Planet Fiction's Keys of the Craft Series
Writing Quality Dialogue
By Matt Anderson
12 Incisive Keys for Creating Convincing Dialogue
(Continued from Writing Quality Dialogue, Section One)
5. Use the fewest number of dialogue tags required to clearly and accurately tell your story.
6. Guard against overwhelming your reader.
7. Regional slang and dialect, colloquialism and other forms of patois are reserved for artists.
8. Punctuate like it’s your job.
9. Realize that fine, timeless dialogue is composed of rhythmic lyricism, a clear cadence infused with smooth, colorful musicality which enhances the novelty and heightens the intensity of your story’s reality.
10. Study and absorb all the dialogue you—and artists you respect—find particularly effective, rich evocative and powerful.
11. To properly polish dialogue, reading aloud and recording sequences that don’t seem to be working before editing are strategies many successful writers employ.
Copyright © 2012 Matthew D. Anderson. All Rights Reserved.
12 Incisive Keys for Creating Convincing Dialogue
(Continued from Writing Quality Dialogue, Section One)
|Mark Twain image is property and appears courtesy of its rights holder(s).|
4. Incorporate actions and gestures to increase the believability and effectiveness of your dialogue
Some characters—just as many players at a high-stakes poker table—have uniquely self-descriptive gestures or tells that visibly blow their cover when the author wants us to know but not to ostensibly explain that they are lying; feeling tired or ill; suffering with hidden frustration, anger or shame; or trying to mask their gut emotional response to—or true beliefs on—a comment, conversation topic, event or situation—most often when authors want the reader to know their characters are working hard to maintain politeness, appearances, reputation or the degree of esteem in which they perceive other characters hold them.
Consider the following example:
“Honey, you know, we really should throw out these records you’ve got spread all over the place. We never listen to them, and I bet we could save a ton of space in the living room.”
Cover art from The Beatles’ Abbey Road, The Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks and Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan flowed through his brain, instant reminders of the indescribable love Jack had for his albums. He was incapable of response. He paused a moment, then ponderously dragged his tongue across his upper lip, concocting an acceptable retort. That’s three times this month, he thought. I don’t think she’ll buy ‘They’re important to me.’
Jack stepped towards the four heaping stacks of beloved vinyl, threw his hands at his hips and said assertively, “I can definitely find another spot for these. Don’t think we want to get rid of the classic stuff, but relocating is no problem, babe.”
In this example Jack’s pause, his peculiar method of lip-licking, and his strategic hand-hip placement might all be known to the reader as actions unique to him, and any or all of them could be consistent, character tells for the author, if developed in multiple scenes. The descriptions and especially the two lines of internal monologue would likely be considered too much interruption, if this were a short exchange. Only because it perfectly suits our example, let’s pretend this is part of a two-page, husband-and-wife conversation on how to maximize square footage in their home so Jack’s wife Andie can finally throw those epic, themed bashes she’s always dreamed about hosting.
Detailing the physical accompaniments of characters’ speech can add a new dimension of life to the reality of your story. In addition, lengthy, uninterrupted chains of dialogue are more pleasing to the reader’s eye when infused with description. The inverse is also true: short dialogue passages read smoother when undisturbed by overly descriptive language.
This principle is overwhelmingly misunderstood by novice fiction writers. Callow creators sometimes forget they need to trust that their character development—when properly performed—will clarify for the reader exactly which character is speaking, without the obsessive inclusion of tags like “Jack said,” “Andie screamed,” “Jack corrected,” “Andie argued,” and, of course, the classic “he said”/”she said.” It is the author’s responsibility to endow all characters with unique personality, voice and tone so the reader knows who’s speaking at all times. Remember that strong, sharp, relatable dialogue is one of the author’s most powerful tools for achieving credible, multi-dimensional characterization. Intermittent dialogue tags should serve only as immediate reassurance that reader and writer are, literally, on the same page.
During the first one or two paragraphs of a dialogue sequence, use original, unique tags, but for the rest of the section—unless it is somehow impossible to ascertain which character is speaking—simply alternate lines of speech.
“We need this vacation,” she said softly, searching her husband’s eyes for anything close to empathy. “I completely hit the wall at work this week, and I know I don’t have much left.”
Jack smiled. “There’s nothing to worry about, my love; I told you. We are out of here and on a plane the weekend after my bonus. Three, four weeks, max.”
“You're sure we can afford to do this?”
“Babe, we deserve to get away, and we’re going. I can’t wait to have you all to myself for ten days. This is one for the books.”
“All right. But I don’t wanna go unless we’re sure we can still do New Year's in Catalina with everyone.”
“Absolutely, baby. You know I wouldn’t commit to your family if I wasn’t sure we could pull it off.”
“Mmm . . . there’s the man I love.”
If you’ve met your responsibility for quality character development, simply trust that your reader will know who is speaking and when. In the rare event that your characters speak the same words two or three times, as in the following example, use tags where necessary.
“We’re not going,” Andie said.
“We’re not going?”
“I said we’re not going.”
“We’re not going,” Jack repeated, still shocked at his wife’s polar shift.
Without the “Jack repeated” tag, your reader would still know which character is talking because of the pattern, but when your dialogue’s flow and your reader’s comprehension will benefit from a speech tag, employ one that is as colorful as it is precise.
This is not to say that fiction writers shouldn’t primarily stick with “said” in their tags; in fact, the reality is the opposite. As lauded American novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard suggests in his essay, “Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing,” writers should “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” This is golden advice from the supremely successful writer of Out of Sight, Get Shorty and Rum Punch, all of which were popularly adapted for the screen, the last as Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. If you’d like more reasons to accept his advice, Quentin Tarantino cited him as a profound influence and Stephen King referred to him as “the great American writer.”
It should not be ostensibly apparent to your readers that you’re detailing with your dialogue point after point of essential information. Great writers know when to get out of the way and simply allow their story to unfold organically. Your job is not to mass-dump characterization on the reader but to season your story with trenchant details thoughtfully, gracefully and distinctively, as you would your most treasured family recipe. Above all, trust that your reader will remember the most crucial information from earlier sequences.
This is not to gratuitously slight fledgling writers or to suggest they should not attempt to create these variations. But they may be the most difficult elements of dialogue for fiction writers to master. See the uncommonly ingenious Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as well as the Nobel Prize-winning and two-time, Pulitzer Prize-winning William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury for representations of true vernacular mastery.
Writing speech fragments specific to particular countries, regions, states or provinces, and cities and towns is not the challenging piece. It’s easy enough to create a character from
who uses the word “wicked” to amplify the power of a sensation, belief, quality
or emotion. Similarly, an Australian who continually responds to difficult
situations with the catchy, ubiquitous “no worries,” along with an Englishman
who habitually refers to his friends as “mates,” are probably safe ground for
writers of every ilk. Boston, Massachusetts
Capturing the true essence and flavor of the manner in which real-life individuals of a certain geographic area or historical era communicate is an art which requires wide-open ears; exposure to many different dialects, accents, colloquialisms, and historical accounts; as well as, of course, the absorption of several artistic creations which incorporate effectively developed patois. Like egregious profanity, overdoing locale-specific speech and speech patterns is a risk which should only be taken after due calculation—and practice. There is perhaps no faster way to lose credibility with your readership than to write lengthy dialogue sequences with linguistic variations which do not precisely represent the distinct, geographically and historically nuanced speech of real-life people who are, or once were, alive. It is an error as critical as that committed by journalists who misquote sources, multiplied in offensiveness by the number of failed attempts at distinctive vernacular approximation.
Consider these examples from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the ever-classic novel from which, as Hemingway famously opined, “all modern American literature” is derived.
In Chapter 7 Finn says, “I just expected there’d be somebody laying down in it, because people often done that to fool folks, and when a chap had pulled a skiff out most to it they’d raise up and laugh at him. But it warn’t so this time.”
Later, in Chapter 19, he says, “. . . we was always naked day and night, whenever the mosquitoes would let us—the new clothes Buck’s folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn’t go much on clothes, nohow.”
Here is an example of a purposely exaggerated, hopeless, dialectic failure:
“We’s gwen down na riva nah ta cits sun hishes fo sipper.”
It’s possible, though not likely, that someone somewhere has uttered a line similar to this. The sentence is at best confusing and at worst a waste of the reader’s time and attention.
The straight English translation is, “We are going down to the river now to catch some fish for supper.”
The example is far too phonetically intensive for a modern reader’s eyes and ears. This might’ve played before Mark Twain published Huckleberry Finn in 1885, but the brilliant novelist and thinker exponentially raised the vernacular-quality bar with this work. The bottom line here is that fiction writers, particularly those writing for generations of educated human beings, should tread cautiously on the fertile grounds of patois peculiarity. The practice of imitative invention might be exciting for you as a writer, but if your reader can’t follow your characters, you’ve failed to meet one of your major responsibilities as a storyteller.
It is. Along with your editor, you as an author have a responsibility to smoothly and efficiently guide your reader through dialogue passages. If you find yourself uncertain as to how you might properly punctuate a particular sentence or line, consult a guide such as William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style. If you still have questions, take them to another writer or, more probably, an editor. In the rare event that you cannot resolve the issue after exhausting both of these options, do your level best to reproduce the desired effect with modified phrasing that you know you can accurately punctuate. During the pre-publishing process, flag the line for your editor, and ask for further assistance, if you find yourself unsatisfied with the substitution.
An example of poorly punctuated dialogue:
Andie threw the plane tickets in Jack’s face and ripped his suitcase off the bed propelling it ten feet into the hallway.
“I don’t care if you eat the damn tickets” she said. “All you do is talk talk talk talk about how we’ll have this great amazing vacation and you completely ignore the fact that we’ll spend three years paying American Express so we can have ten days of beach time.
It’s beyond stupid Jack and you know it. You don’t think it’s a problem. It’s a problem Jack. Okay? It’s a problem. Find a new job or sell some of your precious albums you hold so dear and maybe then we can have a real honeymoon. Or maybe it doesn’t mean enough to you. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all.”
“I don’t care if you eat the damn tickets,” she said. “All you do is talk, talk, talk, talk about how we’ll have this great, amazing vacation, and you completely ignore the fact that we’ll spend three years paying American Express so we can have ten days of beach time.
It’s beyond stupid, Jack, and you know it. You don’t ‘think it’s a problem.’ It’s a problem, Jack. Okay? It’s a problem. Find a new job, or sell some of your precious albums you hold so dear, and maybe then we can have a real honeymoon. Or maybe it doesn’t mean enough to you; maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all.”
A few of those modifications—like changing the last two sentences into one sentence of two, independent clauses connected by a semicolon, as well as the italicization of the words “beyond” and “‘think’”— are stylistic, but the bulk are made in the spirit of basic punctuation guidelines.
Remember—your mission is to help your readers lose themselves in your dialogue, not get lost in it.
An example of dialogue created by an author unmindful of this essential truth:
Jack involuntarily dropped his shoulders, slumping, and turned away from Andie, shaking his head slowly and thinking one word: unbelievable.
“You can just go ahead and get the hell out, then,” he said. “I could not be more tired of all this garbage you’re always throwing out about how we don’t make enough money and how we’ll never be able to buy cars like the Millers and we can’t go on trips every other month like Mark and Patty Massoni.” He paused a moment to shake his head more vigorously before continuing.
Picking up three beats later, he scowled at his wife, squinting like Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars. Jack quickened the pace of his rant. “I’m so sick of all your bitching and moaning and whining. Why don’t you just leave and go to parents or go to your friends and wait until I call you. If I decide to call you, it won’t be for a least a week. Do you even know how long it took me to save for this trip? No, you don’t. And you don’t really give a damn, do you? Get out, Andie. Go.”
This dialogue enhanced by an editor who has long accepted the profound, historically documented essentiality of lyricism in character speech patterns:
Jack’s shoulders slumped involuntarily; he turned away from his wife in disgust. As he slowly shook his head, he was thinking one word: unbelievable.
“You know what, Andie? Just go ahead and get out,” he said. “I could not be more spent from all your constant, mindless horseshit about how we’re not making enough money, how we’ll never have a Benz like the Millers and why we can’t fly to Vegas like asshole Massoni.” He paused a moment to shake his head, this time with vigor.
Three beats later, he scowled at her like Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars. Jack upped the ante on his rant. “I am so sick of all your bitching and pissing and moaning. Why don’t you just leave and go to parents? Go to your friends. You can stay there until I call. And, if I decide to, it won’t be for a least a week. Do you know how long it took me to save for this? No. No, you don’t. And you don’t really give a shit, do you? Go, Andie. Get the hell out.”
As F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, “Speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.” Faulkner adds, “I would say that music is the easiest means in which to express, but since words are my talent, I must try to express clumsily in words what the pure music would have done better.” The finest writers, true artists, compose elegant symphonies of poetry and prose.
Don’t limit your experience to short stories, novels, emotobooks, plays, musicals and films. As a modern writer, the collective, creative wealth of the planet is at your fingertips 24 hours a day. Draw from not simply those listed but all entertainment mediums, including every genre of popular and classical music, television, comic books, graphic novels, poems, essays, reviews, journalism, comedy and sports commentary.
For dialogue-specific enrichment, see Academy-nominated, Oscar-winning and legendary screenplays. Oscar winner and four-time nominee Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction; three-time Academy nominee Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption; and two-time Academy nominee and The Social Network Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men, which easily could have won him his first Oscar, are brilliant examples of rhythmic, lyrical dialogue. Tarantino, Darabont, Sorkin and Lethal Weapon’s Shane Black have earned golden reputations in
and beyond by writing remarkably
strong dialogue. Hollywood
Other screenwriters and writer-directors like A Beautiful Mind Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman; The Dark Knight and Inception writer-director and three-time Academy nominee Christopher Nolan; Jerry Maguire and Vanilla Sky writer-director Cameron Crowe, who won the Best Screenplay Oscar for Almost Famous; Requiem for a Dream writer-director and Academy nominee for Black Swan Darren Aronofsky; as well as Glengarry Glen Ross’s David Mamet, two-time Academy nominee, are all essential sources of rich, effective dialogue. Of course, such masters as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Stephen King, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon and, of course, Ernest Hemingway should never be overlooked. In fact, they are perfect writers with which to continue your study of fictional, character dialogue.
Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning, American author John Steinbeck writes, “If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”
Great writers tend to test the efficacy of their work well before it’s published. Many have long ago accepted Richard North Patterson’s confession—and perhaps the only true secret: “Writing is rewriting.”
However, Matthew Arnold contends, “Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret.”
While the quantity and value of writing secrets are unknown, one thing is certain: legendary writers don’t publish first drafts. As John Irving, gifted novelist of brilliant and critically praised works like The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules notes, "Half my life is an act of revision." Masterful Lolita novelist Vladimir Nabokov said, “I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever written. My pencils outlast their erasers.”
12. Finally, to determine whether your dialogue truly works, consider the thoughts of a well-loved and overwhelmingly revered author of more than 50 worldwide bestsellers.
In his profound and generous On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King writes,
“When dialogue is right, we know. When it’s wrong we also know—it jags on the ear like a badly tuned musical instrument (pg. 182).”
Planet Fiction recommends these volumes for further guidance:
- Write Great Fiction: Dialogue by Gloria Kempton, 2004 (Part of the Write Great Fiction Series)
- The Book of Dialogue: How to Write Effective Conversation in Fiction, Screenplays, Drama, and Poetry by Lewis Turco, 2004
- Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella, 1998
Planet Fiction’s recommended articles on composing dialogue:
- An Article on writing dialogue, focused on short stories by Grace Fleming, “Writing Story Dialogue”
- An article on fundamentals of dialogue punctuation by Marg Gilks’ “Punctuating Dialogue”
Copyright © 2012 Matthew D. Anderson. All Rights Reserved.