Let the Dialogue Do the Talking

Dialogue. It’s one way our characters use to communicate to one another. Sometimes it’s short and sweet, while other times it’s a lengthy rant. When written correctly, it reads smoothly, drawing readers into the moment, encouraging them to imagine the expression on the characters’ faces as they proclaim such things as, “I’m going to save the castle!” or “Pass me the dragon wand.”

When characters speak, we can—or should in most instances be able to—imagine how the dialogue was spoken. For example, “Run! The house is on fire.” I can see a character shouting this and encouraging others to get out of the burning building. In the context of the story, more would be revealed.

Sally took the milk from the fridge and set it on the counter. “What’s that smell?”

Peter shrugged. “Maybe it’s the new furnace.”

“Can you check?” She watched him leave the kitchen as she poured a glass of milk for Little Stevie. When she heard quick footsteps approach, she looked to where Peter had gone and watched him race into the room.

“Run! The house is on fire!”

In this instance, there is no need to add a dialogue tag but if one was added, it could be something like…

“Run! The house is on fire!” Peter swept his young son into his arms and followed his wife out the back door.

The dialogue is direct, and there is no need for further explanation. However, I occasionally see writers adding comments about dialogue that makes one or the other redundant.

For example, “Run! The house is on fire!” He shouted at his wife to get moving because the house was burning down.

Why this type of dialogue tag is unnecessary.

  • The exclamation mark indicated the voice was raised, so there’s no need to say the person shouted.
  • “The house is on fire!” indicated the house was burning down, so there’s no need to state the fact again.
  • “Run!” indicated she needed to move.

If you are worried about word count, searching for redundant text such as this can help reduce the number of words in a story.

I write by the philosophy of using only the words necessary to tell a story. I call trimming unnecessary text like this trimming the fat. This doesn’t mean sacrificing details or needed descriptions; it only means trimming words that don’t add anything to the story.

Another Example

Fred grew angry and called her names. “Becky, you make me mad. You are an illogical nincompoop and a bampot.”

We are told Fred gets angry and then he tells us he’s mad. We are told Fred called her names and then he calls her names.

A concise way of writing this without missing anything would be…

Fred grew angry. “Becky, you’re an illogical nincompoop and a bampot.”

Another Example

Cathy felt horrible for what she had said and apologized. “I’m sorry, Alfred. I didn’t know you were sick. I feel bad about saying what I did.”

The concise version would be…

Cathy felt horrible for what she had said. “I’m sorry, Alfred. I didn’t know you were sick.”

These two examples over simplify the point of stating things twice, but more than once I’ve seen it stated that a character was going to apologize and then said it in dialogue. In this instance, it is better for the character to say “I’m sorry” in dialogue, then for the narrator to say the character apologized. The spoken word is stronger and more direct.

Dialogue Provides More Details

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Often, stating something in dialogue provides more details and insight to the character. In the example above, where it is stated Fred called Becky names, it gives us no details and tells us little about Fred.

The dialogue tells us the exact names he called her and because of the names he chose, we see he is a proper, old-fashioned person who might know a Scottish word or two. A high-school teen in Canada might have used X-rated words. So let the dialogue do the talking and see where it takes you.

Word count is not the main reason to check your writing for things said twice. Clarity and stronger writing is.

Next Monday: In What Other Direction Might You Go?

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14 thoughts on “Let the Dialogue Do the Talking

  1. Brilliant post. I totally agree with your “trimming the fat” philosphy, when I get to editing, I’m gearing myself up to be brutal in my word slaying. It’s a brilliant point and including details in dialogue that would otherwise need to be exposition. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you, Amy. My beta readers have been instrumental in helping me learn how to trim the fat. One of the reasons I love the editing side of writing is because I get to brutally slay unnecessary words. I’m always impressed with the number of words I can shave off a piece of writing.

  2. All good tips Diane. I believe there is an expression called “counter-synching” for the “Fred got angry and called her names.” example. If memory serves its a writer’s aid website called turkeycity.

    I made a post about dialog tips a couple of years ago with an entirely different approach.

  3. This is excellent. I see SOOOO many self published stories where the dialogue and preferring or following sentences are extremely redundant partners. I like the mention of letting the dialogue give insight to who the character is

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