You are reading about a college professor whose life has just fallen apart as he discovers his daughter’s suicide. In the dialogue that follows, he talks with his mentor and tries to get across the desperation that overwhelms him:
Professor: “I feel like dying myself. She was too much a part of the fabric of who I am.”
Mentor: “Stay here awhile and have a drink. Maybe have two. There, that will suit your mood.”
This is not well-written dialogue. I won’t mention what book this is from, but it underscores a basic premise of good writing: Your dialogue must be believable. It must sound genuine and real to the ear. There may be nothing more difficult to write than realistic dialogue. Even the best writers get it wrong occasionally. Some well-known writers get it wrong a lot of the time. The two-line dialogue I use above illustrates how hard it is to hit at the mark of a personality while maintaining integrity of moment. The writer of the words above wants the reader to think of his hero as an intellectual. So he casts his phrasing in exacting English. Unfortunately, that is not how fathers who have lost daughters talk – ever! They speak in halting sentences, grasping for breath, giving way slowly to words.
I do an exercise occasionally to hone my dialogue skills. I take a tape recorder and sit in a public place where the conversations around me can be recorded. Then I spend an hour transcribing what is said. Here are the things I have found from listening to people speak in dialogue:
- They rarely speak in whole sentences
- They make liberal use of body language to fill in the gaps
- Things are referred to casually that we would never do in writing. As in “That man on the bus…flower man…it cannot be the same, can it?” Those who listen are left to wonder about the reference, the man and what “it” is.
- There is a constant flow of interruptions. Seldom do we finish sentences when we speak together.
- Sounds (onomanopeia) are not only common, but expected. We need to master how to spell those sounds (‘unh, unh’ and ‘uh, huh’ are the opposite…but which is which?).
Good dialogue is obviously not the only writing skill that will sell short stories and books. Two writers who get bad marks for dialogue also sell millions of copies of their books. James Patterson, the author of the famous detective series featuring policeman Alex Cross, does a poor job of making his dialogue gritty enough and yet human. He constantly says things that no one, let alone a veteran of thirty years of detective work, would ever say. Yet his books are best-sellers, mainly because he is an expert at crafting exciting plot twists. Sometimes you can make up for a lack of good writing in one area by excelling at another. However, most of us will be fortunate to be published at all, and therefore, we need to do well at most areas of the art form. Jacqueline Carey is another best-selling author who writes ridiculous dialogue. Her fantasy books have sold over 10 million copies, but her “lines” are laughable. Even her fans admit that she has significant trouble sounding believable. But she draws upon such rich research and uses her innate ability to describe background material that the scene takes a believable shape. You can make up for bad dialogue, but it must be done by mastering another aspect of the writing craft.
Better than that, learn the basics of writing good dialogue. Here are some hints that I think will help even the beginning writer to sound genuine and interesting:
1. Make dialogue short. Long soliloquies cause readers to suffer from MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over).
2. Listen to people who talk like your character. You may have to rent a movie or read a book from your chosen genre to get this.
3. Don’t waste words. Don’t throw details into dialogue that are unnecessary to the story.
4. Use active voice in writing dialogue. No one speaks passively when they speak from their own perspective. I guess that this means you have to learn what “active voice” means…but there are good web sites and books to learn about that.
5. Don’t use too much dialect. If you character is from Louisiana, too many strange sounding and strange looking words will make the reader tired. It will not cause them to read furiously to the end of your story.
6. Make sure all your characters sound different from one another.
7. Don’t be afraid of using the word “said” after a line of dialogue. Too many writers want to add variety by saying, “he bellowed” or “she crooned”. If she really is crooning, then let her croon, but it might work better to describe what crooning sounds like through the words you choose. Better still, if you can omit “he said” altogether and it won’t be confusing to the reader, do so.
8. Read it aloud afterwards so your ear can hear it. I do this test before finalizing the dialogue.