Monday, 12 December 2011

Your Dialogue Is Showing

Whether you are a strong advocate of Show vs. Tell, or you find it an overused instruction that’s oft misused, one thing is for certain: dialogue is always considered showing.

There are some people who don’t really understand why this is so, to them dialogue often seems the very opposite of showing: people telling each other things.

The reason isn’t do with what is being said—the content of speech can be all telling and it would still be considered showing—but because you are enabling the reader to visualise what’s happening in the scene. Someone is talking.

That’s the point of showing, so the reader gets a clear picture of what’s going on. And when you are vague or generic or refer to something in approximate terms, that becomes more difficult.

The difference between:

Dave entered the room looking sad.
“Dave looks sad,” said Jane.

is that the focus is on Dave in the first version, and on the person speaking in the second.

However, just because we can see clearly that Jane is speaking, does not automatically make what she says interesting. Whenever you show something happening, that’s only one step towards making it worth reading about, and that’s just as true for dialogue as anything else.

So, whatever your attitude towards Show vs. Tell, as soon as you write dialogue you are in showing mode, and since that’s the case there are numerous things you can do to exploit that to the story’s advantage. Other than the emotion of the person speaking (which comes naturally to most writers) there are a host of other things dialogue enables you to convey to the reader.

If you open up any half-decent book at random and start reading a section of dialogue, you may not be able to tell exactly what they’re talking about, but you should always be able to tell what kind of relationship the people speaking have. Does one know more than the other? Does one have seniority? What is the level of urgency of their discussion? Casual conversation or vital revelation? What emotions are they inhabiting?

The thing you want to avoid is for things to slowly become apparent. By ‘things’ I don’t mean the content of their speech (the information in the dialogue can be teased out over the length of the conversation or even longer), I’m referring to the tone of the conversation (all the things I mentioned above).

Tone should be apparent from the outset.

This may be different to how speech sounds in real life. In a real recorded conversation there are times when you may not be able to tell who’s who or what’s what. But generally even in real life situations you can very rapidly get a rough idea of tone. And in a fictional conversation that should always be the case unless you intentionally want the effect of ambiguity. Otherwise it should be almost immediately obvious the kind of conversation is being had and the dynamic between the people having it.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I always find your writing tips useful!

Jennie Bennett said...

This is really good! I knew that dialogue was showing but I never thought about the mechanics until you just laid it all out like that. I'll be tweeting about it for sure :)

Dominic de Mattos said...

Something to ponder about! Thanks for sharing :)

Unknown said...

Nice advice :) Always wondered about dialogue being considered tell or show. Now I know!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

You would make one heck of a beta reader. I'd love to have you read a chapter and ask..."so in your opinion am I doing this with my dialogue or what do you think?"

Lydia Kang said...

Good point. Dialogue can be very tricky, and it can be forgotten that it's all show, no tell.

Anonymous said...

Letting the characters speak is one of the best way to solve the Show vs. Tell dilemma.

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

This is one of those things I knew but couldn't explain to someone so this was a great help.


Christine Rains said...

Great post. I always write too much dialogue in my first drafts. I've never seen it that way before, but it's true. Thank you!

Stop by my blog. I'm having a holiday book giveaway! :)

McKenzie McCann said...

I love the title of this post. I admit, I often find it backwards myself, but I think this is because I write in first person. If my character says something about them through dialogue, to me, that's not different than commenting on it. I can see how it applies more in third person, though.

mooderino said...


@JA-Many thanks for the tweet.

@Dominic-Hi! Nice to have you here.

@Susan-Glad to be of help.

@Michael-Would be happy to look over a chapter of yours if you think it might help.

mooderino said...

@Lydia-ultimately if you're writing good, interesting dialogue it probably doesn't matter if you're aware of it being show or not. It's when peopel find your dialogue confusing or meandering that I think understanding how it works can help.

@ralfast-it's one way, bu tyou still have to make what they say interesting

@giggles-happy to be of service.

@Christine-dialogue heavy stories can work very well, but there should be more revealed than just what's being said.

@McKenzie-it's not that the first person pov is saying it IN dialogue that makes a difference, it's that they're HAVING a dialogue. As soon as you have one person actually talk to another, you create a visual for the reader to work from (of two people speaking). You can just let that slide, or you can exploit it to its fullest. The pov makes no difference to this.

Julie Daines said...

Thanks for this great tip. Dialogue is very tricky to get right, so any advice on this is always welcome.

Christa Desir said...

Hmm...I buy this and I don't. Because oftentimes, it is what is going on between the lines in dialogue that shows us things. Yes, dialogue tells, but at the same time, what is often more important is what isn't being said. What information is being withheld. You are showing the dynamic between two people in good dialogue, but you are also revealing secrets in the best possible way (sometimes). Or does this just happen in the dark and twisted books I like to read?

K.C. Woolf said...

Great tips! :-)

I often feel reluctant to switch to dialogue when writing a scene, but then I push myself and once I get started, I love writing it because it's such a direct way to show what your characters are like.

Nancy Thompson said...

It took me a long time to learn this show vs tell through dialogue trick. But now I love to use it and I do all the time.

Now if we could only get rid of those pesky tags!

dolorah said...

Never thought of dialogue as showing. Makes some sense though. Still, I think the biggest pitfall of dialogue is the tendency to info dump.


mooderino said...

@Julie-yes, it's a tricky thing to get right. I find reading screenplays helps.

@Christa-that happens in all good dialogue, but that's another post entirely.

@KC-It's usually the second draft when I start paring back dialogue that the real person comes through for me.

@Nancy-I don't think tags are that big a problem. readers are so used to them they're almost invisible.

@Donna-well, when it comes to content of dialogue, that's whole different skill set.

Rusty Carl said...

As always, brilliant. After thinking about it for a minute I suppose it's one of those things you might get at an instinctual level, but until it's pointed out to you, you might not realize it.

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