Speaking out on doing dialogue better

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As I organized the library for The Writer’s Workshop, I found resources I’d forgotten I had. I recently signed up to be an exhibitor at this summer’s Agents & Editor’s conference here in Austin, so I gathered my notes from the 2004 conference. Greg Garrett gave a craft session on dialogue. The author of Cycling, the fine-crafted novel about life and love in Waco, Texas, Garrett had lots of good notes on how to write good dialogue.

He believes in its power. “If you write really bad dialogue,” he said, “it doesn’t matter what else you do well.” He made reference immediately to scene and summary (see Tuesday’s entry), saying great dialogue has to be written out — it can’t be summarized. Summary gets you from scene to scene, he said, and it doesn’t have to be written. Dialogue is the essential part of your story.

Great dialogue has subtexts and underlying tensions. There’s more going on than the obvious. It doesn’t put all of its cards on the table, and it saves the best for last.

Great dialogue builds to a point. There’s the exchange, then growing tension.

Great dialogue sounds like real people talking, sure — but it isn’t. It’s more interesting, dramatically, but with the flavor of authenticity.

In tiny bits and pieces, dialogue can do some of the work of exposition. But it does not carry more than its own weight in that regard, if it’s good. Don’t make your characters explain the plot to one another in dialogue.

Finally, great dialogue keeps you in the scene, but it does this by illustrating action and reaction. Dialogue is only part of a good scene. Observations and reactions also keep readers in the scene. Dialogue and music have a similarity, Garrett said, and here I can agree from my experience acting — from low melodrama to Shakespeare, you have to find the meter in the spoken words of your characters. Try having someone else read your dialogue out loud. Write down the lines you overhear that stand out, are memorable.

He said that Cormac McCarthy (All the Pretty Horses) and Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) practice the craft with great elegance and economy. Garrett does a good job of it himself.

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