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Writing Advice from the Bookshelf: Sol Stein on Dialogue

Monday, August 10, 2015

Excerpt from How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them by Sol Stein

How to Grow a Novel

Dialogue is not a recording of speech, it is an invented language. As a refresher, let’s now remind ourselves of some basic guidelines for dialogue:

1. What counts in dialogue is not what is said but what is meant.

2. Whenever possible, dialogue should be adversarial. Think of dialogue as confrontations or interrogations. Remember, combat can be subtle.

3. The best dialogue contains responses that are indirect, oblique.

4. Dialogue is illogical. Non sequiturs are fine. So are incomplete sentences, and occasional faulty grammar suited to the character.

5. Dialogue, compared to actual speech, is terse. If a speech runs over three minutes, you may be speechifying. In accusatory confrontations, however, longer speeches can increase tension if the accusations build.

6. Tension can be increased by the use of misunderstandings, impatience, and especially by giving the characters in a scene different scripts.

7. Characters reveal themselves best in dialogue when they lose their cool and start blurting things out.

8. Think of the analogies with baseball and Ping-Pong as a way of understanding how dialogue differes from ordinary exchanges. In life, adversarial or heated exchanges tend to be repetitive; in dialogue, such exchanges build. In life, adversarial exchanges vent the speakers’ emotions; in dialogue, such exchanges are designed to move a story forward.

9. Avoid dialect. It makes readers see words on the page and interrupts their experience.

10. In dialogue every word counts. Be ruthless in eliminating excess verbiage. All talk is first draft. Dialogue is not talk.

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Work Cited:

Stein, Sol. How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them. New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 1999. 106–107. Print.

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