Writing Better Dialogue

If there is one skill we should master to elevate our fiction it is the art of dialogue. It can be the bridge between forgettable and remarkable.

A novel is broadly divided into two categories, narration and dialogue, but the latter is often neglected as a tool for unveiling the story. A red flag of amateur work is dull or worse, tortuous conversation. Nothing will make me toss a book aside faster than over-attributed, inane, pointless dialogue.

The interplay between characters is a potent way to capture a reader’s attention. Words are powerful. We’ve all been stung by a boss’s tirade. We know from studies of abuse that hateful things said to children leave deep scars in their psyche. The kind words of a stranger or the tender thoughts of a lover can make us weak in the knees. Dialogue expresses mood and tenor in a more emotional way than narrative because the words come from the heart of the character, not the narrator.

In real life, much of what we understand from the spoken word is due to its packaging in context, body language and expression. In fiction, a character’s emotion is conveyed in the manner of speech as much as in the actual words they say. When we are sad; we choke on our words. When we are angry; we might spit, stammer and curse. Exuberance can have us rambling like children in the excitement of a moment.

Characters need to develop over the life of a book. A novel is a journey, an exploration of ideas and people. Emotional reactions manifested through their words reveal aspects of a character’s persona as the story progresses. Writing about Hemingway in The Saturday Review (July, 1961), Alan Pryce-Jones said, “Whether he knew it or not, there is not a living writer in England who has been unaffected by the laconic speed of his dialogue, the subtle revelation of character that lies behind a spoken phrase. Hemingway had a wonderful ear. He listened.”

The better writers are adept at writing purposeful dialogue. It is relevant to the story-line. They cut to the core of the interaction without the soot that over-writing heaps on a scene.

Here’s a snippet from Joan Didion’s brilliant, “Play it as it Lays” -

“I wasn’t just crazy about that at all.”
“Well, she does.”
“Does what.”
“Carlotta gives them money to stay married.”
“So what.”
“I’m sick of everybody’s sick arrangement.”
“You’ve got a fantastic vocabulary.”

This scene is terse. It has tension, jealousy, bitterness and sarcasm – all the elements of a great marriage. Now here’s the same scene written by a writer-in-training.

“I wasn’t just crazy about that at all,” Carter said as he lit another cigarette, although it was difficult with the top down on the Corvette.
“Well she does,” Maria rebuked in her usual curt manner.
“Does what?” Carter asked incredulously, finally managing a drag on his cigarette.
“Carlotta gives them money to stay married,” Maria said to Carter directly.

Make it stop – my eyes are swelling!
When I read dialogue like this, my neck loses its ability to hold my head upright and it slams into the desk. All the mud around the dialogue slows the pace to a crawl, a crawl through glass.

Dialogue is important for telling your story and moving it forward. It’s not filler. It plays an important role. Every line must have meaning; it must foretell action, define the characters, elicit emotion, expose conflict or reveal the plot. If it’s not doing one or more of those things – lose it.

Don’t Insult Your readers

Readers aren’t stupid. When you write a scene in an elevator and clearly state there are only two characters in the car; it is not necessary to continually remind the reader who is speaking, particularly if one character calls the other by name. By process of elimination we can deduce who said what.

We’ve heard the show-don’t-tell axiom. It applies to dialogue as well as narration. If you say Skipper looked around the office warily before answering; you’ve said too much. You’ve both shown and told us he is being cautious. Looking around before answering is a wary act; saying he did it warily is redundant. Showing is better than telling, but doing both is the wont of an amateur.

Where Do You Find Good Dialogue?

A fun place to learn dialogue is old movies. Who doesn’t love the verbal fencing of Bogey and Bacall? Before the CGI effects and bouncy nude scenes, movies relied on plot and dialogue to entertain audiences. Imagine that.

Insightful language can be found everywhere: television, radio, books, and plays. In a stage play, the entire story is told through dialogue. Every line counts. Go to a used-book store and pick up a few scripts (straight plays not musicals). It’s a cheap and enjoyable way to take a course in writing dialogue. I recommend David Mamet and Peter Shaffer.

Here are Three Links to Advice on Writing Dialogue

1 – The first is from Ginny Wiehardt, who has taught writing at CUNY, Pratt Institute, and Poets House. Prior to that, she worked in publishing. She has been the Guide to Fiction Writing for since 2005. Her piece is loaded with free bonuses. Each tip has a link to another article.

2 – “Escape Your Speaking Brain to Write Better Dialogue”, by Jason Black of Author, a publication of The Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association. In this article, Jason discusses such topics as the difference between dialect and accent.

3 – Finally, a practical offering from Peter Brandvold, a writer of more than 30 works of western fiction. Peter addresses another ‘tell’ of the amateur, which is to use dialogue solely to convey information. In other words, dialogue should never be used to tell the reader things that would be obvious or known to the character. “Oh Mandy, when your husband Barry, who’s a singer, gets here; he’ll be sad.” I’m quite sure Mandy knows her husband’s name and profession.

A Final Note

You can’t discuss dialogue without mentioning the incomparable Cormac McCarthy, who has been called the greatest writer in the English language. He writes dialogue almost devoid of attributions and curiously, without quotation marks, yet it works. His characters are so well developed that we know who is speaking not only because of what they say but how they say it. Each character has unique verbal mannerisms, rhythm and style. It works because Mr. McCarthy (Saint Cormac of the Most Literati) is not only a literary genius; he is a professional. He is aware that his style would be difficult to follow were it not for the care he takes in crafting every line.

If everyone could write like him there would be no need for the Pulitzer. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire. It certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work every day to improve our writing. The process is the thing. It takes hard work to be a good writer, but it’s work we love.

by Joe Hefferon, Author of The Sixth Session and The 7th Level – Designing Your Extraordinary Life, due out in June 2012

Posted by on June 6, 2012. Filed under Books,Joe Hefferon. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to Writing Better Dialogue

  1. A. Yamina Collins

    June 6, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    Great post, Joe. Very informative.

    It’s funny, reading this made me think how often I do NOT carefully consider my dialogue more often.

    And I agree…the old movies and plays were gems in the dialogue arena. Check out something like ‘His Girl Friday.’

    Man, I wish I could write like that.

    Yamina Collins

  2. Becca Mills

    June 7, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    Terrific advice — thank you!

  3. Pingback: Write Better Dialogue! | Yaminatoday - A Literary Blog That Entertains & Educates

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  5. Linda Bahnan

    March 24, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    This is a superb, no-nonsense article. Dialogue is the essence of ‘Show; don’t tell.’

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