Wanna hear a secret?
I despise writing dialogue.
I, Emily Vollmer, wholeheartedly acknowledge that dialogue is one of my greatest weaknesses as a writer, and swear to improve my skills in this arena whenever possible.
I truly do hate writing conversations. And for a long time, that hindered my ability to write even semi-decently.
Now, time for a classic early-in-the-blog-post twist!
I’m going to defend writing stories sans traditional dialogue. I think you can deliver a good story without it, and I’m going to tell you why.
*For reference, here’s a quick example of what I consider traditional dialogue versus non-traditional/no dialogue:
Traditional: “So today for breakfast, I had orange juice, a bagel, and some fruit!” she excitedly said, ignoring my disinterested eye rolls.
Non-Traditional/No Dialogue: Ignoring my disinterested eye rolls, she excitedly told me how she had orange juice, a bagel, and some fruit for breakfast.
On with the blog post!
No Dialogue is Better than Forced Dialogue
Here’s why I started to occasionally ditch dialogue in the first place: Bad dialogue is straight up painful for the reader.
Well-written dialogue can make or break a story. Bad dialogue removes any sense of realism, and will immediately pull the reader out of the story. Pulling them back in is going to take a lot of work, so…
Why not just avoid that problem altogether?
If you, the writer, have an idea of what was said but can’t quite put it into words, why not just let the reader do that for you?
I first started toying with this technique while writing outlines, where instead of dialogue I would just write the gist of what was said, to be filled in later. I often preferred this outline to the “fleshed out” version, where I got the necessary information across without getting bogged down in the specifics of what was said.
This first reason is, admittedly, a bit lazy on my part. Dialogue is not my strong suit, and the only way I’m going to get better is by writing more of it. But sometimes, you just want to tell a story.
So tell your story, fundamentals be damned! If you can’t make the dialogue flow, scrap it altogether. You might just prefer the outcome.
Now, on to the fancy literary reasons.
Unreliable Narrators are the Best Narrators
Writing sans traditional dialogue immediately puts a space in between your reader and your story, because they no longer know exactly what was said by the characters. They have to fill in the blanks, knowing that they are possibly wrong.
Which raises the question: Can your reader even trust what the narrator does say, since the narrator is choosing to leave out such a vital piece of the story?
This is where you can amp up the mystery: Is what the narrator said (and said that others said) really what happened? Or is something else actually going on, that may be revealed on the next page?
I love unreliable narrators, they add so much more intrigue to a story. People are innately driven by curiosity, and not knowing what was truly said is just one more tool for drawing the reader in.
A little added bonus here is that if you want to add a twist ending and have your narrator be the villain, there is already a built-in sense of doubt. At the big reveal, the reader can have their “A-ha! I knew it all along!” moment. We all like to feel clever sometimes, even if that feeling is a bit manufactured.
Intentional Alienation of the Reader
Okay so I know this seems a little out there, but hear me out.
Often when writing, you try to get into the head of your reader. You want them to see themselves as the protagonist, to insert themselves into the story. This takes the passive reading experience and makes it active. Even after the reader has finished the story they are thinking about what happens to the protagonist- to themselves- next.
Not all stories are going to be centered around the reader in this way.
Sometimes, the reader isn’t part of the story. The experience is not theirs to have. They are merely an onlooker, and do not have the privilege of hearing exactly what was said.
You may be writing about an exclusive clique, or an extremely surreal scenario. Pushing the reader away just a little bit can build a stronger world for the story to exist in.
As odd as this may sound, the beauty of writing is that you don’t have to make the experience pleasant. Sometimes you want your reader to sit in their own discomfort, and to create a sense of unease that adds ambiance to the story you’re trying to tell.
Words are powerful, that’s the whole point of writing. But a lack of words, a lack of dialogue, can be just as powerful. Use it as a tool.
I wrote a book once (you have never and will never read it, but that’s a story for another time), and you would be amazed at all the ways I found to avoid writing dialogue. My writing was peppered with unnecessary silences, characters “innately understanding the intent behind her expression,” and entire conversations happening off-camera. It was rough, kids.
While I was proud of myself for writing something that just barely squeaked into novel-length, I also wasn’t proud of myself, because I was aware of the shortcuts I abused. After this, I took a long break from writing, mostly out of fear that that book was the best work I could produce.
Then, I found inspiration one night in a prompt from a literary magazine. I sat down and wrote for hours, pouring my heart into a story. When it came time for the first character to say something…
They didn’t. Instead, I wrote around the dialogue with intention; I didn’t have the words, but I did have the story. And I loved the outcome.
I loved my unreliable narrator and my poor, alienated reader. Most of all, I loved avoiding my weak spot. Writers are by nature perfectionists, and it can be incredibly disheartening when you’re holding yourself back because you’re not the best at one specific writing skill.
So I say, work around your weak spot. Write around it. You may just end up with something far better than you could have hoped for.