One of my most successful author clients is currently making the switch from memoir-writing to fiction, and having had a look at it while formatting a proofreading copy for her, I noted that her style hadn’t significantly changed from ‘true-life journaling’ to ‘fiction/action comedy.’
In short, she hadn’t introduced enough dialogue. The only place that the characters were interacting, developing relationships, and building up their parts was still in her own head – which she was then ‘passing on’ to the reader in her own voice, almost as an afterthought.
It was written in what you’d call an ‘anecdotal’ style – lots of third-party reference to conversations, and descriptions of reports on third-party activity occurring away from the POV characters, but no actual conversations in receipt of these reports, or character-building reactions to any of these topics as they became known to the MC (main character) for the first time.
Here’s a couple of straightforward hints on writing dialogue for fiction, whether you are writing in first or third person.
Even in 1st person POV, you must write all of the dialogue. If someone in the novel is recounting a story or news to the protagonist, you must hear it with the character’s ears and let the reader know the character’s reaction to the news – otherwise it just sounds like you (the author) telling the audience what happened, with no actual action or reaction occurring for any of the characters. Whether they were present in the action – or not, and are just hearing about it from a third party. The reader is hearing about it for the first time too. Don’t just fob them off with a passing description of what they just heard.
For example, instead of saying, as you might in non-fiction/memoir:
It turned out that the truck had a flat. Someone had stolen the jack. They were stuck there for an hour.
You would write:
“What took them so long?” I asked, puzzled.
“They broke down!” my father exclaimed. “A flat.”
“But that takes no time at all.”
“The jack was gone. She thinks it was stolen.”
…And you would continue to show the whole conversation. Not just an introductory exchange, or then switch back to you telling the story. Let the characters unfold the story.
The first segment has no character development or character voice – it’s just your voice, the author, telling the reader instead of showing the reader. If you were writing in the third person (he/she) it would be a little more acceptable, but only if used sparingly. Never for first person. You need first person ‘ears and voice.’
It’s fine for non-fiction/memoir, when the reader is getting to know you, the author. But not for fiction – fiction demands that the author be invisible and that the characters do all the talking, even if the action being discussed did not happen to the POV character.
No matter how the news of the action reaches the POV character – telephone conversation, chance encounter, radio report – you MUST transcribe that report/exchange as dialogue. First person is no excuse – I wrote the whole of Death & the City from one POV and there was a ton of dialogue and action, including where Lara hears of action occurring away from her – I still wrote it as dialogue in scenes where she hears it as news for the first time (unless she was summarising a few incidences of a crap night at work, while on her own ruminating over her own mental health).
Whenever there is more than one person in the scene, THE DIALOGUE MUST BE WRITTEN. It doesn’t have to include every word spoken to a passing waiter, or regarding a ticket purchase for the bus. But all dialogue between recurring/important characters who are relevant to the events of the plot and outcome of the story must be shown.
With multiple POVs, including all of the dialogue is the best way for the reader to identify individual personalities as well. Otherwise, your own author voice is the predominant one, and the point of having first person/third person multiple POV is lost.
Remember it’s all about emotions and responses for the reader, especially in first person POV. Not the author telling the reader a story, sitting by an outdoor workshop campfire. It’s a play, being acted out in front of the reader. The reader is reading ‘I’ and ‘me’ in their own head – they want to know what that ‘I’ and ‘me’ is hearing, seeing, saying, tasting, smelling and feeling when they learn something for the FIRST time.
Not what the protagonist is picking over later – that’s not a story as it happens, it’s an anecdote (as in memoir writing) – of no emotional consequence to anyone.
Imagine you are writing a feature movie script. You wouldn’t write Scene One: X and Y sit in the restaurant booth and discuss their relationship. Scene Two: X and Y repaint the nursery together and discuss baby names. Scene Three… unless your movie is intended to be completely ad-libbed. You don’t ask your readers to ad-lib your novel. Even in the most artsy-fartsy literary fiction, it’s tedious when that happens (trust me, been there, read it, tried writing it, bored myself to sleep).
If your favourite author never writes the dialogue, try reading a few books by different authors. (And stop trying to emulate your favourite authors. They occasionally get things wrong as well).
You can see some further examples in an earlier post I wrote on Romance fiction writing.