Let’s Talk!

That is, let’s talk about writing dialogue. It’s the single best way to show readers what’s going on (and, as Anne Lamott says, it’s a complete change of pace from all that writing). It’s also the single most difficult thing to get right. Many, many authors have trouble writing words for their characters to say that, you know, feel real. Like you can imagine people actually saying those things. With dialogue, it’s the tiniest details that make the difference.

So if you agonize when you’re writing dialogue, here are some suggestions that might help.

• I’ve been told that a good way to learn to write dialogue is to study scriptwriting or playwriting. (Because how often do you see a movie with no dialogue? Ha.) Or just watch some great dialogue-driven movies; think Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers. Another way is to read authors who are known for good dialogue. Raymond Chandler springs to mind. Elmore Leonard. Oh yeah.

• To test your dialogue, hold a reading of your manuscript: have friends over, assign them parts, and then read the dialogue out loud as if it were a script. This will make any coherence or authenticity problems pop: your friends will say “Huh?” and you’ll know something’s not working.

• And let’s talk about some of those problems. One of the most common errors I see is what I call exposition masquerading as dialogue, in which the characters tell each other things they (the characters) already know, just so the reader will be given that information. (“Remember last year when we drove to San Antonio together and had that big wreck? Boy, I thought you’d never walk again!”) Just say no to exposition masquerading as dialogue; when you use character conversation as a means to dump information, it ceases to sound authentic.

• Name-calling is what I use to describe the phenomenon in which characters call each other by name all the time—but which doesn’t happen all that much in real life. Seriously, how often do you use your best friend’s name in conversation with him? Think about it. (And that goes double for endearments. It’s just tiresome on the page.)

• We don’t need to pick up a conversation from the “Hey, how are you?” stage; don’t waste your word-count on that. And don’t telegraph a change of subject (“Like we were saying earlier …” or “But back to [insert subject here] …”). Just change the subject, full stop; that’s how people talk.

• When we are talking amongst ourselves, we speak quickly, we interrupt each other, we fail to finish sentences, and we definitely use contractions. Use all of these devices to make your dialogue more real. And remember that soliloquies happen in Shakespeare, but not that often in real life. Break up long monologues by inserting body language and other pauses; otherwise the conversation just grinds to a halt.

• Watch for repeated use of sentences beginning with “well” or “so.” It may happen a lot in real life but it’s just plain annoying in a book. If you feel you must, limit the use of this gimmick to one character. In moderation.

• Consider the use of slang to help with characterization, to identify one character’s speech-patterns from another; take caution that everyone in your story doesn’t sound the same. (This happens a lot.) Each character should have a distinct voice. We don’t all sound alike, and we don’t all use language in the same way. Think about the way Steve Irwin always said “Crikey!” for example; you can use something like this as a technique to make a character immediately identifiable. Just don’t overdo it—and if you are using slang that’s specific to a people group (say, rhyming slang used by the English and Irish), make sure to let readers in on it; otherwise it’s just frustrating for them. (Frankly, I still don’t get rhyming slang, but I’m pretty sure it’s a personal failing.)

• And here’s the thing with slang’s first cousin, dialect: Mark Twain is the acknowledged master and the rest of us are just pretenders to his throne (with the possible exception of Irvine Welsh—Trainspotting—who does a wonderful Scots dialect). But since it’s necessary sometimes, the best thing to do is use just enough to give the idea you’re trying to convey without spelling every single word phonetically (which is really, really hard to read; again, see Irvine Welsh). Readers will take what you give them and fill it out in their mind’s ear. In other words, a little bit goes a long way.

I have more to say on this subject, but let’s pause here and continue in the next post.

Tweet: Let’s talk! Great tips for improving your dialogue.

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  1. TNeal says:

    Excellent stuff, Jamie. You offer some practical guidelines in developing dialogue and characterization.–Tom

  2. Thanks Jamie—them’re good ideers. You’ve nailed at least three systemic errors in my current project…

    …which is adapting a dialog-filled, first-person novel into a screenplay. As an example, read “Golf’s Sacred Journey” and then go watch the movie version “Seven Days In Utopia” (fall 2011) to see how the first-person narrator’s recap/description of a dialog scene gets turned into a filmed dialog scene. So many movies are based on novels…

    Remember reading scripts of upcoming Veggie Tales episodes? The conversations made NO SENSE. A few months later when we saw the finished episode it became clear that what’s on the page in a screenplay is far less important than what’s in the director’s mind or in the actor’s toolkit (or on the storyboards for that matter).

    • Jamie says:

      Thank you, Wayne. My fave book-to-movie is “High Fidelity.” Nick Hornby is really, really good at dialogue, and great swaths of it were used in the film. A FB friend mentioned that she thought the dialogue in television’s “The West Wing” was really well done, but I can’t decide if I like it because it feels authentic or just because it’s clever. “Clever” could conceivably cover a multitude of sins. :)

  3. One thing I love about William Gibson’s novels is that when the narrative shifts to a particular character, the language suddenly changes to reflect that character.

    If we’re “looking at” a character who is an educated advertising type the language changes almost to her narrative in the third person. Not so much her thoughts, but the way she perceives the world. If it’s an autistic Hispanic boy nicknamed Silencio, the language becomes both cryptic and simplified. Or an American fluent in Russian, addicted to prescription painkillers… it’s all about finding the next fix. And if he translates things he gets more drugs from his handler. I think all this is in Spook Country and Pattern Recognition. Maybe All Tomorrow’s Parties.

    Love what you said about Tarantino. It’s like he disguises the great dialog with extreme violence. (Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown are some great movies.)

    • Jamie says:

      I must read more of Gibson. I know I read one you recommended to me years ago, but his name keeps coming across my desk. Time to choose another.

  4. jenny says:

    Which precisely describes the torture of reading through “A Clockwork Orange”. Surely they haven’t made a movie of that nonsense…?!

    • Chloe Mayo says:

      Oh, thank goodness! You must be the first person I’ve come across who also thinks that “A Clockwork Orange” is far from marvellous.

  5. […] they are words like so and well used at the beginning of sentences of dialogue. Often it’s amazing (and you know how I […]

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