I promised a post about writing good dialogue. So here it is. (Because you don’t want yours to end up looking like this.)
Before I share a few book excerpts, consider these general tips. Keep in mind, these are principles, not hard-and-fast rules.
- Avoid repetition of attributions. While you need the occasional “he said” and “she said,” you don’t need one for every line of dialogue. If it’s a conversation between two people, establish the characters at the beginning, then allow for the natural ebb and flow to reveal who’s saying what. Now, if you’ve got a long stretch of dialogue, you’ll need to insert the occasional “said Ben” or “said Margaret” to keep the reader from getting confused. If you’re unsure if the attribution distribution is on target, have a friend read the dialogue. If it takes more than one pass to understand who’s saying what, you might need to add an attribution or two.
- Stick to the “said” attribution as much as possible. If you’ve done a good job with character and setting and the emotion of the scene, there’s no need to have a character blurt or spout or pontificate. Context will deliver all that’s necessary for the reader to know what tone is being used.
- Don’t have characters over-use each other’s names. “Mary, I don’t believe you.” “Why not, John?” “Well, Mary, it’s because you’re a liar.” “John, how could you say such a thing?” “It’s easy, Mary. I just open my mouth and…” Okay. Get the point? While it’s probably fair to say that characters in a novel will call each other by name more often than people do in real-life conversation, pace yourself, okay John?
- Don’t have characters over-explain things. Put yourself inside the conversation and remember that characters are a part of a living, breathing world. Step into each role and imagine the assumptions that each character would have. Are they both in the same room, sitting at the same counter? Then it’s overkill for a character to say: “I set it next to the toaster that’s on this gray counter.” Instead, try something like this: “I set it right there,” he said, pointing to the toaster. Allow actions to fill in the blanks.
- Think rhythmically. Dialogue is a dance. Sometimes it’s a waltz. Sometimes it’s a tarantella. Sometimes it’s ordered, sometimes its a reckless improvisation. Usually, it’s a blend of many different steps. The quickest way to kill dialogue is to have line after line of the same droll drone. Mix it up. If it’s fun to read aloud, it’s probably fun to read silently.
- Don’t copy real-life dialogue verbatim. Written and spoken dialogue are similar – but not the same. In real life you have the benefit of body language and physical expression and actual spoken tone, but with the written word, you have to create the illusion of these things (as well as other things like interruption and simultaneous speaking and fractured thoughts). If you want, you can start with a real conversation, but as you commit it to the page, you may have to add or delete or replace words. And you’ll probably have to get rid of more than a few non-word pauses like “um” and “uh.”
- Allow characters to speak colloquially (according to their character and the time-period or culture of the novel’s setting). Unless the character is meant to sound like a British aristocrat, allow him to use contractions and sentence fragments and even to screw up his grammar now and then. Imperfections and mistakes help give characters unique personalities.
Okay. That’s just a few ideas to get you started. Now, here are a few brief scenes to illustrate effective use of dialogue. The excerpts were chosen from books randomly pulled off my meager shelf. Yes, I said “meager.” Maybe someday when I have a real house and a real life, I’ll fill a wall or two with books, but these days my pickings are slim. After I read a book, I usually just give it to a friend. (This is the second best reason to be my friend. The first is the fact that I make damn good chocolate chip cookies.) [Updated Thursday afternoon to include two more examples – from authors who have a little more estrogen than the three examples originally noted below.]
* * *
She raises the lid of the piano, strikes middle C. “Do you play?” she says.
“Classics or jazz?”
“No jazz, I’m afraid.”
“Will you play something for me?”
“Not now. I’m out of practice. Another time, when we know each other better.”
She peers into his study. “Can I look?” she says.
“Switch on the light.”
He puts on more music: Scarlatti sonatas, cat-music.
“You’ve got a lot of Byron books,” she says when she comes out. “Is he your favorite?”
“I’m working on Byron. On his time in Italy.”
“Didn’t he die young?”
“Thirty-six. They all died young…”
– from Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee
* * *
“Kath, I’ve been looking all over for you. I meant to say sorry. I mean, I’m really, really sorry. I honestly didn’t mean to hit you the other day. I wouldn’t dream of hitting a girl, and even if I did, I’d never want to hit you. I’m really really sorry.”
“It’s okay. An accident, that’s all.” I gave him a nod and made to move away. But Tommy said brightly:
“The shirt’s all right now. It all washed out.”
“It didn’t hurt, did it? When I hit you?”
“Sure. Fractured skull. Concussion, the lot. Even Crow Face might notice it. That’s if I ever get up there.”
“But seriously, Kath. No hard feelings, right? I’m awfully sorry. I am, honestly.”
At last I gave him a smile and said with no irony: “Look, Tommy, it was an accident and it’s now one hundred percent forgotten. I don’t hold it against you one tiny bit.”
– from Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
* * *
We sat and looked out. Brett stared straight ahead. Suddenly she shivered.
“Want to walk back?”
“Through the park.”
We climbed down. It was clouding over again. In the park it was dark under the trees.
“Do you still love me, Jake?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Because I’m a goner,” Brett said.
“I’m a goner. I’m mad about the Romero boy. I’m in love with him, I think.”
“I wouldn’t be if I were you.”
“I can’t help it. I’m a goner. It’s tearing me all up inside.”
“Don’t do it.”
“I can’t help it. I’ve never been able to help anything.”
“You ought to stop it.”
“How can I stop it? I can’t stop things. Feel that?”
Her hand was trembling.
“I’m like that all through.”
“You oughtn’t to do it.”
“I can’t help it. I’m a goner now, anyway. Don’t you see the difference?”
“I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to do something I really want to do. I’ve lost my self-respect.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Oh, darling, don’t be difficult…”
– from The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
* * *
“Well?” Annabel says.
“She wasn’t there. Of course she wasn’t there. Everyone was right. I was wrong. It’s over.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“You know, I really believed I could find her. Remember my senior year of college, when you came to see my photography show in the student union?”
“Of course,” Annabel says.
“There’s something I never told you. I was the last person in my class to get a show. The very last. Everyone else did one during the fall semester, but my professor thought I wasn’t ready. In the end, the only reason I got to do the show was that I spent every night for three months in the darkroom, long after everyone else was in bed, working my ass off. Then, over time, I built my own business and made it work out of sheer stubbornness. I know I wasn’t blessed with obvious talent. My art has always been something else: hardheaded determination. It always worked for me before. I thought it would work this time, that if I was determined enough, for long enough, I’d find her.”
“You did everything you could,” Annabel says.
“It wasn’t enough.”
“Where are you calling from?”
“Playa Hermosa. I’m packing up.”
No tears now, I can’t find them. Even the anger is gone. All that’s left is a dry, empty space. This longing that will never be satisfied. This guilt.
“Come home,” Annabel says.
– from The Year of Fog, by Michelle Richmond
* * *
When we return to the house, my father calls Dr. Gibson. I hang around in the den so that I can hear him in the kitchen.
“I just wondered how the baby was doing,” I hear my father say into the phone.
“That’s good, right?” my father says.
“Where is she now?” he asks.
“She’ll be there how long? . . .
“Does she have a name yet? . . .
“Baby Doris,” my father repeats. He sounds surprised, taken aback.”You say she’ll go into foster care? . . .
“It seems so — “
Dr. Gibson must make a comment about foster care and adoption, because my father says, “Yes, cold.”
I can hear my father pouring a cup of coffee. “When the system doesn’t work, what happens? . . .
“She’d be prosecuted, though. . .
“Thanks,” my father says. “I just wanted to know that the baby was okay.”
My father hangs up the phone. I move into the kitchen. He’s sipping the lukewarm coffee and looking out the kitchen window. “Hey,” he says when he hears me.
“She’s all right?” I ask.
“They’ve named her Baby Doris?”
“Apparently.” He sets the mug down. “Going to Sweetsers,” he says. “Want to come?”
I don’t have to be asked twice to accompany my father on a trip to town.
– from Light on Snow, by Anita Shreve
* * *
You may notice that these authors don’t follow “to the letter” my suggested guidelines. Well, you’ve heard a lot about a writer’s “voice,” right? One of the defining facets of that voice is the way an author presents dialogue. The use of “say” where you might expect “ask” is a matter of voice. So is the decision to have a line of dialogue follow a colon. (So, also, is the use of the occasional adverb, as you can see in two of the excerpts.) [Updated note: I like how Anita Shreve handles the phone call in her scene. This is a great example of mixing dialogue with contextual action (the daughter’s eavesdropping) in just the right measure so the reader hears everything said and unsaid.]
The main thing to ask yourself when reviewing your written dialogue is this: Does the conversation fit organically into the rest of the narrative? Does it “feel” right? If so, you’re on track. But if it pulls you out of the story or causes you to cringe, you’ve got work to do.
Okay. Tomorrow, some news about the contest entries. And (if everything goes as planned) an announcement about the winners. Plus, other random stuff.
Until then, write well.