My ancient (by Internet standards) post on “How to Write Good Dialogue” is inarguably the most popular of my bloggish renderings, based on search data anyway. (You probably preferred this one because you don’t like to follow the crowd. You’re the anti-hipster of hipsters.) It seemed prudent, then, to follow that up with another post on dialogue. [Checks date on previous post.] Yeah, I’m a little slow when it comes to prudence.
Anyway, here you go.
Wait…you read the other post, right? Well click here (or above where it’s also linked because I’m a linking fool) first. Then come back to this page for more dialogical goodness. [I don’t need to mention that there are exceptions to everything I tell you below, do I? I mean, you’re smart enough to know that without a reminder, right? Good. Then I won’t remind you.]
Look, Who’s Talking Now? – One of the most common dialogue problems I run into with first-time novelists is that all the characters sound alike. While this can appear to happen in real life (see: junior high girls), it doesn’t really. The words we choose to spit or drool from our lips differ from one person to the next (even among junior high girls). So does the rhythm of those words – the spaces between them. Some people repeat themselves because they don’t have many words to choose from. Some people use big words because they read a lot of books or found an abandoned thesaurus while waiting at the DMV. Our speech patterns are uniquely our own. Listen. No, I’m not saying that so you’ll pay closer attention to this blogpost. I’m encouraging you to actually listen to Real People in Conversation. Then apply what you’ve learned to your fiction. If you know your characters well (this is a theme I will never stop shouting), you’ll know how each of them uses language. Write that way. In the perfect written world, readers should be able to identify characters simply by their dialogue.
Are You Listening? – When a character is talking, the presumption is that the people they’re talking to are really listening. Because, of course, what your character is saying is Really Important to the Plot. But maybe they’re not listening quite so intently after all. Maybe they’re queuing up a response, unwilling to hear what the speaker is saying because what they have to say is so much more important. (This never happens in real life. Ahem.) Or maybe they’re distracted by something going on around them. (Despite how they might look on the page, conversations don’t exist in a vacuum. The world spins madly on.) Or maybe they’re actively ignoring the speaker, not because they have something more important to say, but because they simply don’t like the jerk. Consider how the characters are (or aren’t) listening, and you’ll naturally write more believable dialogue.
Context Rules – Don’t feed lines to your characters so they can tell the readers what is going on. That’s just lazy and rude. Use context to deliver the details that people wouldn’t naturally be talking about. Show me the red button that triggers the missiles. Don’t make the character say, “This is the red button that triggers the missiles” if everyone in the room already knows that. Whenever a character reveals something that he wouldn’t naturally say in conversation with the person he’s talking to, I am pushed out of the moment, forced to consider the possibility that these characters are pausing their story to talk directly to me. That’s just dumb. (Unless you’re using that perspective/voice as a literary device. But please, don’t do this unless you’re really a brilliant writer. Thanks.) Build context, then trust it.
I Know, Right? – Characters who know each other pre-exist that conversation on the page; they have a history together. They communicate (just like you do with people you know) in a kind of shorthand. Not everything is said – not everything needs to be said. When Bob says, “He’s dead, Jim,” to Bonnie, there’s no need to explain this to the reader. Let the characters have lives beyond the page. As above, allow context to give us enough to figure out the rest. Instead of writing “Bonnie smiled, remembering how Bob always used to watch Star Trek.” Have her respond with a smile and, “No, he’s only pining.” Don’t explain it. It’s their in-joke. Some readers will know the references, some won’t. That’s okay. What all readers will get from that exchange is that these two have history – they know each other in a way that can be seen in a simple, unexplained exchange.
Say Something, Anything – Or don’t. Dialogue isn’t just words; it’s also the things we don’t say, the pauses and the spaces and the awkward, echoing silence. Sometimes the best thing a character can say is nothing at all. Use this sparingly for greater effect, but don’t ignore the emotional power of wordlessness.
Stop Talking – Break up those dialogue scenes with compelling expository writing. Just as Big Blocks of Expository writing can weigh heavy on some readers (I often hesitate before buying a book that is comprised of unending blocks of unbroken text), so can conversations that go on for page after page after page. It’s not a conversation, it’s a novel. Conversation is a piece of that puzzle, not the whole thing. Mix it up.
Rants and Speechifying – Rants can be entertaining. They’re usually fueled by strong emotion, so they tend to reveal a lot about the Ranter. Speeches, on the other hand, are often boring. In fiction, speeches typically appear on the page when there’s Something Very Important to say. Fine. But before you give a character a long speech, make sure he’s the speechifying kind (know your characters), and make damn sure it’s reasonable in context. So many speeches spouted by characters end up sounding like the writer is preaching to the reader. I don’t want characters to preach to me. I want them to react honestly to the circumstances they’re facing. In my experience, speeches serve best as background noise for while you check your email. Rants, however – even wrong-minded rants, especially those – can be dangerous. Danger is good for fiction. Boredom? Not so much.
‘Nuff Said – There will come a time during a conversation when one or more of the people involved will run out of things to say. Unless that’s the point of the conversation, end it sooner. Do something interesting with exposition to keep the reader’s interest. There will also come a time when a character simply doesn’t know what to say. This may be because you don’t know your character all that well. (You know what to do.) Or perhaps it’s because the conversation has simply run its course. End it. Don’t drag on conversations just to fill a page.
Bonus advice: Don’t drag out blogposts, either.
“He’s dead, Jim.”