Notes on dialogue, Iowa-style

Table of Contents

One week ago today I enjoyed a long, fun day at the Summer Writing Festival. I read a short bit in an open mike session, reveled in an Elevenses lecture on metaphor. I also learned a good deal about dialogue that can improve my own novel, Viral Times.

Here’s just a few quick notes:

1. Dialogue should sound organic. Answers don’t necessarily follow questions, not directly, anyway. The answer can change the subject. The answer sometimes doesn’t reflect the question. This is one way to make dialogue surprising.

2. Dialogue doesn’t indicate emotion. It shows emotion. No “he exclaimed” or “he whimpered” to indicate. Search your imagination for dialogue whose words show exclamation or whimpering. Or use gestures that might match these feelings.

3. Dialogue should be motivated by both character and situation. Rent Pulp Fiction. Eaarly in the movie, you’ll notice how there’s very little of the explanation of the hit mens’ plans in their dialogue. Jules and Vincent (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) say:

“We should have shotguns for this kind of deal.”
“How many up there?”
“Three or four.”
“Counting our guy?”
“I’m not sure.”
“So there could be up to five guys in there.”
“It’s possible.”
“We should have fuckin’ shotguns.”

These fellows stand in front of a car trunk while they talk this over, loading .45s. Their plan must to be kill someone, several people. Nary a word is said about the plan directly.

In dialogue, the central thing is not named, so it can gain power during the scene.

Oh, and the shorter the dialogue per character (total number of sentences), the better. People don’t speak in long sentences (most people, anyway). Too many sentences and you have a speech. Leave that for the sequel, the narrative writing that follows the scene.

Share this article with a friend

Create an account to access this functionality.
Discover the advantages

Create an account to access this functionality.