Show Don’t Tell Holds for Dialog as Well

Good dialog illuminates character, advances the plot, and holds readers’ interest.drawing people talking

Dialog and narration will accomplish those missions better through telling, not showing. I read a novel recently that reminded me how easy it is to slip into telling instead of showing in dialog. Each time the characters met up, one would chat away for two or three paragraphs about what she’d discovered as an amateur sleuth. Then her boyfriend the cop (a convenient device that works for many experienced writers) would regale her with what the coroner discovered and why it wasn’t safe for her to investigate on her own.

Just because you get your characters talking doesn’t mean you can’t slip into that good old explanation mode.

“Carla,” Nell said in an exasperated tone, as soon as her roommate had poured her first cup of coffee, “You look like something the cat dragged in. It’s so exasperating to me that you spend half the night drinking with your friends, coming in and making all that noise, without a thought for those of us who are trying to sleep, especially when you know I have that important interview this morning.”

Dialog combined with appropriate action can show us the character’s emotion far better than she can tell us.

Nell pulled the milk and eggs out, slammed the refrigerator door and stomped to the cupboard.
Carla slumped in her chair.
“Eggs?” Nell asked. “Bacon?”
Carla shook her head.
“I suppose not. Just coffee and toast, your usual. Or is it hair of the dog today? Some of us need our strength for things like, say, job interviews.” She broke three eggs into a bowl and whisked them. “Not salsa dancing into the wee hours.”

Sometimes you do need to use telling, and that’s perfectly fine. It’s useful when you need to provide information that isn’t crucial to your plot. It helps speed the pace, set the scene, get your characters where you want them, provide necessary information.

Just be sure when you need to convey something important to the plot or to your character development, that you show, don’t tell.

Want a book about dialog? You could try Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella, or any of dozens on the subject.

Some people think writing dialog is easy-peasy, others find it a chore. How about you?

2 thoughts on “Show Don’t Tell Holds for Dialog as Well”

  1. Excellent reminders about dialog! I’d add, to always cut nonessential dialog, such as “Good morning” unless it adds as in, “Good morning hungover sunshine.”

    I used to find writing dialog easier than now, because now, every line has to do double or triple duty, as you say!

  2. My genre favorites are memoir and personal essay. In memoir I find dialogue is a good device to show what a character is like. Each character has her own ‘voice’. This can take the form of favorite slang, formal or informal speech patterns, long sentences, fragments. I’ve made character lists for their dialogue traits along with physical and emotional characteristics.
    My niece is almost addicted to “easy-peasy” and I laughed when I saw it in your blog.

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