Learning to Write Dialogue that Shows

I’m coming up for air from editing to say hi and get some advice. I am working through my debut novel’s substantive edits and am experiencing another growth struggle. I knew during the last draft that I didn’t feel as strongly about my main character as I should, and my editor’s notes about showing not telling are challenging me to make the reader care by slowing down in the high intensity moments. I’m pleased with the action growth, but the dialogue aspect is really challenging me. My editor wants me to include more internal monologue and internal emotion between significant statements, but I’m uncomfortable judging how much is too much. I picked Leviathan Wakes back up to see how that story did it, and I’m barely seeing any–or at least not as much on the internal monologue in italics. None of my writing guides address this in much detail. (I picked LW because of its Hugo nomination and because my book is also Science Fiction).
I also picked up The Bourne Identity again, progressing another hundred pages to break the mid point, and feel like I learned from a great resource. I wrote the above paragraph Saturday, and then today rewrote the scene where I had trouble, and am really pleased. The scene was a major moment between protagonist and antagonist and the dialogue had to be just right. So much of what is said is significant that the first time through I had a little too much IM, which slowed the dialogue down. Bourne really helped me see how to write fast paced dialogue while including just a touch of IM.
My editor made a comment of, “More in [pov’s] perspective,” which referred to narration like internal monologue but not italicized (sorry, not sure how to classify that). I’m guessing this will be an aspect of my next “voice” development, but I’m struggling to get past the hump where I understand how and when to use IM–italicized and non. Any suggestions on books to read or just perspectives on this aspect of style?

About Timothy C. Ward

Timothy C. Ward is a Hugo nominated producer for Adventures in SciFi Publishing, who has been lost, broke and surfed with sharks on the other side of the world. He now dreams of greater adventures from his keyboard in Des Moines, Iowa. This summer he released two novels: his second Sand Divers book, Scavenger: A.I., where two parents use an ancient technology to fight a reproducing A.I. while trying to resurrect their deceased infant; and Godsknife: Revolt, an apocalyptic battle for godhood in the rift between Iowa and the Abyss.

7 comments on “Learning to Write Dialogue that Shows

  1. Timothy,

    I struggle with this too. I finally went back and took out a bunch of italicized internal monologue–at least, I took out the italics, and made it 3rd person instead of 1st, because I felt like it was creating speedbumps in that passage that I didn’t want there.

    I’m happier with it now, I think.

    I’ve heard that readers object to too much internal mologue, so it’s best not to overdo it, but where the balancing point is–is something I’ve yet to figure out as well.

  2. OSC writing as Uncle Orson over at Hatrack River had a usefull lesson on this point. http://www.hatrack.com/writingclass/lessons/1998-08-14-3.shtml
    The rest of the lessons are helpful as well.

  3. There’s a book called Rivet your Readers with a Deep Point of View that explains how to do exactly what you’re doing. You don’t have to use all of its tips, but it makes internal dialogue SO much easier. If you shoot me an email, I can loan you the ebook. 🙂 netraptor001 at hotmail dot com. 🙂

  4. Tim, we all wrestle with how much internal monologue to include. I tend to do too much, and have characters sitting around thinking instead of doing stuff. It’s great that you have an editor you trust to help you with that aspect.

    As for italics versus non-, the short version is that if your internal monologue is in the same person and tense as the rest of the narrative, don’t use italics. You only need italics if the person and tense shift. So if your whole book is first person present tense, you don’t need to italicize your first person present tense internal monologue. But if your narrative is third person past tense and your internal monologue is first person present tense, then italicize just so the reader knows you meant to shift. I wrote more about this in a post over on my own blog: http://bit.ly/ZoXao2.

  5. Remember that the whole “how much is too much” question also depends a lot on how cerebral the story is and on editorial preferences. You can’t please everyone, Tim.

    There are techniques helpful for working out what works best for any particular story. First is rewriting a scene in 1st person (see/feel/think/do what the character does) and selecting the most important parts that round out the character as well as move the story forward. Then you switch it back into 3rd if that’s what you’re writing.

    Second is drawing out the suspense. IMO, it’s more critical for an action scene, but it’s important for dialog, too. Drawing out the suspense means keeping the outcome of the scene questionable. Too often, I’ve seen a scene blip by in a paragraph or two — so quickly that if I’m not reading slowly, I can miss something really important to the overall plot. This is where “experiencing” the character’s POV in 1st person will help flesh out the character as well as sustaining the scene’s suspense. When you do this, don’t worry about writing too much into the scene — this is blow-by-blow detailing. Trimming the excess comes later.

    Third, don’t let your dialog turn into a script. (I see this more often with male writers than with the female ones.) If the conversation between the characters becomes disembodied voices (with/without occasional tags), the characters and scene disappear. Keep the reader engaged in the scene: what’s happening as the characters converse, what the MC notices (does s/he notice mannerisms and/or physical attributes of the other character, does his/her attention wander around the room, or does s/he stay on guard for other things). These little things also add dimension to your character whether you include internal monolog/thought quotes or just stick with a deeper level of POV.

  6. Thanks for all your input, ladies. This whole thing is putting a cramp in my editing/rewriting enjoyment, so each morsel of wisdom is like eating blowfish. Reading Bourne has been helpful, but writing has been like trying to make up Chinese.

    • Sorry I’m so very late to this, Tim. As mentioned by email, November was keerazy.

      “My editor made a comment of, “More in [pov’s] perspective,” which referred to narration like internal monologue but not italicized (sorry, not sure how to classify that).”

      Indirect interior monologue, rather than direct thoughts or direct interior monologue, is the Ingermanson terminology. I’m kind of assuming he got it or adapted it from somewhere further back along the line.

      “I’m struggling to get past the hump where I understand how and when to use IM–italicized and non.”

      Not sure where you’re at with it, a month later, but hopefully it’s going better now.

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