[Tipster] Why Dialogue Is So Strategic

tipster post Dec 06, 2021

In this edition of Tipster, we consider strategic dialogue. 

Dialogue is essential to writing an engaging story, whether fiction or nonfiction.

In her book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott makes the point that, in general, dialogue is your take on how a character speaks.

Obviously, it should be as true to how the person speaks as possible. The tone, the type of words, the inflection, the emotion - it's hard to capture that in words. But that's the job of a writer.

You start to understand the character of a person when you "hear" him or her speak through dialogue as you read.

What Doesn't Work as Dialogue. 

Most of us don't speak in long complete sentences.

When dialogue reads like a long sentence in a boring essay, it comes across as stilted, unreal, inauthentic.

So, for example, when you're trying to invent or recreate dialogue for a person whom you interviewed recently for your article, avoid the trap of longer complete sentences.

For example:

  "Why should it matter to you?" I said.

  "It matters because I don't trust that you will do what you say you're going to do," my brother said.

The above sentence seems flat. Too long. Too formal. Would my brother speak like that?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Here's a slightly better version, a bit closer to how he might talk in a heated conversation:

 "I don't get why it matters to you," I said.

 "I don't trust you. I've never trusted you."

Maybe here's even a slightly better approach:

 "It shouldn't matter to you, " I said.

  "You're unreliable. I'm so done with you."

Natural Speech Patterns. 

The point is to write dialogue as people actually speak in the real world. At least as much as possible.

When you're writing nonfiction, you're attempting to recreate reality.

Some times you have the actual words from a transcribed interview, other times you have to recreate the reality from memory.

Start to observe the back and forth as folks "hold a conversation."

Visit your local Starbucks and listen in on the couple arguing a few feet away.

You can learn to write great dialogue! It's a skill that is honed over time.