Novel diagnosis–dialogue

Novel Diagnosis Series


How are you doing on the novel diagnosis? Finding that you have strengths you didn’t know? Finding areas on which to concentrate as you revise?

Novel Diagnosis-Dialogue

Dialogue, people talking, is a thing of the ear. There are mechanical things that often need revising, such as overuse of a participial phrase or an adverb in the speech tag. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m more concerned here with the naturalness of the dialogue and whether each character sounds unique.

Choose a section of your mss that has a fairly rapid exchange between at least two characters. Choose two friends, who are fairly good readers, but not particularly good at acting. Ask them to read the dialogue aloud, without adding lots of extra acting or voice changes. As they read, follow along on a paper copy and make checkmarks at the points where the readers stumble over the words. Circle places where something sounds unnatural, even if you’re not sure what it is. This is a time to listen for subtleties and not be content with Almost Right. Even small glitches in intonation can make a difference.

I know. I hate to have anyone read a draft, too. I sympathize. But it’s better to hear this one read aloud, so you’ll need help from a couple good friends.

Example of Great Dialogue

From The Westing Game (Puffin Modern Classics)The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, Chapter 9, with all speech tags and actions removed:

Grace: Oh, there you are. Come, dear, let’s go to your room and I’ll fix your hair.
Grace: Have you eaten?
Turtle: Mrs. Baumbach made me a dinner.
Grace: Your poor father’s probably starving; he’s been so busy on the phone, changing appointments and all.
Turtle: Daddy’s eating in the coffee shop; I just saw him there.
Grace: I think you should wear your party dress tonight; you look so pretty in pink.
Grace: You know, sweetheart, I’m rather hurt that you won’t tell your own mother about your clues.
Turtle: My lips are sealed.
Grace: Just one eensy-beensy clue?
Turtle: N-n-n.

The intonations are natural, not forced? We don’t need explicit transitions like repetitions or explanations; instead, the intonation provides the coherence needed. Grace, the mother, sounds overly cheerful as she tried to placate her daughter and worm the clues to the story’s mystery from her. Turtle sounds straightforward, until she realizes her mother’s intention and then resorts to monosyllables. Grace is characterized as a person who will flatter and be kind just to get what she wants. Turtle is characterized as a perceptive person who sees under the surface to her mother’s intent. Short sentences are fine. Though none are used in this selection, even sentence fragments can be used effectively in dialogue, if the intonation patterns are right.

Self-Diagnosis of Dialogue

Was the dialogue easy for your readers, or did they stumble often? Did that small inner voice tell you the rhythm was off–even slightly–anywhere? Beyond that, is there conflict built into the dialogue? Are there places where you launch into a lecture in order to convey information to the reader that the characters already know? Does the dialogue characterize? Do we learn any more about this person’s inner thinking or attitudes?

Rate Yourself on Characterization:

(see Introduction for explanation)
Unconsciously Incompetent
Consciously Incompetent
Consciously Competent
Unconsciously Competent

Suggestions: Repeat the evaluation for different sections and for dialogue from different characters.

Tomorrow: Voice Friday–Diagnosis of problems with voice.
Monday: I’ll be returning home from teaching a Novel Revision Retreat, so I’ll be back on Tuesday.

4 responses to “Novel diagnosis–dialogue”

  1. I’ve started using your postings to go thru another round of ‘visioning’ and editing my YA novel.

    Today’s trouble spot for me — is that writing group friends have critiqued the novel as a whole now and say [& I agree now that they’ve shown me :o) ] that the novel is dialogue-heavy —

    Today — I’m going to skim thru your posts and hopefully find an Rx for fixing/enhacing my novel – so it’s less dialog-heavy.

    So — thanks for your postings

    I think I tend to use dialogue for action – to move the story forward – but I don’t give the reader a sense of place — so they can’t see the same ‘movie’ I see — they basically just see people talking.

  2. Liz–It sounds like you know what to do–add in more setting, narration, actions, and inner thoughts.

    Any reason you can think of that your bent is toward dialogue? Do you skip over descriptions when you read?


  3. I think I’m more into dialogue – because
    ~ I love to watch movies and focus on the expressions and dialogue
    ~ I was afraid of writing – ‘the parts that people don’t read’= Elmore Leonard [?]– not because I was afraid they woldn’t read it but I didn’t want to do an information dump

    ~ I came from writing many PBs – before I decided to work on writing novels

    I’m going to try to spend more time reading YA & MG and less time watching movies for a while