of mounting excitement where a group of men run into somebody's office and knock a huge globe off its pedestal (somebody says "Hey, that thing cost a fortune!") and roll it down the corridor into the big common room where the whole group was waiting. Then cut to closeup of one trembling finger tracing a line up along a lattitude line and another horizontally across a longitude line (hope I got those right) until they meet. A moment of stunned silence in the room, then a new bout of excited talking, with people talking over each other, rare in mainstream movies, all now planning how to get somebody there fast. One guy who's on a telephone says "Get me geodetic maps of Wyoming, I want it down the the square foot. The area around Devil's Tower."

    He was a master of using camera movement and the mass movement of people or objects across the screen to create excitement. Close Encounters has many such scenes. We can do something like that in writing, but not if you take the easy way out and just have somebody say "I know where that is—it's Devil's Tower in Wyoming".

    In fact it's an aspect of showing and telling. Literally doing things through dialogue (can be) telling.

    Another thing McKee stresses is that dialogue should be action. People should be doing things to each other—attacking, blocking, counter-attacking. Manipulating, defending, threatening. Not just getting across exposition in the easiest way possible.
     
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2022
  7. Seven Crowns

    Seven Crowns Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I definitely use less, especially in short stories. I like the effect of it. When I do come into dialog, I try to make it count double. Zero filler, and less than that if I can pull it off. I'd rather leave words out of dialog than say any extra. That way what's there has extra impact.

    Dialog is how the character presents themselves to the world, and after solid narration, it gives the MC a chance to lie, or maybe a chance to prove that they were lying earlier. Or maybe it shows you that whatever was in narration is even worse than you would have imagined, that what you had read earlier was, against all good taste, understated.

    For longer works I do feel dialog is more important. I was just reading a title earlier, Humboldt's Gift, and let me tell you, the dialog is the only thing that makes it finishable, especially when the gangster, Cantabile, shows up. That's your breather. HG is the toughest Pulitzer I've ever read. The narration is dense. It needs to be broken up with a different voice, and that's what the gangster does. Saul Bellow (the author) is some sort of genius. It's almost inconceivable how deep his knowledge went on every subject. Kind of reminded me of a Dennis Miller routine where he goes on and on about historical pop-references that you only kind of sort of remember (or don't remember at all), and then he mentions "spam" and you can finally laugh, because you know what spam is, at least. That's what the gangster dialog in Humboldt's Gift is like, delicious spam.

    "It tastes like Good Hormel!" There's more of a Millerish reference. You've got to remember the commercial . . .

    My mind wanders, sorry. Anyway, I like to minimize dialog to maximize impact and also so that I'm not wasting time on action beats and dialog tags when I'm already short of words (wordcount limits). I do think a lot of writers overdo it with dialog, probably because they've watched too much TV/movies and aren't letting the written word have its full range of motion. That's why their descriptions wind up being overly visual too. You have 5 basic senses plus many others. Then you have the internal senses if you want to think of them as senses. I'm wandering again.

    Anyway, I vote for less is more.
     
    Last edited: Nov 13, 2022
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  8. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    I don't think it's a debate. Sure some stories are dialog heavy and it works, but I think there is something to be learned from using less dialog. As a experiment, anyway, it's something writers might want to try just to see how it goes. As @Xoic mentions a writer who only plugged in dialog after writing the scene without it, I think it's a challenge, but it does call for a writer to really zone in on what they are saying in the story. Dialog, not always, can be the easy way out. I know that was true for me in the past.

    I think this is one of those things that until you try it you won't really understand it or know if it will work for you. There was a time when I would have thought some4one was crazy if they told me to use less dialog. But this is one of those tricks that almost instantly seemed to elevate my writing. It's sort of weird how that happened.
     
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  9. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    This is interesting. What has your experience been writing with less dialog or using it sparingly? Have you tried writing a scene or something without dialog and then adding it in after the fact? The last piece I wrote has zero dialog in it. I do think it's one of my more intense pieces. I'm actually not sure if I should bother with any dialog. I don't think it's lacking anything without it, but I'm still thinking this through a little more.
     
  10. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    It's funny that dialog can have more of an impact when you really think about where to use it rather than using it a lot. I didn't always understand that could be the case. Is this something you've always pretty much known? I do like what you said about a character lying. I can see how that can carry a lot of punch under this approach.

    I'm not sure if I'm really taking a different approach with this between my novel and short stories. My novel is still in draft form so I guess this is something to consider. I used to get really caught up in writing dialog, but I found that when it goes on for too long like in a conversation between characters, it can actually get pretty boring. I'm not saying it hasn't worked or can't work. I guess I'm just learning that dialog is a more complex tool in writing than I realized.
     
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  11. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    I haven't really tried it. In a way my problem is the opposite though, or used to be. I come from a background of animation and I studied a lot of silent movies and movies that work visually, as opposed to 'talking head' movies. That's because in animation you want to do things through action and mise-en-scene (what's visible in the frame) rather than a lot of talking. At least that was my chosen route.

    Plus I love very visual movies, so I used to write very visually. I think it's why I leaned so hard into showing over telling.

    I got some comments on my workshop story, especially in the beginning, that it was very visual, some said too visual. I undersand that better now—visuals are powerful in a visual medium like movies, but in writing it's kind of artificial. There's no real visual elements there, it's all words, so different things work better. Sorry, going OT.

    But all that said, I would sometime do very dialogue-heavy scenes. I wasn't thinking about it. That might have been before I ran across the less-dialogue recommendations, I don't remember. But now I realize I sometimes try to do too much with it.

    It's weird how it seems we can learn things like this and spout them off here on the board to other people, while not always doing it that way ourselves. I guess it takes time to sink in and become actual habit.
     
  12. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    I do recommend giving it a try. This did have a pretty6 instant impact on my writing. If you try it, please share how it goes for you. It's an interesting experiment if nothing else.
     
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  13. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    Thanks, I definitely will.
     
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  14. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    I'm not sure how writing can be too visual. Do you mean your descriptions were overpowering the story? Or is it a case of purple prose? I think puple prose can come of artificial, but I'm not really sure what you mean otherwise.

    I don't think spouting off writing advice we haven't really tried ourselves is a good thing. It's like saying you should try this, but I'm not going to. IDK. I tend to actually put into practice things that could help my writing. But I don't read a lot of how-to-write books are articles.

    Also, just wondering about why you write some heavy dialog scenes. I think sometimes those can work, but more often than not they don't work as well as we think. That's just been my experience. You do know all dialog is telling, right?
     
  15. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    I'm genuinely curious what you think the benefit of heavy dialog is for your stories? How does it work better for your characters and the story itself? I have read stories that use a lot of dialog, but I think those can be harder to pull off than they seem. IDK, maybe you've nailed it with this technique. I would love to hear more about how this is working for you.
     
  16. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    Well, when I do it I'll generally say "Robert McKee recommends—", or "K M Weiland's advice is—". If I'm speaking from experience I'll usually say so. I don't think it's a bad idea to introduce ideas into a conversation, even if you've only read about them.
    Basically I was just writing. When I got here and started on my workshop story, it had been a good decade since I wrote anything. I wanted to blow off the rust and start to learn some things. All my writing up to that point had been strictly intuitive, aside from some reading I did into screenwriting when I was studying animation. In between each new section of the story I did more reading (a lot of books, articles, and videos, as well as threads in here). My head was bursting with advice, far too much to try it all. You can't really try out more than a few things in a section of writing. And like I said, I'm not sure at that point if I had encountered advice about less dialogue being better.

    What I've been trying out recently is writing in 1st person in character voice, so basically it's like the character is telling your their story directly, or wrote it down in their own words, in their own dialect. Like Huckleberry Finn or True Grit. Dialogue can help get that across (though I wasn't doing it this way when I wrote the dialogue-heavy stuff, at that time I was trying out 3rd person).

    Probably the main reason I put in so much dialogue is because it's something my friend and I actually experienced. We were sitting in my back yard one night, right at the edge of the woods, when a bunch of animals we couldn't see ran up out of the woods and surrounded us, like they were stalking us. We sat there wondering what the hell they were (probably coyotes) and what they were doing for like 20 minutes before I went up to the house and got some weapons. When we checked around the perimiter where they had been, they were gone, like ghosts in absolute silence. I didn't include the full 20 minutes of dialogue in the scene, but I did want to get across that they just pinned us down for a while before we ventured out to see if they were still there. It was a really wild experience. The advice I got (that I agree with) is that even if it really happened, it needs to work as a story rather than as memories. There are different criteria for both.

    But yeah, really I was just at the beginning of my learning curve, after a lifetime of writing intuitively and gradually improving.
     
  17. w. bogart

    w. bogart Member

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    i did something similar in one of my projects. I approached it as the MC, sitting down writing his memoir. Then i hit a point where i needed to switch POV. And tried to use an "As told to me by" tag at the start of that chapter. But i didn't feel that worked.
     
  18. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    Yeah, once you lock in to a POV like that you need to really commit. It does place some solid restictions on what you can do. But I figure life gives us exactly the same restrictions—we never really know what's going on anywhere except where we are, aside from hearing about it later or the news or something.

    One trick I plan to use (haven't had to yet) is to say something like 'Many years later I would learn what he did that day... ', but you have to play it right or it won't work.
     
  19. w. bogart

    w. bogart Member

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    In my attempt I tried it with 3rd person limited. Thinking about it, I should probably redo it in 3rd person and stay out of the character's head completely.
     
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  20. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    This is all good stuff, but let's let @deadrats thread stay on topic. :agreed: Do you think less dialogue is better?
     
  21. w. bogart

    w. bogart Member

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    A story would be boring with out dialog. I think it is a balancing act, that each writer needs to find the best balance for then.
     
  22. Louanne Learning

    Louanne Learning Senior Member

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    Good dialogue should be brief. It shouldn't go on and on explaining things that are better told in the telling. That's not how people talk. When they talk, they talk, and you should try to make it as realistic as possible.
     
  23. Xoic

    Xoic Prognosticator of Arcana Ridiculosum Contributor

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    Nobody said anything about no dialogue, but minimal.

    There can definitely be stories with no dialogue that are excellent. Or some that are nothing but dialogue. But those would be short stories, and special cases. In general I do think it's good to learn to do without dialogue as much as possible, just to break our dependence on it.
     
  24. w. bogart

    w. bogart Member

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    I went to the extreme to make a point.
    How would you do a cop story without dialog? I can think of a couple stories that are almost exclusively dialog. Twelve angry men, for one.

    This question really what works for the story and the writer, for the amount of dialog. I couldn't do it myself. I use dialog for too many different things.
     
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  25. w. bogart

    w. bogart Member

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    You have never talked to my youngest daughter!! A conversation with her goes from A, with a side trip to Z, then up to M, and back to Y, before ending at B. Lol.
     

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