Reflections on Writing Dialogue by Emily Babbitt

As I’ve transitioned from news writing to fiction writing over the past few years, I’ve learned that writing dialogue is much different than recording quotes.

I can’t tell you how many hours I spent transcribing interviews during my undergraduate degree in journalism. Every story I wrote for the school newspaper required at least two interviews, and despite my best efforts, most interviews were at least 20 minutes long — which meant 40 minutes or more of transcribing audio files at 50 percent speed.

When writing news, it’s important to make sure you copy quotes word-for-word, even if the speaker is rambling or jumbling their words or straying off topic. Don’t get me wrong — newspaper reporters do clean up quotes a little bit to remove filler words: the “ums” and “uhs” that frequent human speech. However, the quotes in news articles are just that — plain old human speech.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that writing dialogue in fiction isn’t just that. Rather, it is its own language with a specific purpose.

During our virtual Writing Fiction Master Class on Sept. 19 with author Joyce Moyer Hostetter, I learned that dialogue in fiction serves a few purposes, including:

  • Increasing tension (the primary purpose)
  • Showing interaction
  • Moving the story forward
  • Providing information

Her quick lesson on writing dialogue sparked my interest, and I continued to research this topic to see how dialogue differs from quotations — those words that I slaved over for years and shaped the way I write everything, not just news articles.

Prior to the master class, my dialogue was stiff and formal, much like my communication with coworkers or strangers. I wrote dialogue the way I would speak to a coworker or a university employee would answer my questions about an upcoming event — polite and scripted and often marked by those filler words we discussed earlier.

Dialogue is, as Sol Stein argues, “a highly crafted language with a grammar of its own. In dialogue, logic goes out the window, followed by grammar.”

Dialogue is much more casual than writing for an English class or writing quotes for a news article.

Forget what you learned in English class, or, in my case, journalism class. When writing dialogue, you don’t need to avoid contractions or fragments. Dialogue can be short and snappy and incomplete. Characters can talk over each other or lose their train of thought.

Here are a few other thoughts on dialogue I gleaned from Sol Stein:

  • “Dialogue is at its best when it is confrontational and adversarial.”
  • “The aim of dialogue is to create an emotional effect in the reader.”
  • “Dialogue sounds artificial when it is coherent and logical. You want thoughts that are loose, words that tumble out.”
  • “In life, out-of-control conversation is annoying. In books, readers love nonsequiturs and dialogue that jumps around illogically and yet seems to follow.”

With a better understanding of the purpose of dialogue and how to write it, I’m looking forward to implementing some of these tips into my own fiction writing. I’ve been working on a young adult story that focuses on a young woman struggling to conform to her formal, ideological community. While I’ve toyed around with some dialogue for the story, it always felt a little flat to me, and now I know why.

Though the story world is formal and almost stiff — with lots of rules and customs that need to be followed — human speech is rarely grammatically correct, even among scholars and professionals. Like Stein said, “dialogue sounds artificial when it is coherent and logical.” I need to loosen up and allow my dialogue to just tumble out.

Do you struggle with writing dialogue? What challenges do you face? I’d love to hear about how you plan to improve your dialogue writing in the comments section.

Quotes from Sol Stein are from the book “How to Grow a Novel.”

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