The Writer's Writing Guide: Dialogue

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Let's start by talking about what dialogue is not:

1. Exactly how people talk.

That would be too circuitous and boring, too full of umms and you knows and wells, too broken up into tiny, trailing-off fragments.

2. Daily conversation.

The "Hi, how are you" stuff that opens most of our interactions is monumentally tiresome in dialogue, a waste of valuable real estate in a story where every word must count. Dialogue is conversation with drama — we skip through the dull, regular blather and go right to what makes this exchange different, original, significant. If it doesn't move the story forward, give better knowledge of the character, or work the theme, don't include it. Find some other way to enter the dialogue exchange besides "Hello," and to end it besides "Good-bye" — even if that means entering the conversation once it's in progress, or ending it at its climax rather than its farewell ritual, which might be more interesting anyway. In addition, leave out "Well" and "Oh," and all the rest of our ordinary filler.

3. A soapbox.

If you have a certain philosophy or piece of detailed information you want to impart — say, the progressive fruit-only diet you think all people should convert to if we are to save our planet from ecological suicide, or the incremental process by which working class Democrats have been slowly milled into Republicans — fit it into the narrative, or use a told rather than a shown form of dialogue. (Such as: "Then he took a few minutes to explain how all the Democrats he'd ever known were voting for Bush. 'It's the way of the world,' he said when he finished. 'The pendulum swings once again.'") Otherwise, if you use dialogue to state your positions about life, your characters become preachers and rhetorical puppets, and the reader is likely to feel patronized.

4. A role call.

One of the most blatant tip-offs that a story is the work of a beginner is when characters use each other's names throughout the dialogue.

"Are you coming with us, Brenda?"
"No, Mrs. Lee, I think I should mosey on back home now."
"But Brenda, we'd like to give you a lift."
"That's all right, Mrs. Lee, I'll be fine on my own."

5. Something that appears written.

This can include overly ornate or formal or sometimes even poetic language. Dialogue should read as though the writer has captured thought, not labored to produce something literary.

6. Something that appears stiff.

Few of us say, "They will be coming to our house at two o'clock in the morning, although we would prefer not to be woken at that late hour." We say, "They'll be coming to our house at two in the goddamn a.m., can you believe it?" Whenever possible, use contractions, emotions, and abbreviated ways of saying longer things. (Always staying in character, of course.)

7. Something that repeats what the previous character said.

"Why are you walking into my backyard?"
"I am walking into your backyard so I can find my lost puppy."

Instead: "Why are you walking into my backyard?"
"I'm looking for my puppy."

8. The primary way to deliver direct exposition.

The following is a lame approach to exposition.

"So good to see you, Mary! Let me introduce the second oldest of my four sons, Jasper. He's just graduated from Yale Law School, where he was first in his class. He's planning to enter politics in a year, but yesterday he just started clerking for Clarence Thomas at the Supreme Court. He's visiting me for my birthday, because he was just divorced from a possessive nurse who would never let him leave their house in New Haven to visit me here in Georgetown, where I live in a mansion near the river."

So that's what dialogue is not. But what is dialogue? Or, to rephrase that in a way that might be more useful, what can you, as a writer, do with dialogue?

1. Communicate character

From your dialogue, we can learn a character's regional background, education, class, and disposition. Some of the tools you can use are syntax, diction, rhythm, repeating phrases, dialect, grammatical peculiarities, length of sentences, speed of sentences, frequency of emphasis.

2. Reveal behavioral patterns.

2(a). A character who is avoiding confrontation, is in denial, or has something to hide, may respond to a question by ignoring it, putting the questioner down, shooting back another question, or lying.

Example: A man and woman just met at a bar. He has told her he works for a secret government agency. He needs to convince her, and she wants to be convinced.

She asked, "Don't you ever get scared?"

"Never."

"Not even in Communist countries?"

"Sure. You just keep your wits about you. And look out for your back all the time. ALL the time."

"Do you speak Russian?"

"I'm fluent," he declared, "in Hungarian."

"Hungarian? Is that the vernacular in Russia?"

"Oh, so the lady likes big words."

"I mean, does Hungarian help you in Russia?"

"You want to hear me speak Hungarian, or not?"

"Right now?"

"When else, baby doll."

"Well, okay. Sure."

He refocused as if seeing clear to Budapest, and then, having retrieved some phrase from the boulevards of the city, brought his gaze back to Miriam. "Sze'p szemeid vannak," he said with an assured nod. "That means you have beautiful eyes."

She giggled. "No I don't. Not with these glasses."

"Even with those glasses, chicken. Sze'p eyes."

2(b). A character who is insecure may use a lot of repetition or babbling detail, or forget to tell what happened and instead jump directly to why.

"What happened to the front lawn?" Jonah's father asked, wringing the newspaper in his hands.

"All the guys got drunk," Jonah said, biting back his tears. "I didn't touch a single beer, Dad. I promise."

2(c). A character who is self-absorbed, disdainful, and/or highly impatient will interrupt, be inattentive, or speak with non sequiturs.

"I'm sorry," Louise said, wiping her eyes, "but just being in this house reminds me of Jeffrey. Can't you just remember his tricycle sitting over there — "

"Hot day outside," Charles interrupted. "Going to hit ninety by noon."

2(d). Inform us, through description about the character's tone of voice, of the character's emotional state.

"Get out," she said, her voice flat as an ironed shirt.

"I don't think," he added wistfully, "that I'll ever see these hills again."

But beware overuse of such devices, and always try to use a physical gesture instead: "I'm never coming back," he said with finality. This turns into: "I'm never coming back," he said, slamming the door.

2(e). Quicken the pace

Many people, though they won't admit it in mixed company, read novels by jumping from dialogue passage to dialogue passage, and skipping the description in between. Though this might not be fair to the author, it is a common tendency, and writers are wise to keep it in mind when making decisions about how much, if any, dialogue to include, and where to put it. The reason dialogue is so appealing to readers is that a) it is a form of action, because it is so clearly showing rather than telling. And b), it breaks up long narrative passages, giving readers something of an oasis to read toward, when their brains don't have to work as hard to develop mental pictures, and instead they can just coast for a passage.

2(f). Reveal relationships

2(f)(1). to the self: dialogue shows what the character says versus what he thinks he says.

2(f)(2). to others: dialogue shows what the character is hiding, what others are anticipating a character to say, and what others misunderstand

2(g). Advance the action or develop the conflict

This is especially true when the character accidentally or deliberatively reveals a secret, such as admitting to his love of someone, or his hatred of another, or of his sister's hidden pregnancy, or of his boss' backroom extortion.

Technical Matters

Attributions (aka "tag lines") — Where to put them:

Literary writing tends to have the attribution either follow the quotation: "'You're not leaving with my hand mower,' Jane said." Or the attribution is inserted in the middle of a line: "'Only after we have survived all this,' Mr. Grangefield said, surveying the burnt carcass of his once-proud manor house, 'will we know that we can survive anything.'"

More commercial writing tends to have the attribution in both of the above positions, but just as often it puts the attribution first: "Norton said, 'Down to the dump with you.'"

Feel free to put your attributions anywhere you'd like, but make sure they work with the rhythm of your sentence, and appear when we need them — no less, and no more.

Attributions — how to write them:

1. Use "said," "asked," "replied." Don't use "blubbered," "burst out," "guffawed," etc., unless it's broad comedy. Most readers just don't accept that anymore, and editors don't, either.

2. Or avoid direct attribution and do it indirectly with:

2(a). Physical references: Julian tucked a bib into his overalls. "Hand me that pitcher, will you?" (Note: Just make sure it's Julian who's speaking. This attribution-free device is utterly confusing if the description refers to a person who is not the speaker.)

2(b). Diction/syntax specific to each individual:

"I'm mortified by your tendency to embezzle."

"What you talking about, woman? I didn't do nothing."

"Ordinarily you're very persuasive. But I've had enough of your deceit. A confession is in order."

"Confess to a lie? No way. You don't believe me, you go check my room. That's what I said. Check it!"

Attributions — how often:

1. When a character first enters a scene, or when dialogue opens a scene before we know who's actually in the room, put an attribution in almost immediately, or at least no later than the first sentence. (If the character is speaking for longer than one sentence, you can always insert the attribution right after that first sentence and then have her resume speaking.) If you don't do this, your reader will jump to the end of the passage to see who's speaking, since, with a new character in the room or a new scene just starting, that's the primary way for the reader to get oriented. Of course, if the reader jumps ahead, you risk that he will never return to the beginning of that section of dialogue, and so its meaning will be lost.

2. In long lines of dialogue, use attributions (direct or indirect) every so often so that the reader stands no chance of getting lost for any significant length of time.

3. But when you are writing a section of dialogue and want the tension at its height, omit all attributions wherever possible — assuming it is constantly clear who is speaking. Then the reader can simply leap through.

Dialect:

Try to achieve only through diction and syntax, using as few misspellings as you can. Apprentice writers may believe that misspellings indicate regionalism or ethnicity, and so are a useful tool, and many years ago this was an acceptable device. But it is problematic now. It slows down and sometimes confuses the reader, to the point where she might drop the story. Editors also no longer have a tolerance for multiple misspellings to indicate dialect, feeling that a character who speaks with misspellings can be construed as too uneducated or stupid to spell his own dialogue correctly, and so misspellings are actually patronizing to him. The concern is that, while readers might pick up on the regionalism or ethnicity you intend, they will probably also will be irritated at the link that is being made between those qualities and ignorance. (Must all white Southern sheriffs be dumb? Must all African American janitors be uneducated?) If you use misspellings, you risk reinforcing negative stereotypes, which can only limit the range of your story.

In addition, keep in mind that you can also slow down the reader by heavily altering the diction and syntax. This can be true even of grammatical errors (indeed, I once raging arguments with an editor over a character's use of "ain't" and double negatives, with the final decision being that I was extremely sparing with them.) Just a touch here and there, sans misspellings, will give the reader the idea, and that usually suffices. Again, as I said above, this was not the case a few generations ago, but readers' and editors' tastes have changed, and it is prudent to pay attention to such matters now.

Showing versus telling:

You can mix showing and telling with dialogue. Showing is when you write with the quotations, such as: "'First I broke free of the ropes, and then I wriggled through that opening in the window. I fell into the alley, and then, just as I heard One-Eye waking up, I took off down the street like a shot.'" Telling is when you summarize what the character says by saying, for instance, "And then he told her all about how he'd escaped the kidnappers."

Telling is good to use:

1. If you are in a scene that is completely told to begin with. Just stick with "he explained that," or "he told her that."

2. If you are explaining something the reader already knows (and perhaps has even witnessed in detail in a previous scene). Then you can slip away from your exchange of quotations to a sentence or paragraph that is told:

"Mama!" Bertie yelled, running into the house.

Mama turned around from the sink. "My goodness, Bertie, you're bleeding! What happened?"

Sobbing, Bertie told Mama all about the boys and their pogo stick. "I didn't mean to get on it!" Bertie said when she finished. "But they dared me to!"

3. If you need to imply that a lot of time is passing within the exchange of quotations, slip from the shown dialogue to something like, "They continued complaining for another ten minutes. Finally, Frank said, 'Enough of this belly aching. Give me your hammer. I'm breaking down that door.'"

Tension:

Short sentences increase tension, long sentences reduce it. But short sentences also make the reader read more quickly, which tends to give the reader less time to savor an emotion. Long sentences force the reader to read slowly, which tends to allow the reader time to get deeper into an emotion.

Length of lines:

In general, try to keep your dialogue lines short. Readers want to run through the dialogue passages, and short lines enable them to do so. Some writing books urge that you keep your lines to three sentences or under.

If you find yourself needing to have one character give a speech (let's define that as anything over three sentences), you should break it up now and then. Have other speakers interrupt, or insert moments of action or thought. Also, you might want to consider beginning the speech with some dialogue clue that we are headed into something longer — and important. "I know you won't understand," Larry said, glancing at the blood-stained screwdriver that now resided in the officer's hand, "but maybe if I explain all that happened tonight, you'll be a little more gentle with me."

Keeping the sense of social interaction:

Since dialogue is usually something that occurs between two or more people, the careful writer needs makes sure that the reader knows not only who is talking, but what the non-speakers are doing during that time. This means you should cut away from the dialogue here and there for reaction shots: "Before that last word was out of Marvin's mouth, Jan turned away." Or: "Mary hung her head but kept listening." Though be careful to use these physical asides only to show something important, and to show them at particularly significant times.

Dialogue Punctuation:

Refer to a grammar book, or look at the Appendix in this book. Punctuation is easy to get right — and it must be right. A story with incorrectly punctuated dialogue is very likely to get misread by readers, and rejected by editors. As for teachers, the way we feel about it is, if the writer can't get it together enough to learn such a basic and commonly used tool as dialogue punctuation, the writer is being too lazy, not to mention unobservant when he reads.

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