Meandering Dialogue

How to make sure conversations in your stories flow

I’ve started sharing some of the feedback I find myself giving to lots of my editing clients. This time it’s all about MEANDERING DIALOGUE.

A disclaimer for my editing clients – I will NEVER use specific examples or talk about your stories! These threads are based on feedback I have given to MANY clients, so I am not secretly talking about your work.

Now, there are three main reasons dialogue can feel like it’s meandering all over the shop:

  1. It goes on for too long
  2. The point of the conversation isn’t clear
  3. Switches in subject feel random

I’m going to use a short section from Goldilocks by Laura Lam to explore all of these areas. If you haven’t read this book yet, why the heck not? But don’t worry – there will be no spoilers!

This is a discussion between the main character, Naomi, and her mentor, Valerie:

This is a great section. Short, sharp, to the point. This is a whole, separate piece of dialogue that moves the story along, tells us about the dynamic between the characters, and, most importantly, will help us unpick some meandering dialogue issues…

1. DIALOGUE THAT GOES ON FOR TOO LONG

This is usually because there is too much said before or after the real crux of the conversation. Too much information is being included, and this can make the conversation feel overly long.

Consider the section from Goldilocks again. This conversation is taking place on a journey after the two women haven’t seen each other for a while. Valerie has travelled for a long time to visit Naomi. Do they talk about putting their seatbelts on? Does Naomi ask if Valerie wants a shower to wash away the travelling? These could both have been used to pad out the start of the conversation but they aren’t, because they aren’t things the reader needs to know. Do you think these two women spent the rest of the car ride in silence? Probably not. But their chats for the remainder of the drive are not important enough to be included. The reader can assume they’ve happened, without actually witnessing them all.

Those things wouldn’t make for bad dialogue, they could be well written and carefully integrated, but they aren’t needed. And that’s a hard thing to face when looking at our own stories – is every line of dialogue absolutely essential?

The first two places to look if you feel like your dialogue is meandering is at the start and end of conversations. This is when the advice ‘start late, finish early’ is worth its weight in gold. One way to really interrogate whether every part of your dialogue is needed is to print off each section and grab a highlighter. Be ruthless, and only highlight those sections that are really, totally essential. Then get even meaner – explain to yourself why each part is needed. Is it furthering the plot? Developing character? Filling in backstory? Hinting at something to come? You can leave in some sections where the reason for keeping it is I LIKE IT but if you’re finding your speech is full of these bits, then it might be time to cut them out.

Now, only you know your story and where it sits in the genre/age group you’re writing within. It might be that including more filler moments gives your book a cosy, conversational feel – and that’s fine if it fits the type of book you’re writing. But be honest with yourself and shave off those starts and ends where you can.

2. THE POINT OF THE CONVERSATION ISN’T CLEAR

Let’s go back to Naomi and Valerie. What is the point of this conversation? This is slightly easier because it’s a short section, but this should be evident in all dialogue. The point here is that Valerie has some reason for her visit that Naomi wants to know, and it also shows off some of their relationship dynamic.

Imagine if they’d had this conversation instead:

‘How was your flight?’ Naomi asked.

‘It was good,’ Valerie said.

‘Let’s get you settled then.’

Firstly, it’s bland and boring. But secondly, what is the point of this exchange? It might be to show some of the care Naomi feels for Valerie, but what else is there to it? This care can be showcased in so many (more creative) ways than with this section of dialogue.

Again, it’s time to be brutal. Is there dialogue in your novel that’s nice and maybe serves a purpose but has no real, driving point to it? Find each section of dialogue, even weeny ones like this, and question them – WHY ARE YOU HERE? If the answer is evident, that’s great. If not, maybe it can be cut. Even if the meaning is clear – ask yourself, is this showcased somewhere else and I don’t need the dialogue to say it as well?

As I said, the point can be harder to find in longer conversations, and you may need to split these into sections that serve different purposes. If there are parts that don’t serve a purpose, maybe they can be reworked or cut out.

3. SWITCHES IN SUBJECT FEEL RANDOM

Imagine if Naomi said directly after this:

I’ve really gotten into sudoku recently.’

This would be… strange. Why is she telling Valerie about this new hobby? And why now?

Now, I’m not saying that random switches in the conversation can’t happen. However, they need to be clearly explained to the reader, especially if it’s the main character making this abrupt change.

If it was changed to:

Naomi hated awkward silences. ‘I’ve really gotten into sudoku recently.’

Then the reader understands why she’s said this random thing.

During these conversational shifts, it’s really important to let the reader know what your main character is thinking and feeling. This smooths the way for these changes in direction, and makes sure that your dialogue flows from one topic to another.

So, pick a longer section of your dialogue. In the margin, pop a star each time your conversation changes direction – a new subject is aired, a question is asked, an action is suggested. And then make sure that this has been clearly explained or set up by your main character’s inner world. If they suggest getting dinner, have you shown them feeling hungry? If they accuse someone of murder, have they put the clues together in their mind?

In the Goldilocks example, there is no inner monologue from Naomi BUT what she’s thinking/feeling is clear. Valerie states it, and then Naomi’s speech backs this up. Use those other characters, especially when working in third person.

Just one last thing to say – dialogue that is sharp, clear, and smooth is actually incredibly unrealistic. Real conversations are full of interruptions, totally random shifts in topic, people not listening and getting distracted… We are terrible at talking to one another, really!

BUT that wouldn’t make for very compelling reading. So, forget about realism and think carefully about what you want to get across with dialogue. Say it, then then stop talking.

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