How to Write Good Dialogue (Part Two)

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.”

How to Write Good Dialogue

Well-written dialogue doesn’t draw attention to itself. Instead, it quietly goes about its business, revealing truth and ferrying the plot toward its conclusion.

Bad dialogue, on the other hand, stands out like a man wearing a clown costume to a funeral. (Unless it’s a clown funeral. Then it’s like a man not wearing a clown costume to a funeral.)

But for all its invisibility, good dialogue does a lot of heavy lifting. Besides giving voice to your characters, dialogue frequently puts legs on that “show, don’t tell” axiom.

For a rare few writers, writing dialogue is as natural as breathing. It’s second nature to them. But for many others, writing good dialogue is one part chore, two parts challenge. For them, dialogue is an unrepentant thief of patience during the revision process.

For those who are in this latter category, I offer the following tips. As with pretty much every other bit of writing advice that exists, there are always exceptions. For example, you can use intentionally stilted or awkward dialogue to help shape a unique character. Maybe the creepy guy who’s stalking the protagonist never uses contractions. (This would certainly enhance his creepiness.) Maybe the daughter of the rich oil baron talks as if quoting lines from a bad romance novel because that’s all she ever read in her sheltered life. But even in those cases, it takes a deft writing hand to craft appropriate dialogue that fits both character and context. It’s not as simple as writing badly.

But I digress. On to the dialogue tips:

Simplify Attributions – As much as possible, just use “said” and “asked” and their variations in dialogue scenes. Or use nothing at all when the context makes it unquestionably clear who’s talking. People who bark, spit, grunt, or burp their words need to see a doctor. Or a veterinarian. Clever attributions can divert attention from the dialogue to the attribution itself. You don’t want this to happen. “Trust me,” he puked.

Don’t Be a Puppet Master – In real life, people bring assumptions and prior knowledge to a conversation. This is also true for your fictional characters. Don’t force dialogue through your characters’ throats because you need to tell the reader something. If the information wouldn’t naturally be revealed in the context of the conversation, find another way to deliver it. Your characters aren’t puppets; they’re people. Treat them as such.

Maintain Believable Pacing – Most conversations aren’t like a game of ping-pong, despite how convenient it would be to use ping-pong as a visual metaphor. Unlike ping-pong, the back and forth of conversation is uneven, sometimes dominated by one party, sometimes rapid-fire, sometimes languid. Context should always determine who’s talking and what they’re saying. There is a rhythm to good dialogue, but it’s rarely something you can set  your metronome to. Don’t force characters to speak just because you’re uncomfortable with their silence. Always let the moment decide its own pacing.

Avoid Long Monologues – I know. One of your characters is a blowhard. He likes the sound of his voice and this is important to the character development or plot. Let him have his way. But don’t make a habit out of long speeches unless the story requires it. Dialogue usually requires two people. And while one may say little while the other says a lot (see pacing, above), giving characters pages of monological diatribes risks boring the reader. And in my experience, long-winded monologues are frequently evidence of a kind of laziness on the part of the writer. Rather than revealing important information contextually and through creative “show, don’t tell” opportunities, they make their characters dump it on the page for them (see puppet note above).

Kill (Most) Adverbs – Do I need to say it again? Only use adverbs when they actually add something to the dialogue. If it’s clear the character is upset and yelling, you don’t need to add that she’s yelling “loudly.” Yelling is, without further qualification, loud. That said, you might actually find use for adverbs in the dialogue itself. Real people use them in conversation (though not as much as you might think). That’s fine. Just don’t staple them willy-nilly to all your attributions.

Use Contractions – Unless you’re writing a period piece or a novel that otherwise demands the stiff-upper-lippedness of contraction-free speech,  please use them without apology. They just sound more natural. This, by the way, holds true not only for dialogue, but also for the rest of your narrative. If you want to challenge this advice, that’s fine. Please have your well-thought-out reasoning notarized by at least three editors who agree with you before presenting it to me. Thanks.

Don’t Give Readers Whiplash – “A lot of newbie authors,” he began, turning to look her mascara-streaked face, “suffer from this malady.” He looked down. “They break up a single piece of dialogue,” he continued, “with so many little ‘asides’ that the reader gets whiplash.” He looked up into her eyes again. “Do you know what I mean?”

There’s a time and place for action in the middle of dialogue, and when done right, that action can greatly enhance a scene. A well-timed look or touch can speak volumes. Just don’t use action to distraction.

Use Dialects Sparingly – Some of the best novels ever written are packed with well-defined characters who speak with dialects that by their very nature reveal a certain level of education or perhaps a country (or region) of origin. Characters with unique or easily-recognizable dialects can add a great deal to a story. However, crafting believable characters with any sort of dialect is no easy task. In part, this is because the dialect you see with your eyes (on the page) has a much different “feel” than a dialect you hear with your ears. In some cases, dialect can detract rather than enhance a story. If your character’s speech is hard to understand (and this isn’t due to an intentional plot point), consider dialing back on dialect. And whenever you do use it, just be sure you’re consistent both to the way such a person would speak in real life, and from scene to scene in the story itself. Otherwise your characters will sound like Kevin Costner in…well…any movie where he attempts an accent.

What other dialogue tips do you have? Share them in the comments. Meanwhile…

“Happy writing,” he said.

Hey, guess what? There’s a Part Two to this ol’ blogpost. Click me to go to there.

The Beauty of Things Unsaid (Advice for the 2nd Draft)

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

~Anton Chekhov

Words are a writer’s currency. But too many words – or the wrong ones – will devalue a written work faster than an oil spill devalues an oil company’s stock.

This isn’t news to you. You know all too well the struggle to find the right words to tell your story. (Put down the thesaurus. That’s not what I mean. Have you even been reading this blog?) And so you write. And write. And write some more. And you finally finish your first draft.

And yet when you go back to read what you’ve written, it just doesn’t “feel” right. It’s not like you’re missing any key ingredients. The characters are believable. The plot is moving along just fine. There’s plenty of lovely description to set the scene.

But something’s wrong.

Now, it could just be that your writing sucks. (This is where you look around the room to see who else I might be talking to, because surely it isn’t you. I mean, your crit partners loved your short story about the fruit fly that preferred vegetables. “It’s a work of literary genius,” “a powerful metaphor about love and loss,” “like Animal Farm, but with insects,” they told you. Well, their actual words were, “it didn’t make me want to vomit,” but that’s essentially the same thing, right?)

Or it could be that you’re simply saying too much.

There are lots of ways “too many words” can steal the power from a story. Here are the three most common that I run into:

The Telling

I love the Chekhov quote at the top of this post. I haven’t found a better one to describe the difference between “telling” and “showing.” But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. You already know why showing is generally better than telling. So why, then, do you have an entire paragraph dedicated to telling us what the protagonist is anticipating immediately preceding paragraphs that so beautifully show us exactly what happens?

There’s nothing wrong with some internal thoughts here and there. Nor is there anything wrong with the occasional telling. But there’s rarely a need to have both the telling and the showing. I bet you can find at least a dozen places in your first draft where you do this. Yes, showing usually takes more words than telling (not always). But the showing words aren’t the problem. Trim the redundant telling. Your readers will thank you. (In their hearts.)

The Describing

There are very few writers who can do detailed description well. I’m talking about the sort of detail that reveals every shadow and wrinkle on a bruised white rose lit by twilight, or the font (and foundry it came from) that graces the title page of the book buried beneath a pile of similarly dust-deviled tomes that the protagonist reaches for with paint-stained fingers (Sherwin-Williams Rookwood Amber). (See? I’m not one of those writers. I’m okay with that.)

But just because we don’t have that skill doesn’t mean we don’t attempt it. What happens, though, is we end up with wordy descriptions that tell us stuff we don’t really care to know (or need to know). For example, if you simply tell me that a bowling ball rolls off the top shelf and lands on your hero’s head, that paints a clear enough picture for me to see it happen. Do I need to know that it was a 15 pound red and black Brunswick Evil Siege bowling ball? Well, maybe I do. Does the specific brand/weight/color play into the story elsewhere? Or are you being intentionally over-descriptive because it makes the scene funnier? In those cases, fine. But otherwise? I’ll paint the bowling ball black (or green if I actually owned one of my own that happened to be green) and assume it’s heavy enough to do the necessary damage.

I know what you’re thinking. All those writing books tell you to be specific. Hell, I’ll tell you that right here, too. Be specific. But…learn when to leave the rest of the picture to the reader’s imagination. If it’s not critical to the story (or the writer’s voice) that the character uses a Rachael Ray blue porcelain 10-inch skillet to kill the spider, just let the character use a plain ol’ skillet.

The Dialoging

I love this one. Dialogue is one of my favorite things to write (and edit). Let’s start here: Take a minute to listen to real-life dialogue. Now, imagine transcribing that verbatim. It doesn’t quite look right, does it. One reason for this is the fact that you can’t actually layer multiple conversations on top of each other. If two people are talking at the same time, you can say so in your novel, but you’ll still have to run their words one sentence after another because you can’t stamp them on top of each other. (Well, you could, but that would look like a printer error.) Because of this, if you include every actual spoken word, dialogue that only takes a moment to speak in real time can stretch on for pages when written. Think of your written dialogue as spoken dialogue that’s been edited not only for content, but also for clarity and rhythm.

Also, real conversation has lots of non-words and repeated-ad-nauseum words in it, things like ums and ers and likes and plenty of unintelligible grunts and groans. Put all of them on the page and your readers will wonder what sorts of drugs you abuse.

But I still haven’t gotten to the biggest wordiness problem with dialogue: hijacking the character to deliver information readers should get elsewhere. You’ll recognize this dialogue by the way your character suddenly appears to be a puppet for the plot rather than a real human being.

“Is the sword shaped like a cross with a sharp dagger end that’s dangling over your head making you nervous, Edward?”

“No, Jacob. But you should be scared because I’m baring my fangs right now and they’re really menacing because they’re sharp and I’m smiling at the same time which is ironic and therefore underscores my obvious lack of fear.”

Please. Don’t. Go. There.

Instead, establish the scene so we know Edward is standing under the cross with the sharp dagger end. Then all you have to write is this:

“Nervous?”

Edward looks up at the cross then back to Jacob. He smiles, then bares his fangs.

“Not even a little.”

I know, my example is over the top. I did that on purpose. But you get the idea. If you need to deliver information to the reader about something in a scene, only use dialogue if it’s the sort of information the character would organically include in the course of the conversation.

Well, that’s all the questionable wisdom I have for you today, friends. Now get back to that second draft and start chopping.