(I just finished a piece for a forth-coming book of writing tips. It’s all about dialogue and, as happens so frequently, my original was scads longer than what the editor wanted. I cut it back and we both came to a happy place. But I thought I’d post both the original essay and exercise here.)
“Then he will talk – good gods! How he will talk!”
That’s from Nathaniel Lee’s 1677 play The Death of Alexander the Great, and while it bemoans how much a character talks, I use it as a reminder of how a character talks.
As writers, we have to recognize that regardless of our style or genre, our work is absolutely pinned to our dialogue. If the dialogue is bad, the story will die a slow, horrible death. But the converse is also true: if the dialogue is good, it can save even a mediocre story.
How do I know? Because I know a reader will absolutely read the dialogue. They may ignore everything else, but they will drink in what a character says, and if it’s good, they’ll remember the story positively. Dialogue is so important that Elmore Leonard mentions it frequently in his Ten Rules of Writing:
“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing [is] perpetrating hooptedoodle…or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”
So the challenge is to write great dialogue without the hooptedoodle. Or, in crime terms, to get ourselves a nice, shiny, nickel-plated .357 rather than a beat-up .25 with a broken butt.
I believe great dialogue comes in three parts. The dialogue, the attribution tags, and the dialect. To help you get those three things together, I’ve got a few suggestions, then some exercises I do all the time.
You can’t have great dialogue on the page without great dialogue in your ears. So fill up your ears. Dialogue is anywhere and everywhere. People are the talking-est things ever. They talk in stores and bars, on street corners; and they do it morning, noon, and night. But they’re inability to shut up means we get to steal their great dialogue all the time.
Just make sure you listen critically.
Don’t listen for the exactness of a conversation because most conversations are verbal train wrecks. People talk over each other and into each other; they start and stop and start again. They begin ten sentences before finishing one. They bounce from topic to topic. They foul tenses and agreements, they mangle verbs. They talk in passive voice.
So don’t transcribe the conversation verbatim and call that dialogue. If you do, your editor will put a double-tap behind your ear, toss your body in the water treatment plant, and sleep like a baby.
Listen instead for the rhythm of those conversations; for the informality, the contractions, the dropped words, the questions phrased as declarations, the slang, the lack of exclamation points. Listen for the interesting ways people describe even the most mundane things. Discover the conversational short hand specific to people’s particular groups. (Cops are great for this. Listen during their coffee or meal break and you’ll wonder if they’re even speaking English.) It is that conversational short hand that can lift dialogue from bad to good or good to great by making readers feel like they’re being allowed to see inside some super-secret club house ritual.
Listen for who’s dominating the conversation. How are they doing it? By volume? By speed? Maybe they’re speaking softly or slowly, forcing everyone else to listen. Note, too, how others in that conversation respond to their domination.
Listen listen listen. Listen for rhythm and then recreate the essence of those conversations.
Okay, try this bit of dialogue on for size. It’s based on a real conversation and it is exactly how a real conversation sounds
“Good afternoon, ma’am. Deputy Mullins with the Sheriff’s Office,” he said officiously. “Can I see your license and insurance, please?”
She said, “But…what’d I do? Why did you stopping me? I…uh…I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Well, ma’am, you did not come to a complete stop,” he said. “At that sign back there? Route 40 and 2500 North Avenue? You did not come to a complete stop. In fact, you – “
“I did so, I stopped,” she interjected.
“Ma’am, I was watching and – “
“Yes, I did,” she ejaculated. “I absolutely stop – I absolutely…uh…stopped.” She said, “But I’m not going to argue about it.”
“Uh…ma’am,” he said, “Do you understand the definition of not arguing?”
“You listen to me,” she said forcefully. “I have lots of things on my mind. My head is just full right now. Did you even know my husband is in Iraq? He’s fighting over there and I can’t think about anything else.”
“Ma’am, I understand – “
“No, you don’t understand anything,” she yelled. “Most of the time he’s…that’s all I can think about. Because he’s fighting over there…. So I’ve got lots on my mind.”
Okay, so rewrite it, but just clean up the dialogue, don’t worry about anything other than what the characters are actually saying. Take out repeats and stops and starts. Remove stutters and anything that doesn’t flow. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Done? So what does your version sound like? Maybe it’s something like this:
“Good afternoon, ma’am, Deputy Mullins, Sheriff’s Office,” he said officiously. “Can I see your license and insurance, please?”
She said, “Why did you stop me?”
“Ma’am, you didn’t come to a complete stop,” he said.
“I stopped,” she interjected.
“Yes, I did,” she ejaculated. “I’m not gonna argue about it.”
“Ma’am, do you understand the definition of not arguing?”
“Well,” she said forcefully. “I have lots of things on my mind. My husband’s in Iraq.”
Not a bad cleaning job for just changing the direct dialogue. The essence of the conversation is still there, but it flows much better.
So now let’s look at how those characters said what they said.
Attribution tags, those ‘he saids/she saids’ which guide the reader, can be your greatest ally or your biggest enemy. I recognize they are a necessary evil with which I have to make peace, but mostly I don’t dig them. If handled badly, they will absolutely get in the way of a great story or scene. They are literary mechanicals, the equivalent of seeing the boom mic in a TV shot, or seeing a lighting source badly hidden on a stage set. But when done well, or done as infrequently as possible, they don’t have to be deadly.
When it comes to most writing, the biggest problem with attribution tags is that writers use entirely too many of the damned things. I’ve seen stories that have tags on every single line of dialogue…in conversations of two people. So how many do you have in your stories and novels? I’d bet a day’s salary it’s too many (and yeah, I realize that’s a subjective standard, but I’d also bet even you think you use too many).
The thing is? Most readers actually don’t need many. And fewer still if you’ve done a great job on the dialogue. Think of ‘said’ as a street sign that occasionally lets a reader know they’re on the right street. Anything other than ‘said’ is a giant stop sign that can yank a reader out of your story. This is another of Leonard’s rules:
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.”
At some point, you’ll be tempted to use a tag that explains how the dialogue was spoken, thus hiding the tag behind other words.
“John, I’m leaving you,” she whispered.
“John, I’m leaving you,” she cried.
If she needs to whisper, have him lean forward so he can hear her. It’s more dynamic by virtue of movement and puts her in control by forcing him move. Also, when you tell us she’s crying, you miss an opportunity to explore the kind of crying and thus give us more about the situation and her character.
Okay, so you decide to use nothing but said. Great. Perfect. Except now you’re thinking maybe you should modify it.
“I did not,” Lindsay said forcefully.
“Yes, you did,” Goldie said evenly.
Bad idea. Think of it like an actual conversation rather than something on a page. If you were talking with a friend, you wouldn’t stop the conversation to tell them your emotional state.
“I did not,” Lindsay said. “By the way, I’m being forceful.”
“Yes, you did,” Goldie said. “And I’m being even.”
Instead, Lindsay would kick her shoes off into the street and Goldie would be expressionless.
Okay, so now you’ve decide to use only ‘said,’ and not to modify it. Just a plain, old, boring tag; literary vanilla ice cream. Now remember this: most times, you don’t need them at all.
At one point in James Lee Burke’s The Neon Rain, Robicheaux and Cletus Purcel are deep in conversation. Toward the end, they have a rapid-fire back and forth, something Burke does frequently in a number of his books. In this particular conversation, during almost two full pages, Burke uses exactly three attribution tags.
I’ve read writers who have more tags in a single sentence.
But Burke doesn’t need them. We know who’s who not only because there are only two people in the conversation, but also by how those two people ask their questions and phrase their statements. Each character has his own rhythm in what and how he speaks.
Here are some examples of when you can bag the tag.
1) Don’t use a tag if there is some physical action immediately following. ”Not what I said,” John said. John flicked his hair.
2) Don’t use a tag if the next line of dialogue includes a name.
“I didn’t say that,” said John.
“But, John, you did say that.”
3) Don’t use a tag if there are only two people in the conversation unless you need a rhythm break.
4) If there are more than two people, cut the number of tags by giving a character certain words or phrases or sentence/structural style. It’ll signal the reader as to who is speaking.
With all that boiling in your brain and computer, let’s take another look at our conversation from earlier. Now edit it with an eye toward ‘said’ and its modifiers.
“Good afternoon, ma’am, Deputy Mullins, Sheriff’s Office. Can I see your license and insurance, please?”
“Why did you stop me?”
“Ma’am, you didn’t come to a complete stop.”
“Yes, I did. I’m not gonna argue about it.”
“Ma’am, do you understand the definition of not arguing?”
“I have lots of things on my mind. My husband’s in Iraq.”
That’s beginning to be a tight, sleek conversation. Lots of changes and fixes and clean-ups, but the foundation of the conversation hasn’t changed at all.
So my challenge to you, then, is to write an exercise that is a conversation with no tags. But do it with three characters (two characters is too easy). Remember the guidelines, but also remember rhythm and what words each character would use as well as their personal sentence structure.
And then do the same exercise but with four characters, or five, or more. Every time you add a voice, your job gets exponentially harder. It becomes more difficult to distinguish between voices. When you get this many characters, you have to use tags, there is no way around it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean blasting attribution tags like buckshot from a shotgun. Maybe, instead, you can yank a different weapon you’re your holster.
I mentioned earlier that you should listen for interesting ways people say what they say. Usually, that means conversational short-hand or slang. But every once in a while, you’re going to hear dialect.
Dialect, or patois, is a great dialogue spice as long as it fits the character. But a touch of spice goes a tremendously long way. Too much and the entire conversation goes off the end of the dinner table and even the dog won’t touch it.
For example, from early 20th century Georgia writer Will N. Harbin’s short story, “A Humble Abolitionist:”
“I reckon you’d ruther set out heer whar you kin ketch a breath o’air from what little’s afloat,” she said, cordially….
“An’, Pete Gill, I’m powerfully afeerd you are in fer it. As much as you’ve spoke agin slave-holdin’ as a practice you’ve got to make a start at it. The Colonel said that you held a mortgage on Big Joe, an’ ef you don’t take ‘im right off you won’t get a red cent fer yore debt.”
I think I’m choking on dialect. In fact, I think I’ve choked to death.
On the other hand, if he had stripped every bit of dialect out, how boring would that be?
“I guess you would rather sit out here where you can catch a breath of air from what little is afloat,” she said….
“And, Pete Gill, I am powerfully afraid you are in for it. As much as you have spoke against slave-holding as a practice you have got to make a start at it. The Colonel said that you held a mortgage on Big Joe, and if you do not take him right off, you won’t get a red cent for your debt.”
Nice and clean. Boring as empty hand cuffs.
Plus, some of it sounds Southern informal while other bits sound too formal. And there is really nothing in the second example that gives you much flavor of the character speaking.
So use dialect. Don’t be afeered of it. Make sure you’ve got the right dialect, and use it cautiously. Choose something obvious that the reader will instantly understand. Since you want to use dialect less often, make it mean more when you do.
And yes, Mr. Leonard discusses dialect as part of his rules.
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.
In the unpublished sequel to my novel 2000 Miles To Open Road, I have a character who peppers his dialogue with ‘y’all.’ Once upon a time, that was just a southern thing; it’s pretty well spread itself throughout much of the country now. But because he’s the only character who uses that word, the reader knows immediately who’s speaking. That reduces the number of attribution tags I need for him.
As obvious as it sounds, dialect is like a foreign language. If you have a Hispanic character, you wouldn’t write everything in Spanish, but you would drop Spanish words in every once in a while because those are the words that character would use. Dialect is the same.
Those are the three things I think make great dialogue. It takes lots of practice and lots of listening and an incredible amount of writing before you’ll get comfortable with it and begin to be happy with what you’ve written.
Lastly, remember this: dialogue can almost always be improved by cutting it. Look at the exercise we did. We cut half of it immediately because it just repeated – in different words – something the characters had already said. So figure out a better, shorter way to have your character speak and that’ll make it seem better instantly.
And read read read. If you’re not reading, but trying to write anyway, you’re wasting everyone’s time. Read anything and everything because every word that passes through your eyes and into your brain will teach you something about the words you want passing from your brain to your page.