On Dialogue and Characterization…

Over the weekend I read a fantastic adult novel by Rainbow Rowell called Attachments. If you’ve read her YA debut Eleanor & Park (and really, if you haven’t, please hurry to your local bookstore and pick it up — it’s amazing), then you’re probably already aware of what an amazing writer Rainbow Rowell is, and you also probably know that she creates lovably flawed characters who engage in awesome, witty, REAL conversations. This, I think, is a gift.

Attachments is a novel with an interesting and unique format. Here’s the Goodreads summary, just so you have an idea of what’s going on…

Beth and Jennifer know their company monitors their office e-mail. But the women still spend all day sending each other messages, gossiping about their coworkers at the newspaper and baring their personal lives like an open book. Jennifer tells Beth everything she can’t seem to tell her husband about her anxieties over starting a family. And Beth tells Jennifer everything, period. When Lincoln applied to be an Internet security officer, he hardly imagined he’d be sifting through other people’s inboxes like some sort of electronic Peeping Tom. Lincoln is supposed to turn people in for misusing company e-mail, but he can’t quite bring himself to crack down on Beth and Jennifer. He can’t help but be entertained -and captivated- by their stories. But by the time Lincoln realizes he’s falling for Beth, it’s way too late for him to ever introduce himself. What would he say to her? “Hi, I’m the guy who reads your e-mail, and also, I love you.” After a series of close encounters and missed connections, Lincoln decides it’s time to muster the courage to follow his heart… even if he can’t see exactly where it’s leading him.

One of the things that struck me about Attachments was the bond between Jennifer and Beth. Their relationship unfolds in a series of email conversations (read by Lincoln) and that’s all we get from them. We never see them chatting in a coffee shop, or talking in a nail salon, or gossiping in the break room at the newspaper. Their interactions are all email, and they look something like this:


That is to say, there are no inner monologues, no dialogue tags, no descriptive beats, no awkward pauses or long sighs or knowing chuckles — none of the stuff that clogs up conversations in traditionally-written novels. All we know of Jennifer and Beth are the words they type to one another and yet, we get to know them really well. I was sort of blown away when I realized this.

See, I consider dialogue to be one of my writerly strengths. I think I have an eye (ear?) for flow and organic word choice. I think conversations between my characters read like real conversations between real people, and I think it’s fairly easy to get to know them based on how they talk and interact. That said, I definitely incorporate tags and supportive narrative and the occasional adverb (*gasp*) into dialogue I write. These devices are important and I will always use them, but I wondered what it would be like to write conversations like those of Jennifer and Beth. Words, clean and simple.

As an experiment, I tried it with a scene in my WiP. Words, alternating between two characters. Though it was challenging at first, I did not let myself write he said, or she sighed, or he squeezed her hand. There were no inner monologues. There was no supportive narrative. Just words, back and forth — statement, response, question, response, statement, response, etc.

And you know… It was kind of fun. And quick! The conversation flowed more easily than usual. The characters were clever and their banter felt spontaneous and sincere and natural. I didn’t have to try so hard. Best of all, I could truly see who the characters were in the words they spoke.

Of course, I’m not writing a story about inner-office friendships, and my story doesn’t include email at all, so I did eventually go back and insert the traditional dialogue tags and beats and descriptions, all the nuanced stuff that normally has me biting my nails and running for the jelly beans when I’m trying to draft a conversation. Imagine my surprise when, again, this part of the process came more easily. Since I already had the entire discussion laid out, the pieces that needed to be augmented with additional narrative were clear. All I had to do was tuck those bits in, and I ended up with a pretty engaging conversation.

So… I’m thinking I may have a new method for writing dialogue. Huh.

Tell me… Do you have any tips for drafting dialogue?  


31 thoughts on “On Dialogue and Characterization…

  1. Alison Miller says:

    Okay – first, I would love this story just based on the fact that they reference HARRISON FORD!!! *ahem* and second – sometimes the dialogue runs too fast in my head and I’m afraid of losing it all so I have actually drafted several scenes of just dialogue and then filled in later. I thought it was a sign that perhaps I should just be a screenplay writer, but then I heard a well-known adult author at a writer’s conference suggest that as a strategy for when you are stuck or just for getting the dialogue to flow. So . . . not so alone in what I thought was weirdness, right?

    Anyway – great strategy. May try that this morning. JUST dialogue. I love it!

    • katyupperman says:

      I bet you will like this story, Alison. It’s humor and wit reminds me a bit of your writing, actually. I’m kind of excited that this is how a well-known author writes dialogue. As I was thinking about it at first, I wondered if it was an amateurish strategy, but after I saw how well it worked, I didn’t care any more. 🙂

  2. Alexandra Shostak (@a_shostak) says:

    I’ve drafted dialogue that way before! It’s a method I return to whenever I have either a really difficult conversation to put down, or I can barely type fast enough because the characters keep “talking” in my head. Then adding the extra details later seems easier–plus I feel like I can tell better where the stuff like “she touched her hair” ought to go and where it’s just filler. (If that makes sense.)

    • katyupperman says:

      You know, once I tried this dialogue only method, it felt as if they characters really were talking more quickly in my head — like, they were desperate to get it all out, and I was too. Any strategy that makes writing feel effortless is a strategy I’m happy to employ. 🙂

  3. Stephanie Scott says:

    I’ve done that writing exercise before, writing just dialogue, and then filling in with the “extras.” I like the idea of putting that context back in the dialogue rather than the physical cues.

    What a fun idea for a book; I had a sort-of similar idea churning in my head, maybe for a short story, so I’ll have to check out her book to see how hers unfolds. I’m assuming they’re on an online chat or something–that’s a lot of emails!

    • katyupperman says:

      The story takes place in 1999-2000, and the two characters just shoot emails back and forth using their work accounts, which is why Lincoln is able to read their flagged (inappropriate for the office) messages. It really is a very cool format for a story, though it took me a little time to get used to. I was amazed at how complete Jennifer and Beth’s friendship felt, even though I only got to read their emails.

  4. Erin Bowman (@erin_bowman) says:

    YES. Love this post. It’s amazing how much a reader can glean from your characters (tone, body mannerisms, facial expressions, etc) even when none is present on the page. That said, I’m like you; I enjoy a good dialog tag/description. Still, my first drafts are often almost ALL dialog. I write wildly, try not to overthink things, and then go back and layer the beats in as necessary. I’m totally biased, but YAY–I think it’s awesome that you’re adopting this method. 😉

    • katyupperman says:

      Funny, because my first drafts are filled mostly with long paragraphs of description and narrative. I always have to go back and chop that stuff to make room for dialogue (because let’s face it… dialogue is so much more fun to read!). But, now that I’ve found a new method for writing dialogue, I think I’ll probably end up with lots more of it in my early drafts. Thanks so much for spreading the word about this post, Erin!

  5. Tracey Neithercott (@T_Neithercott) says:

    Writing dialog is my absolute favorite. A lot of the times I’ll write it out screenplay style with nothing in between and go back and write that all in after. I find it really helps me get the flow of the dialog and write snappier conversations when I’m not forced to think about anything else in the scene. My first drafts are usually super short because they’re so dialog heavy, but I’m okay with having to go back and fill in since it’s so helpful to see conversations in dialog for me. Great thoughts!

    • katyupperman says:

      The conversation I wrote using this dialogue-only method definitely felt much snappier than my usual first-draft dialogues, and it came so much easier. I’m thinking I’m going to end up a convert to this screenplay style of writing conversations. I like anything that makes writing feel effortless and quick. 🙂

  6. Rachel (writes things/007) says:

    What a great post, Katy. I love that you tried this method out and it sounds like it works. I’m also stellar at dialogue. Or at least not writing dialogue tags. LOL! (Seriously, my betas are always like “Great job not writing “he said” she said, eye roll, etc”!) I do have to admit that like Tracy above me, my first drafts are short, not because of all the dialogue but because I always need to add more character stuff later on. 🙂

    • katyupperman says:

      Thanks, Rachel! I’ve found that when I’m doing a final revision/edit, I often cut lots of dialogue tags. I like reading books that don’t employ tons of them, so I try to write that way too. 🙂

  7. Ghenet Myrthil says:

    I really want to read this since I loved ELEANOR & PARK and FANGIRL. I tend to do this already – write the dialogue out first, then go back and add the tags and description. I find it does help me make sure the dialogue is flowing smoothly. 🙂

    • katyupperman says:

      You should totally find a copy of ATTACHMENTS to read, Ghenet. I really liked it, and even though it’s an adult novel, I still got the same tingly first-love feelings I got from E&P.

  8. Krispy says:

    I have no tips, but thank you for sharing this one! I think writing dialogue this one definitely forces you to really think about characterization in speech. Will have to try it out myself!

  9. Erin Funk says:

    What a clever concept for a book! And talk about a challenge communicating all the necessary emotion without body language or inner monologue.

    A lot of my scenes start out as snippets of dialogue that I jot down in my notebook before fleshing out the rest, not so much because I planned to do it that way but more because the dialogue is often what pops into my head first. Maybe having that dialogue established is the difference between the scenes I find easy to write and the ones I struggle with. I might have to be more deliberate about this approach and see what happens! The way you articulated this was really helpful, so thanks!

    Oh, and i also wanted to thank you for posting the link to that Plot Dot Test! I’ve been trying to get through that floundering, middle stage of my WIP and found it really useful for figuring out what scenes are making the story drag. Great posts, Katy!

    • katyupperman says:

      Yay for the Plot Dot Test… Such a simple, awesome strategy, I think.

      “Maybe having that dialogue established is the difference between the scenes I find easy to write and the ones I struggle with.” <– Totally me. When I know exactly what characters need to say to one another, the scene usually comes really easily.

      Best of luck making it through your middle. Always my trickiest part too. And please do try to pick up ATTACHMENTS. It's a very entertaining read!

  10. Heidi Sinnett says:

    I loved ELEANOR & PARK, so I’m excited to read ATTACHMENTS, and the idea around it is wonderful.

    I think it’s great that seeing new ways of doing things can spark something in us as writers. Maybe we’ll use it, maybe we won’t. But getting us thinking always improves our writing, I believe. How exciting to try something different–and have it work out!

    Great post!

    • katyupperman says:

      I agree, Heidi. I loving coming across new and possibly untraditional writing methods. Even if they don’t end up working for me, I’ve at least tried something outside the box, and that gets me thinking and experimenting, which always strengthens my writing.

      Let me know what you think of ATTACHMENTS when you get around to reading it. 🙂

  11. Jaime Morrow says:

    That’s a really cool idea, Katy. I’ve tried to minimize my use of dialogue tags and so on to increase the flow of banter between characters, and sometimes it comes off totally awesome. Other times, not so much. (It read a little confusing.) But I think this is an excellent practice to get into, with adding in all of the “extras” after the fact. I think that will allow you to keep those extras to a minimum so as not to break up the flow of conversation. Thanks for sharing this eureka moment. It makes a lot of sense! 🙂

    • katyupperman says:

      I try to use dialogue tags sparingly too, Jaime, though that’s been a challenge with this WiP because it’s written in third-person. Still, this method of laying out an entire conversation before going back and tucking in tags and other “extras” is really working for me, which is exciting!

  12. Melissa Sarno says:

    I loved Eleanor & Park soooo much. I’d be curious to pick up this story (and her next book!) I love writing dialogue and I will definitely try this tactic, allowing the banter to happen, then worry about the nuance, beats, and pause that make it feel natural. Love this idea : )

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