Many writers approach dialogue with a rather cavalier swagger. After all, it’s just talking. We do it all the time. How hard can it be to write?
Well, I’m not going to lie to you. Writing good dialogue is hard. I wrestled with it for years when I was a slim, good-looking young writer who didn’t make weird noises when he stood up and didn’t have to sit back down again to tie his shoelaces.
But now that I’m a less slim older writer, I’ve learned that it can be done. And just like everything else in writing, it’s a combination of art and craft. The art is in listening to how the people around you speak, and in assimilating the rhythms and patterns of what they say. The craft is in relentless practice.
Luckily, I’ve already done these things, so I might be able to save you some time. And if you’ve discovered something about writing dialogue that might save me some time, let me know. I’m open to anything that will give me a few extra minutes to spend on the important stuff in life, like watching cats fall off tables on YouTube and thinking about tidying my office.
So, here are what I consider to be the three most important things you can do right now to improve your dialogue. When you’re editing your first draft (or even when you’re writing it) bear them in mind and see if they help your dialogue come to life.
1. Character and dialogue
Dialogue is a shortcut into your characters. The way they speak should reflect who they are. Do you know two people who speak exactly alike in real life? Perhaps you’ve never paused to notice, but we all have our idiosyncrasies. We have pet words and phrases, particular rhythms to our speech, varying degrees of eloquence and hesitancy.
If one of your characters is a battle-fatigued soldier, he’s unlikely to speak like a middle-class mom in the suburbs. Similarly, she’s probably got different speech patterns to a deprived kid living in an inner-city neighborhood.
Trying different voices
Instead of showing you examples, I want you to do some work yourself now. Take each of the three types above (battle-weary soldier, soccer mom, and underprivileged teen) and imagine someone has asked them this question: “Can you loan me five bucks?”
Try it now. Write a couple of sentences in their three distinct voices as they answer the question. I’ll do it too:
Soldier: “Five bucks? What the hell you want five bucks for out here? What you gonna spend it on? A ticket outta here? No tickets outta this place, bud. ‘Cept in a bag.”
Mom: “Of course I can, sweetie. Here, take ten, and remember to call me when you get there, because you know how much Dad worries, and those pills the doctor gave him don’t seem to be doing anything much for his blood pressure.”
Kid: “Man, I had five bucks I’d help you. But I ain’t got jack. How ‘bout you loan me five bucks and we see if we can’t boost another ten from Rico.”
It’s a simple enough exercise, but I hope you can see the differences in the voices you’ve created, just by trying to imagine these stereotypes. In your real writing, if you’ve created truly round characters, you’ll find their speech arises naturally from them as you get to know them more and more. In this way, dialogue kind of creates itself. The better you know your characters, the more natural will be their dialogue.
Consistency is key
But once you’ve found their voice, you need to be consistent with it. Our battle-hardened soldier speaks in questions because he’s traumatized and questioning everything. And he speaks in short bursts, almost like bursts of gunfire. But if he were a character in our novel, we couldn’t suddenly have him start talking in long, grandiose sentences, full of literary allusions and intellectual asides. His speech is an expression of his character, so even if he is transformed by his story, any changes to the way he speaks must still be a reflection of who he is.
2. Keep it brief and to the point
This one’s relatively easy to implement, and if you’re editing a short story or a novel, you’ll spot it straight away.
The cardinal rule of writing effective dialogue is it should advance the plot.
This means no small talk, no circuitous greetings and farewells (unless you’ve got a damn good reason for one), no talk about the weather, and so on. If you find your characters discussing what they should have for dinner, cut it. Do it now and do it with extreme prejudice. And then sprinkle the page with salt, just to be sure.
Everything your characters say should move the story along. If it doesn’t, cut it.
We don’t speak in soliloquies
This feeds into how much your characters have to say. Listen again to how people talk in real life. You’ll notice that we generally speak in relatively short bursts. We say something, someone responds — or interrupts — and then we say something else. Rinse and repeat.
We don’t usually speak in lengthy, highly-eloquent and erudite soliloquies. We don’t make grand speeches or expound for twenty minutes on our topic of the moment — unless we’re actually giving a speech, but that’s an artificial situation, and besides, my advice still holds firm: stick to the point and don’t go on and on.
If you find your characters speaking for a page (or even half a page) without pause, chances are it’s not going to sound natural. Of course, sometimes there are occasions when someone does speak uninterrupted at length, but even then, I’d still recommend breaking up the dialogue with some stage directions or activity. After a paragraph of speech, you might interrupt things with something like, “She took a deep breath and sipped her wine,” or “He waited until his hand stopped shaking, and when he was sure he wouldn’t make a fool of himself, he continued.”
The dreaded info dump
All of which leads us inexorably to the vaguely scatological crime of info-dumping. This can crop up anywhere in fiction, of course, but it’s probably at its worst in dialogue. And it’s such an easy trap to fall into; I’ve done it myself, many times. We’re told “show don’t tell” so we avoid telling things in the narrative by putting it into the mouths of our characters. But “show don’t tell” applies as much to dialogue as anything else, and stuffing a boatload of information into a forced conversation doesn’t solve anything. It just makes the dialogue unnatural and clunky. Look out for exchanges like this:
“Where’s our daughter?” Mr Doe said as he entered the kitchen.
“You mean Jane?” Mrs Doe said without looking up from her newspaper. She took a bite of toast. “She won’t be back until tomorrow, John. As you know, she missed her train last night so she had to catch one this morning to get back in time for Thanksgiving. She works so hard studying Unpronounceable Diseases at the university that she’s becoming almost as forgetful as you.”
As a quick exercise, see if you can rewrite this brief exchange to remove the info dump without losing the information. Here’s my try:
“Where’s Jane?” Mr Doe said as he entered the kitchen.
“I told you last night,” Mrs Doe said and took a bite of toast without looking up from her newspaper.
Mr Doe scratched his head. “So you did,” he said and slapped his forehead. “My memory’s getting worse. And so’s hers if she can’t remember to catch a damn train.”
“She’ll be back this afternoon. Now go and check the turkey.”
“She comes home once a year and she still can’t get here on time,” he muttered as he crossed the kitchen to the fully-loaded oven. “Maybe she should be studying memory loss, instead of Unpronounceable Diseases.”
We’re not going to set the world of literature on fire with this, but removing the info dump does make it livelier, doesn’t it? So, when you see something similar in your draft, put on a hard hat and get remodeling.
3. Dramatic irony
This is one of my favorite literary devices and while it has a broad definition and can be applied at various scales of a story, it can also work very well on the smaller scale of dialogue. Essentially, dramatic irony is created when a reader (or viewer or listener) knows something that your protagonist doesn’t. There are examples everywhere, but a good, simple example is Disney’s Beauty and the Beast — we know from the start that the Beast is really a handsome prince, but Belle doesn’t. We’re a step ahead of her and thus a different kind of tension results from the dissonance between our knowledge and hers.
In dialogue, the effect is smaller but no less effective, and it can be created when characters say things that are different from what they think. For example, let’s imagine a scenario where a man is secretly in love with his work colleague but is too scared to do anything about it. We can tell the story from his point of view, so he knows it and we know it, but his colleague doesn’t. We might get an interaction like this:
“I’m glad we’re working together on this project,” Jane said. “I’d be lost without you. You’re like . . . I don’t know, the big brother I never had.”
Jack’s heart sank but he said nothing. Around them, the pathology lab was quiet and empty. He feared that by breaking the silence, he’d somehow break this fragile moment with her.
“I guess that makes me your little sister, huh?”
“You don’t mind having such a flaky little sister, do you?”
Did he mind? How could he mind when he’d gladly jump out of this fifth-floor window if she told him to? How could he mind when his “sister” was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, that anyone had ever seen?
But instead he said, “Sure. It’s fine.”
We’re edging dangerously close to melodrama and overwriting here, but it illustrates the point. The dramatic irony arises from the conflict between Jack’s feelings for Jane and her complete ignorance of them. And it’s heightened by the overblown romantic nature of his thoughts and the terse responses that reinforce Jane’s (false) perception of the situation.
When you have your draft under the editing microscope, look out for opportunities to put your characters’ words at odds with their true feelings.
There’s so much more to say about dialogue and we’ll be examining it further soon. In the meantime, take your time to carefully review how your characters speak and see if there are any places where you can use it to add depth or reveal dramatic irony. But keep it on point and don’t let your characters ramble. Because they will, if you give them half a chance. Stay focused and keep everybody — including yourself — under control.
But remember, don’t restrict your characters too much. Because if you create them with enough depth, and you really get to know them, they might just start speaking for you.