You’ve Got to Say Something


I’ve found that good dialogue tells you not only what people are saying or how they’re communicating but it tells you a great deal – by dialect and tone, content and circumstance – about the quality of the character. -E. O. Wilson

I’m going to start this off by sharing a few details about me. In the second grade I got in trouble for talking too much. Apparently I had a lot to say and shared it with my classmates. This did not make my teacher, Mrs. Sorrells, very happy and so my mother was alerted and my precious Barbie dolls were taken away from me as punishment. It nearly killed me…seriously it did. Then in the 6th grade when I was twelve, I got to talking on the phone. My friends and I would talk for hours and I’m sure my mother’s nerves were frayed because what could we possibly have to talk about at twelve years old? We didn’t work, I had no boyfriend. All we had was school and the few clubs and activities we participated in. Moving on…For my 15th birthday, I was given my own phone number. This is probably closely related to my previously shared item. My mom had probably had enough and yes, the boys were starting to call when I actually gave them my real number sooooo, I got my own phone and own number and I was in heaven. I talked so much that my mom had to periodically remove the phone from my room so that I could get some of those necessary 8-10 hours of sleep required for a healthy, intelligent teenager. I still can recall my phone number and it rhymed with a popular song that was out at the time so when I was giving out my number to the lucky gentleman hopeful-caller, I would give my number to the melody. Corny I know, but they liked it. So why am I sharing all of this? Because things have changed so much and my lack of verbal communication makes a certain aspect of writing a challenge for me.

I hate to talk now. Matter of fact, I am so quiet most days that my coworkers often come to my office to check up on me citing they were worried about me because I was so quiet. If my phone is not ringing, I am not talking unless absolutely necessary. This doesn’t always work though. More times than I care to, I have to give in to actually communicate with people and get my point across. And not only that, I have some pretty important people in my life relying on me to talk to them every day- my husband and children. Anyone with children knows that they can talk ALL day long and what kind of mother would I be if I didn’t throw in some “Oh, really” and “What did you think of that”? It’s not really that bad because I do in fact listen all of the time but speaking, not so much.

So this is a challenge, why? Because my characters have to talk. In fact, there is no story, in my opinion, without my characters engaging with one another. And the best way to engage in a story is with action and in dialogue. I think it’s because I’m so quiet my characters come to me in pictures that move rather than with them chattering away. I see them and sometimes, I hear them but mostly they are moving and acting out. But who wants to read a book with me detailing my characters’ movements from pages 1 through 250?

One of the goals in my writing and one of the things I most enjoy about reading a good book, is for the reader to picture the story being shared. To actually see it in living color like one would if they were watching a movie. And if I were to write a book like I was describing, without any dialogue, my reader would see my characters moving around, carrying on in silence. The producer of this movie of mine would have to create some sort of bubble that hovers over their heads to share what they might be thinking. How would you like that movie? I know I wouldn’t. What would be the point? And what would be the point of my book?

So I’ve been working on this challenge of mine and hopefully making some improvements in not only having my characters engage, but in making sure that whatever they have to say actually lends itself to making the story move and having some value outside of moving lips. Lord knows I moved my lips enough in my younger years and now I’d prefer to make each word uttered, count.

Has dialogue ever been a challenge for you? What are some ways that you overcame it?


10 thoughts on “You’ve Got to Say Something

  1. I once tried an exercise that required only dialogue. I did not use anything else, not even “he said” or description beyond what was in a character’s quote.

    My notebook pages looked something like this:
    Sarah – We should go now. It’s getting dark and I don’t like to drive in the dark.
    Tim – Sarah, you don’t have to worry. You know I will be there to protect you. I did it the last time.
    Sarah – But last time was almost too late. We could have lost Val.
    Tim – We didn’t. Are you going to trust me or not?
    Sarah – Calm down, Tim. You know I do. I always trusted you.
    Tim – I didn’t mean to lose my temper, Sarah. I’m sorry.

    Than I had to go back in and fill in the “dialogue” with punctuation and everything else that would make it a scene. It was an interesting exercise to try, but it in its own weird way, helped get me over my fear of dialogue. I also did not have any interruptions to deal with (punctuation, grammar, etc.) when trying to identify a character’s voice.

    • That is an awesome exercise, Tia and I can see that working for me. Those other pesky things like grammer, puncuation, etc. do get in the way and I get frustrated by it. I’m going to try that. Thanks for sharing and stopping by!

  2. Nice post!
    I’m one of those people who likes dialogue (writing and reading it). Unfortunately, as a writer, I’m guilty of sometimes having too much dialogue and have to be REALLY conscious of including narrative, internalization, description, etc. in my stories. I feel more connected to the characters if they are speaking (whether I’m writing or reading a story), and if a book starts with pages and pages of narrative, I often have to make myself read it…or sometimes find myself skimming (especially once I have the gist of what’s taking place). I think a good balance of dialog and narrative takes practice.

    • You are exactly right, Sharon. As hard as it is for me to muster conversation of my own, I realize it’s importance especially in writing a story and don’t want to stay in my characters’ heads for too long. But I don’t want to force it and would much rather get to be a natural at it. All I can do is continue to write and practice. I hope to get better, giving my readers the thing I enjoy so much in my favorite books. Thanks for sharing!

    • I agree and struggle with finding balance at times, too.

      As a reader, I love it when the action becomes part of the unspoken dialogue. I enjoy it when an author shows me a person’s reaction in the description and it’s so crystal clear that it feels like there is a conversation taking place. That adds to the balance.

  3. Cassondra Wynn says:

    Very nice post Aja. I find that I am at that stage in my life when I try to converse as little as possible. I too recall a time when I, like you talked nonstop, what was so important? At this point in time I cannot think of anything. It makes me wonder if as adolescents and young adults we feel the need to take up alot of time and space with the use of words. All I can say now is that, sometimes the less I say, the better I feel.

    • I agree with you Ma. And I know you remember the exploits I mentioned in this post. It may have been around that time, you decided that talking was overrated. At any rate, talking with the right person at the right time can be magical, therapeutic and necessary but filling the air up with the sound of your voice unless singing may just be a waste of space. Thanks for sharing!

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