How to Make Dialogue Move Faster

26 Nov
X story "Paper Tiger" appeared in Fiddleblack.

Liz Warren-Pederson’s story “Paper Tiger” appeared in Fiddleblack.

Most dialogue is written with paragraph breaks every time the speaker changes. The result is clarity, but the downside is that even a short back-and-forth can fill up half a page. What if you want capture the speed of the conversation?

One way to make dialogue move faster is to write it in chunks that appear in a single paragraph. If you’re writing in first-person, you may find that this technique sends a jolt of electricity into the voice of your narrator.

To see how this works, check out Liz Warren-Pederson’s story “Paper Tiger.” It’s so good that you’ll read the first sentence and think, “That was great,” and then the next sentence will be even better. It was published at Fiddleblack, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Almost everyone has told (or heard) this story: “She said, then I said, then he said, then this total stranger jumped in and said, so I told him…” It’s one of the most natural storytelling methods in the world. It probably predates written language. Yet, it can’t be captured within the constraints of normal formatting rules for dialogue (paragraph breaks for every speaker change).

Here is how Liz Warren-Pederson captures that style of speaking in the first sentence of her story:

“I want to invite the kids for Thanksgiving this year,” Cynthia said, and I said, “What the fuck? Where will I eat,” and she said, “I was hoping you’d eat with me, next to me,” and I said, “What a fucking misery,” and she said, “That’s not what you said last night,” and I said, “Well, we weren’t under a microscope then,” and she said, “You worry too much,” which was so off-base that I didn’t bother to respond.

Imagine if this dialogue had been written in the usual way:

“I want to invite the kids for Thanksgiving this year,” Cynthia said.

“What the fuck? Where will I eat?” I said.

“I was hoping you’d eat with me, next to me.”

“What a fucking misery,” I said.

“That’s not what you said last night.”

“Well, we weren’t under a microscope then.”

“You worry too much,” she said.

That was so off-base that I didn’t bother to respond.

It doesn’t work—at all. In fact, some of the best lines from the original sentence become some of the weakest in the new version. For instance, “What a fucking misery” becomes plodding because it’s just another comeback. And, “You worry too much,” is stripped of all tension, as is the last line. Some things, like punk rocks and tit-for-tats, require speed to operate. Slow them down, and even if all the notes are the same, they fall apart.

The great advantage to chunking this dialogue into one paragraph is that it captures the narrator’s voice. Banter can tell you a lot about both characters and real people:

  • What tone does each person take?
  • What language does each person use?
  • How do they respond to negative (or positive) comments?
  • Who gets the last word?

While these questions can be answered by traditionally-structured dialogue, the compression of Warren-Pederson’s first sentence shoves the characters into a tight space, where they bump into each other. Any time you push characters into each other—in a room, on a street, in a sentence—the tension rises, and you’re bound to learn something about them.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s speed up dialogue by chunking part of a conversation into a single sentence or paragraph. We’ll use the first sentence of Liz Warren-Pederson’s “Paper Tiger” as a model. You can write new dialogue or rewrite dialogue that you’ve already written for a story-in-progress.

  1. Choose a speaker. Even though the dialogue will be between two people, it will be filtered through the perspective of a speaker, the person telling the story of what was said and done.
  2. Choose an argument. We almost always tell a story about a conversation because there was tension present, and an argument is the easiest way to find that tension. The argument can be about something simple: to go out or stay in, what to eat, where to sit, how to spend money, or how to spend the holidays (as in this story). It can be about an ongoing dispute: I always take out the trash, you never load the dishwasher, it’s always up to me to get the car fixed.
  3. Let the speaker relate what was said. Think about the knee-jerk ways that we tend to respond when we feel attacked, slighted, or insulted. It’s those sort of comebacks that make for quick conversation. The characters don’t think, just speak. The result will look something like this: “”She said___, then I said___, then she said___, and that was ___, so I said___, and then ____.” As you come to the end of the sentence, think about how the argument ends. Who ends it? Does it end with a white flag or with a devastating assault?

This is Thanksgiving Week, and you may find that you have plenty of inspiration for this exercise after Thursday’s family dinner. If you find yourself telling any stories about who said what, write them down. You can always find a story for the dialogue later.

Good luck!

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4 Responses to “How to Make Dialogue Move Faster”

  1. Michael Tremberth November 27, 2013 at 8:02 p11 #

    In Paper Tiger Gerald reveals himself by his natural intervention in the telephone conversation; on the other hand, I didn’t until then have the faintest idea who was the second participant in the conversation, or whether Cynthia was talking to a man or a woman until a still ambiguous clue came in the form of a reference to velvet pants.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Wild Cards Pepper 2014 Independent Spirit Nominees, Arnon Milchan Confirms Secret Agent-Arms Dealer Past, Christian Bale’s Intense 2013 ‹ Studio System News - November 26, 2013

    […] Writers: Moving Dialogue Faster Than The Traditional Structure […]

  2. Formatting Dialogue | Scott C Lyerly - November 27, 2013

    […] Today’s post was all about dialogue, and how to make dialogue in your fiction move faster. As an example, he offers a story called Paper Tiger, by Liz Warren-Pederson. The way Warren-Pederson structures her dialogue is by having large blocks of it in a single paragraph. Take the following opening paragraph as an example: […]

  3. An Interview with Liz Warren-Pederson | Read to Write Stories - November 30, 2013

    […] (To read Warren-Pederson’s story “Paper Tiger” and an exercise on speeding up dialogue, click here.) […]

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