Six tips for writing better dialogue
Published: August 31, 2006
"If your dialogue doesn't work, your characters, plot, and overall story won't work ...
Dialogue is one of the hardest elements of fiction writing to master. it's tricky because it doesn't seem that it should be, so writers often don't give it the attention it requires. They write it as fast as possible and turn their attention to what they consider the more important stuff, like how to get the hero and heroine out of the cave in time to stop the missiles from being launched.
But if your dialogue doesn't work, your characters, plot, and overall story won't work, either.
This lack of attention is one reason my editor lists poor dialogue as one of the main three reasons for rejecting manuscripts.
Many teachers will tell you to carry a tape recorder around for a couple of days, tape your own conversation, then transcribe it. Voilà! Real life dialogue.
The problem with this exercise is that, while it can train your ear to certain speech rhythms ad vocabulary, real talk is not fictional dialogue. Fictional dialogue is an artifice. It gives the impression of real talk but is not; it's much more compressed, focused, and plot driven than real life conversation. Real conversation is full of "hems" and "haws" and other blather that, if set down on the page, would put a reader to sleep faster than Benadryl.
Here are a few tricks to keep editors and readers awake and turning pages:
1. Use dialogue that propels the plot forward. If you have two people meeting for the first time in five years to discuss how they're going to assassinate a political dictator, skip the chatter by doing something like this:
Dred met Drusilla at the appointed time, in one of Heathrow Airport's crowded lounges, where listening devices would have a hard time picking up their conversation. Dred thought Drusilla looked even more fit than when he'd last seen her in Prague. Over several sips of beer they discussed old timesthe Bolivian dictator they'd knocked off in Miami, the Mexican drug lord they'd car bombed in Mazatlan. Then Dred got to the point. "Okay, comrade. What's the plan?"
Drusilla crossed her tan, muscular legs and tossed her white blond hair out from the upraised collar of her black leather jacket. "Easy," she began. "It's like this . . ."
"Real talk is not fictional dialogue. Fictional dialogue is an artifice...."
2. Rarely have more than a half a page of pure dialogue. Break up dialogue by describing the thoughts and actions of those speaking and with brief descriptions of the setting.
"What are you going to have?" Melissa asked Bob when the hostess had seated them.
"I don't know. What are you going to have?"
"I guess the usual."
"Not very daring today?" Melissa smiled.
"When am I ever daring?"
"Oh, you used to be daring, Bob."
"Really? When was that?" Bob really wanted to know. He felt as if he'd spent his whole life buckling his seat belt, staying home on Friday nights, and watching his weight. He suddenly felt the need for a cigarette.
"Five years ago, you were the big man on campus," Melissa reminded him. "Don't you remember?"
"Big man on campus, huh?" Bob said with a humorless chuckle. He looked around. The guy in the next booth was puffing a Winston. Maybe he'd bum one. 'That wasn't me. That was some other guy."
3. Never use dialogue solely to convey information to the reader. Find some other way to do it.
Melissa looked at Bob through the cloud of smoke swirling around his head. "My god, Bob, I can't believe you're smoking. When your daughter, Sandy, gets here whom you haven't seen in over a year because she skipped town with that guy with all the tattoos and the ten ninety haircut she's going to think you've gone insane!"
Rewrite it like this:
Melissa looked at Bob through the cloud of smoke swirling around his head. "My god, Bob, I can't believe you're smoking!" She wondered what his daughter, Sandy, would think. But then, who cared what Sandy thought. Wasn't she the one who ran off with the guy with all the tattoos and the ten ninety haircut? Covering her mouth, Melissa snickered. "She's going to think you're insane!"
4. Use dialogue to characterize the speakers. Readers should learn as much about a character through dialogue as they do through anything the author says about them directly. Telling us that Larry is a hypochondriac is much less dramatic than letting Larry speak for himself
"How you doing today, Larry?" Al asked.
"How do I look like I'm doing?" Larry said. "My face is fire engine red and I'm breaking out again."
"You're not breaking out."
"Look at me I'm breaking out."
'Those are freckles," Al said, chuckling. "You spent the weekend in the sun. that's all."
"Jeez, Al," Larry said with a sigh. "You sound like my doctor."
5. Having your characters speak in a heavy regional dialect will keep your readers turning pages, all right without reading a word. Avoid heavyhanded dialect !'If'n y'all warma sup o' & lightnin'! by trying other things, like regionspecific rhythms, syntax, and vocabulary.
Here's how Elmore Leonard subtly evokes 1920's Georgia in The Moonshine War:
"Boy," Mr. Baylor said to him then, "are you threatening anybody?"
"You asked me for my credentials."
"I see them," Mr. Baylor said. "You see mine up there leaning against the wall. Shotguns and highpowered rifles."
"Any law needs upholding in this county, I take care of it."
"I see that, too," Long said, his gaze sliding over to the whiskey barrel. "All these people here your deputies?"
Mr. Baylor was as courteous and nice as anyone had ever seen him. He said, "Yes, they are, and I'll tell you something. They ain't ever seen a Prohibition agent before."
"Is that right?"
"Yes." Mr. Baylor went on, "a revenue man is a rare bird in this county. I mean it's so rare that some old boy sees one, you know what he's liable to do?"'
"He"s liable to shoot it and have it stuffed and put over his fireplace."
"You should never write dialogue until you've first figured out who your characters are and what it is they want..."
6. Finally, the most important thing I've learned about writing dialogue is that you should never write it until you"ve first figured out who your characters are and what it is they want. They should be as real to you as your neighbors.
Once that's clear, their conversation will flow so naturally it won't even seem as though you're writing it. One line will lead to another, and you'll be discovering, as you write, what they're talking about. Done right, it should be like eavesdropping.
This is the fun part, and you shouldn't be overly worried about sticking to your outline-if you use an outline, that is; I never have and never will. Just hang on and enjoy the ride and, with luck, when the scene is over, you'll have discovered a whole other dimension-not only to your characters, but to your plot, as well.
For instance, I had no idea I was writing a love scene in Chapter 18 of my Western, Dakota Kill, until the two main characters, Mark Talbot and Suzanne Magnusson, found themselves in each other's arms. They'd been playing a word-association game. At one point, Suzanne baits Talbot with "Girls," to which he responds, "Kiss."
"Kiss?" [Suzanne asked.]
Talbot opened his eyes again and gave a laugh. She was looking at him with an expression of wry expectation. "You said to say the first thing that came into my head. . . ."
Her eyes flashed slyly. "Have you kissed Jacy Kincaid?"
He laughed again. "What?"
"Have you wanted to?"
He thought for a few seconds. "No." It was a lie, but he knew it was what she wanted to hear.
Her expression becoming grave, she lowered her eyes. She spoke quietly, in a throaty, silky voice that reminded him of a gentle breeze combing woods. "Have you wanted to kiss me?"
He stared at her seriously for a moment. "Yes." It was not a lie.
"Why don't you, then?"
He smiled. Unable to help himself, he gently took her face in his hands and kissed her.
When I first started writing that scene, I had no idea Talbot was going to kiss Suzanne. I just let him speak and act for himself and I had a whole new plot complication.
Knowing your characters inside and out is only one way of sprucing up your dialogue. Follow my other five rules, and your readers will be eavesdropping on every scene you write.
This article was originally published in the October 2000 issue of The Writer.
--Posted Aug. 31, 2006