Bridge to Story

Dialogue on a Diet

The story elements are: Dialogue, Character, Scene, Narration and Plot.

Why do you think we include these things in our fiction? Because we are supposed to? Because they are the building blocks that make the whole? Because... well- just because?

These story elements serve individual purposes in anyone's story. Where would a piece be without Dialogue, Plot or any of the other elements in between?

So yes, story elements are required and do  serve a purpose. But it’s more than purpose being served when you write. These five elements must also reach their own individual goal; their own secondary function as well. Reach goals? Yes. The intangible goals. There are several. We'll be looking at the ones for Dialogue.

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Dialogue, while serving one of it's purposes –Subtext, as John Gardner tells us– works at conveying the feelings (and thoughts) of your character that drive her motivation but are not expressed outwardly.

That Subtext via Dialogue aspect has its own intangible goal to it. It must strive to be shown while hidden in its shadow life there on the page. Dialogue for the purpose of subtext must be passive/aggressive.

It must display lines of dialogue while making eyes at the unsaid. Show the bunny-ear fingers of motivation that the character, herself unaware, does not  realize are being wagged over her head.

The intangible goal is to have Subtext via Dialogue be there and not noticed by the characters, yet  understood by the reader. To convey via words what has not been said.

If we were physical artists we might call this negative space. If we were watching an old Twilight Zone episode we’d see the subtext of that speech about aliens as an actual message about race relations in the early 1960’s.

Purpose and Goal must work hand in hand. If you attempt (employ subtext for a purpose) and do not pull it off (meet the element's goal) you have only gone half way in your writing.

Let's go to the exercise for this  lesson to see how to trim the excess and build in the intangible.

Lesson Exercise 1 Toggle

Lesson Exercise 1:

Take any of your own written pages that include Dialogue and follow along with this exercise for trimming.

The first step is always finding the editing candidates in your first draft. The second is then asking questions of your intent for the offending line. The last is making your changes.

Remember these rules when looking for things to clean up in your work:

  • Dialogue needs to be - Believable. Characters should be Alive and Show Frailties.
  • Settings must – Serve the Story. Narration should be – Unobtrusive.
  • Plot must keep a Story – Moving.

Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty and tons of other books & films) has some writing rules.

For Dialogue, his Rule 3 is : "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue. Teachers tell us not to use 'said.' They think other words make us sound better, like we have a bigger vocabulary."

Which is precisely the point: Good writing is not about the writer (and the way he sounds or the size of her vocabulary), but about the story. The writer must remain invisible.

Elmore Leonard explains Rule 3: "The line of dialogue belongs to the character. The verb is the writer sticking his nose in… ‘Said' is far less intrusive than 'grumbled,' 'gasped,' or 'cautioned.'"

So look at your work, I wouldn’t cut ALL speaking verbs to said, or told. But try use all your fancier saying verbs sparingly. Stick to said more than any other verb choice when writing dialogue.

Now, for the Intangibles.

Dialogue written at cross purposes, is dialogue that sounds real to the ear.


You can’t shrug words. You can’t smile or scowl them. These are all action verbs that don’t, as such, involve the vocal cords. They’re gestures. When this novice writes, 

“I’ve seen better dancing in a coma ward,” Dave scowled.

What the writer really means, is:

“I’ve seen better dancing in a coma ward,” Dave said with a scowl.


Dave scowled. “I’ve seen better dancing in a coma ward.”

Now, find overly used 'saying' verbs and remove most of them. Have folks not say everything they mean, and don't use 'gesture' verbs for 'saying' verbs.