Patrick Rothfuss on dialogue

Jo Zebedee

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Just pinched this from Boneman's comments in critiques:

Dialogue is harder to write. Dialogue takes longer to write. Dialogue takes more words. Dialogue takes more space. But it seems like it's faster, and quicker for the reader to read.


Now, far from it for me to argue with Patrick, but I find the opposite. Dialogue is the easy bit, exposition is the hellish bit for me. Dialogue rarely needs edited for me, description needs a fine-toothed comb applied to make it stand up.

Just me? Or are there others who find this doesn't apply to them?

Any examples of writing advice that goes against your experience?
 
I used to think that dialogue was one of my natural strong points. I aimed to write it reasonably realistically, and thought I brought character through well with it.

Teresa disagreed - in fact, highlighted it as one of my weaknesses.

What she pointed out was something on the lines of dialogue needing to sound convincing, without be too naturalistic - because naturalistic dialogue tends to be long and drawn out. The writer's task, she said, was to give the impression that the dialogue was natural, but make it otherwise more concise and direct.

I am paraphrasing here, but the point is that in my current rewrite I've found it relatively easy to cut and condense my dialogue. Yet, like the prose, nothing is actually lost.

As with all writing, it's about saying the most with least words. And dialogue as no exception to this.

The curious thing about editing is that what I thought were strengths were highlighted as weakness - what I thought were weaknesses were highlighted as strengths.

Simply put, it can be too easy to place too much confidence in the wrong places.

Less is more. Pace and clarity. These are the mantras I work to now.

I presume this is something towards what Patrick is trying to say - even if dialogue takes more words than an introspection, done right it can feel more pacey, because more is actually being said in terms of setting, character, background, story, etc.

Or something like that. :D
 
Just me? Or are there others who find this doesn't apply to them?

You know I'm with you. Dialogue's a piece of cake and I just don't understand how/why some writers find it so difficult. One of the comments I had recently (from that R&R) was about how they enjoyed the dialogue. I can't remember exactly what they said now and I'm at work, so can't look it up, but I'm always pleased/relieved when I get good comments about my dialogue. That way, I don't just think I'm doing it right.

Description, on the other hand, makes me want to go out and commit random acts of violence. :)
 
More often than not when I'm writing a scene I "hear" the dialogue first -- if there is dialogue to be heard. This is not invariably so, but for the really important scenes it usually is. Which is not to say that I don't go back and polish the dialogue later. But some characters just seem to write their own dialogue.

The exposition is more likely to be difficult.

Everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses. What is (necessary) torture for one writer can be effortless for another, and vice versa.
 
The curious thing about editing is that what I thought were strengths were highlighted as weakness - what I thought were weaknesses were highlighted as strengths.

Simply put, it can be too easy to place too much confidence in the wrong places.

/QUOTE]

Yes, this is a good point. By and large my edits (and most critters) have laid out the strengths I thought I had -- dialogue, likeable characters -- and the weaknesses I know I have -- description of any kind (though last night I got told a scene was too descriptive. Woo hoo!) and worldbuilding.

One thing I did get pulled on that I didn't expect was character arcs. I think, looking back now, it was because I was writing The-Book-I'd-Been-Planning-All-My-Life and the characters were fully formed in my mind. It's certainly something I haven't been pulled up on so much since (although the MC in my second book needed a bit of work to justify his arc), but I keep an eye on it now.

*Between us, Brian, we'd have the perfect book -- your fab world building and description with my talking bits. :D
 
Poor dialogue is not (necessarily) "faster, and quicker for the reader to read" (but may be faster to write).
 
@springs' point about too much description -- Hee. But a Writing God had liked that section so you're probably safe.

I think you made a really good point, Brian, that often the things we've worked at hardest (because we thought we were weak on them) turn out most successful.

I'm jealous of people who find excellent dialogue really easy to write -- it's certainly one of those things that brings a book to life.
 
*Between us, Brian, we'd have the perfect book -- your fab world building and description with my talking bits. :D

This is why me and amw worked so well together. Her description was something else the publishers commented on, to the point of pulling out a single line and writing wonderful after it.

As we worked together in Google docs, and you can see the writing happening live, I got to watch her writing this description easy as anything. And I'm so flaming jealous.
 
*Between us, Brian, we'd have the perfect book -- your fab world building and description with my talking bits. :D

I was about to make a flippant comment about mediaeval Belfast. Then wondered if there was room for a novel about Cuchulain...

Maybe one day. :D
 
Dialogue is a tricksy beast - when I write it I tend to get good responses and then I was told to try and write without dialogue as a challenge and now, although the dialogue I write is good, I don't write it much, so it takes a fair old while before I get going.

I am struggling however with writing a scene for my playwriting course. I can't think of anything and there is no description for me to get my teeth into and jump off of. It is just pure dialogue. And I have spent the last two days trying and failing to write a single word.

I wrote a little short yesterday out of sheer frustration and the dialogue in that came fine...but the play scene I have to write? Nope, NOTHING.

So very weird I think. And very strange that ever since being told to write less dialogue and try making (short) stories without it I find less dialogue in what I do write...
 
Just to add, that PR's comment came from his critique of my book in March 2010... OMG, is it that long??? Anyhoo, he was commenting on my lamentable tendency to start a conversation between two characters, then drift into exposition, then come back to the two characters, when I want to tell a lot. Nowadays, my scenes are much shorter when characters are interracting, and like others, I do enjoy dialogue more than exposition, even though I'm like a gibbon nitpicking for fleas, endlessly, as I edit... Can you believe, that although I do it when I edit other people's work, I've only just started reading my own work aloud?? I find that helps with dialogue, incredibly...
 
As with all writing, it's about saying the most with least words. And dialogue as no exception to this.


I couldn't agree more. Your words can be pure gold sometimes.


Editing to the point of insanity helps, but simply asking yourself - would I say this - for me, helps even more. It stops me drifting off into over long and unrealistic dialogue.
 
To answer the question that I now notice... ahem...

I think some of the advice I got from my first professional editor didn't actually work for the way I write. He told me to avoid metaphors and similes. I now suspect that may be his personal taste rather than an overarching writing rule.
 
He told me to avoid metaphors and similes. I now suspect that may be his personal taste rather than an overarching writing rule.

For me, coming across a perfect, striking, original metaphor is one of the things I most enjoy when reading, and something that can make a piece of writing catch light.

If he'd said to beware of them, I'd have agreed, but to tell you (or anyone) to avoid them was baaad.

(Unless yours were just so awful that he thought it safest that way?)
 
Dialogue is the easy bit, exposition is the hellish bit for me. Dialogue rarely needs edited for me, description needs a fine-toothed comb applied to make it stand up.

Just me? Or are there others who find this doesn't apply to them?

You know I'm with you. Dialogue's a piece of cake and I just don't understand how/why some writers find it so difficult.

Description, on the other hand, makes me want to go out and commit random acts of violence. :)

More often than not when I'm writing a scene I "hear" the dialogue first -- if there is dialogue to be heard. This is not invariably so, but for the really important scenes it usually is. Which is not to say that I don't go back and polish the dialogue later. But some characters just seem to write their own dialogue.

The exposition is more likely to be difficult.

Yes, to all of this. Nearly everything I do starts with dialogue (which is not to say it's the first thing in the story, but it's the first thing that comes to me) and the rest has to be built around it. And edited and edited and edited to death, while the dialogue mostly sits there wondering what's wrong with all that description and what's taking so long.
 
(Unless yours were just so awful that he thought it safest that way?)

Quite possibly... Though I knew this was part of the advice he'd given others and had already removed most of them before I sent him the ms. I think he just doesn't like them.
 
Now, far from it for me to argue with Patrick, but I find the opposite. Dialogue is the easy bit, exposition is the hellish bit for me. Dialogue rarely needs edited for me, description needs a fine-toothed comb applied to make it stand up.

Just me? Or are there others who find this doesn't apply to them?

Any examples of writing advice that goes against your experience?

Basically the same here. I think it's from growing up with so much TV and writing scripts. I can run through a scene in almost pure dialog, with the occasional attribution and description and think I'm done. Nope. I have to go back and do a description pass to make sure there's something there. It's one of the constant comments on my stuff. "Good dialog, needs more description." Just a weakness I guess. Every writer's different.
 
The hardest part of dialogue for me has been dealing with having all the characters sound the same. This seems to be a common complaint in some circles and my problem is that when I try to make a conscious effort the whole house of cards collapses.

Sure you can have the person who leaves words out or slurs or has a dialect but to me that's not what really makes them different. The difference might be sentence structure and word usage more adverb fewer adjectives or vise versa. Sometimes it's being meek sometimes its blustery.The difference might be a nuance that come directly from the character as you've pictured them and sometimes unfortunately there are going to be some characters that are close enough to sound the same.

This can be compounded when trying to tighten the dialogue and making the conversation more concise. Unless you already have clear differences in the characters you run the risk of bringing them closer the more you tighten things. Sometimes the characters main trait is that no matter how much you try to limit them, they just can's say anything in ten words or less.
 
Agents and editors have their own individual tastes, just like anyone else, and their own personal prejudices, so we should never regard their words as though they were Holy Scripture.

Although if they point out something in your work that they don't like, it may just be that you aren't doing it well enough to win them over.

(Which can't be the case with Hex's similes and metaphors, because hers are usually wonderful.)

tinkerdan said:
Sometimes the characters main trait is that no matter how much you try to limit them, they just can's say anything in ten words or less.

Which is a very good point. But if you have too many characters who are that way it ceases to be a character trait.
 

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