“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”
“The real secret is to remember that people will do everything they can to protect themselves from hurt or betrayal or embarrassment. So no one wants to let anyone but their closest friends know what they’re really feeling. Therefore we use humor, cynicism, and other defense mechanisms to protect our feelings. Truly put yourself into the beingness of your characters and write from their point-of-view, rather than have them spout things you want them to say. Characters will then surprise you – say things you didn’t expect or do things you didn’t expect them to do. This is when characters really come alive.”
Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But somehow, it’s just … not. The truth is, crafting realistic, well-rounded dialogue is often one of the most difficult tasks a fiction writer faces, no matter how seasoned he or she may be. Taking the time to understand and identify what causes written speech to sing or simply fall flat on its face is the essential first step in improving your dialogue. Then, all that’s left is practice. Lots and lots of practice.
What makes dialogue in writing work?
- It has a ring of authenticity. Think of authenticity as a studied imperfection. Your dialogue should sound like people actually sound, which is to say, full of pauses and backpedals and deep breaths in or out. When dialogue doesn’t resonate, a story falls painfully flat.
- It flows convincingly. Conversations are like ping pong matches. The power is volleyed back and forth, sometimes at a leisurely pace and other times in a more frenetic manner. Your dialogue, too, should be masterfully and believably paced.
- It feels true to the characters. Each of your characters should also speak in a distinct voice that reveals something about them; speech doesn’t always match actions, but it often gets pretty darned close.
- It’s clever. And don’t conflate “clever” with “funny” or even “light-hearted.” Here, by clever, we mean it’s masterfully executed, easily understood, and sometimes even beautiful.
- It doesn’t do all the work. Don’t force your dialogue to do all the heavy lifting, or you risk inundating your readers with too much information and boring them in the process. Take the time to develop the subtext readers need to follow the conversation.
- It leaves something to the imagination. Give your reader license to infer the tone from the dialogue itself instead of relying on a host of bloated, distracting adverbs to do the job for you: “‘This chicken pot pie is cold,’ He said disdainfully/angrily/maniacally.” Steven King once opined that the road to hell is paved with adverbs. Agreed. If that pot pie is cold, let us see your character take a big, gooey, drippy bite and spit it into a napkin. A bit more vivid, isn’t it?
How you can improve your own dialogue
- Slow down. Literary geniuses excepting (Think: Faulkner tripping along behind his eloquent characters, pen in quivering hand), every writer benefits from slowing down when it comes time to craft a bit of dialogue. Yes, people speak at rapid-fire pace, but don’t make the mistake of writing your dialogue with equal careless frenzy: it will not sound realistic even if you do. Give in to the paradox and begin to craft your dialogue with more care, time, and intention.
- Read it aloud. Read your dialogue aloud to yourself – exactly as you’ve written it, pausing at commas and stopping at periods. Pay attention to where you stumble or run out of breath – this is where it may still need work. Then, read your dialogue aloud to others – exactly as you’ve written it, pausing at commas and stopping at periods. Ask for feedback from your audience.
- Eavesdrop incessantly. Good writers are usually great listeners. Spend a little less time flapping those overly literate gums and a little more time just hearing the world. Listen for patterns of inflection and interesting verbal quirks, and become familiar with the cadence of conversation – the way two (or more) speakers volley back and forth, whether they’re fighting or merely sitting down to tea. It’s a dance, equal parts waltz and stumble, and learning its rhythms will improve your written dialogue by leaps and bounds.
- Know your characters. Spend some time thinking about and sketching out who they are as three-dimensional people. Where do they come from? Are they educated? Do they give words to their thoughts slowly, and with intention, or do they let the verbiage fly at will? Manner of speaking is a window into temperament and personality. One should always match the other.
- Become a collector of great/awful dialogue examples. The point here isn’t to shame or to gloat the sometimes-graceless efforts of other writers, but to get a better handle of what works and what doesn’t. Once you start paying attention, you’ll spot endless examples of incredibly realistic and horribly awkward dialogue in books, movies and television shows. Good dialogue is invisible – you, the listener, viewer or reader, are simply pulled along. Bad dialogue is conspicuous in its badness: it makes you stop, pause, and wrinkle your brow. Take careful note, and learn from the mistakes of others.
- No dumping on the reader! Dialogue-heavy sections are not the place in which to foist upon readers all the backstory and character history you couldn’t figure out how to work into the rest of your piece. People reminisce, remind and clarify in speech all the time, it’s true. But they do it in bits and drabs, not in dumptruck-sized loads that swallow characters (or readers) whole. Dole out backup information conservatively, and in small, easily chewable portions. Your readers will thank you.
- Grant them their “ums” and “ahs.” Human speech is chock-full of tics. Let your characters pause, hem, haw, mutter, backpedal and forward-pedal freely. Few of us have the oratory skills to emit strings of flawlessly executed dialogue in normal conversation. And few of us have the luxury of rehearsal. Because of these two things, we muddle our way through conversation, strengthening our opinions and positions as we go, or sometimes changing our minds entirely. It’s not a linear process. When your characters speak, let the seams show just a bit. But be careful not to overdo the dialect and regional quirks; it’s distracting and sometimes hard to decipher.
Here’s a fun writing exercise: Take two characters who don’t like each other and put them in a small space together; elevator, broken down car, a bed, a cave. Let them talk.
Read Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” here.
- How do you react to the dialogue in this piece? Where did it work/not work?
- Describe the tone.
- Give a physical description of characters based on information and impressions. Is this easy or hard?
- Did you have enough information? What info aren’t we given?
- How would this story be different if the conversation between the characters were more direct? Do you prefer it this way?
- What challenges might an author run into in when using heavy dialect?