Writing Dialogue

One of the posts I was asked to write when I undertook January Writing Advice Month—lo those many years ago—was how to write dialogue. Somehow I never got around to it.

Actually I know exactly why I never got around to it. I find writing dialogue easy. Most of my first drafts are pretty much all dialogue. Because it’s not something I’ve struggled with like rewriting or writing action scenes I haven’t thought about it much so I find it very difficult to figure out how I do it. I just do it. Like breathing.1

What follows is not how I write dialogue. Like I said I just write without a lot of conscious thought involved.2 Rather it’s a little bit of stuff (very little) that might be useful if you’re struggling to write believable dialogue. And if it’s not useful then, um, sorry bout that.

One of the simultaneously best and worst pieces of advice about writing dialogue is to listen to how the people around you speak. It’s great advice because you can’t hope to capture how people talk if you don’t, you know, listen to them. It’s terrible advice because when people speak their conversations are full of ums and ahs and repetitions and trailing offs and non-sequitors and missing words and those should be used only sparingly in writing.

Think about how hard it can be when overhearing someone else’s conversation to figure out what they’re talking about. That’s because the people talking know what they’re discussing so they don’t say useful things like “the bloody fight at Uncle Danno’s last week” but rather “it” or “that” or “yeah” or “what happened.” They know what they’re talking about so they don’t have to be precise in order for weirdo writers who are eavesdropping to understand.

On top of that people who know each other really well develop also sorts of shorthands and code words and even made up words that only they are privy to. All of which makes directly transcribing dialogue for your novel problematic.

The dirty secret is that good dialogue is almost never a direct copy of the way people speak. Yet it has to bear some relationship to how we talk or it becomes ludicrous.3

So, yes, listen to how people speak. Especially those you know well. Try to pick out their idiosyncrasies. Do they utter statements as if they were questions? Do they have a particular favourite word or phrase or grammatical structure? Other than the sound of their voice how can you distinguish how they talk from other people? Do they call everyone “possum” or “petal” or “poophead”?

For me the ultimate goal in writing dialogue is for the reader to know who is speaking without attribution. This is much harder than it looks. Also you have to battle most editors/copyeditors who are often very addicted to attribution and want every bit of dialogue clearly pinned to its speaker in order not to confuse the reader. I, on the other hand, feel that I have failed if attribution is necessary. It’s a battle I usually lose.

Here’s some dialogue from Sumner Locke Elliott’s Careful, He Might Hear You with little attribution:

He heard Vere say, “I didn’t tell you about our thwart.”

“Which is?”

“Ness is coming back.”

“My dear! What will they do without her at Hampton Court?”

“They will be undone.”

“Is Cousin Ettie coming too?”

“But of course. They are lashed to each other, she and Ness.”

“Is Cousin Ettie still in the money, Vere?”

“Rolling.”

“I thought no one was any more.”

“Oh, girl, Ettie’s evil husband bought shares in everything in the year one—things like Broken Hill Mining and Dalgetty’s and wool and shipping and little unimportant stock like Woolworth’s!”

“My dear! I suppose one day Ness will cop the lot.”

The lot! That’s why she has stayed lashed to Ettie all these years.”

Part of what makes who is saying what so obvious is that one character has all the information and the other does not. One is a “my dear”-er and the other is a “girl”-er. There’s also the matter of their shared idiosyncratic language. “Thwart” which is defined in the book as:

She pronounced it to rhyme with “carted.” . . . It was always a “thwart” and never a “thwort.” “Thworted meant having warts.

Which is a lovely way to use word choice to point to the intimacy between these characters and to give you an idea of how they see the world.

That’s what you want to do with dialogue. At a minimum it should be doing double duty. Here it’s serving the purpose of telling what is going on (i.e. plot) but it’s also revealing the intimacy between the two speakers, their attitudes to the people they’re talking about, and a bit about themselves. Such as that they are clearly not in the money.

Crappy dialogue only does a few things and does them clumsily. Infodumpy dialogue is often dreaful. In early science fiction stories infodumping was so common that it came to be known as “As you know, Bob” and led to exchanges like this, which I made up ages ago to illustrate a different point:

Scientist’s daughter, Lotte Fairface: Hank, why are you throwing sand into that well? It seems to be affecting that strange contraption over there.

Hank: Funny you should ask, Lotte, but, you see, that’s not sand, it’s magnesium calumbanate. It causes the water molecules to bind to the calumbanate to form a reinforced ectoplasmatic force field, which is emitting invisible salitrucic waves that are impacting with the Rooseveletereen engine—not a strange contraption at all, Lotte—and causing its pistons to fire.

Lotte: Oh, Hank! You’re so marvellous. I’m so proud that you’ve invented something so very clever! Um, why is the Rooseveletereen engine turning red and expand—

Yes, I made that up. But truly if you read sf from the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s you’ll find even worse examples. Do not infodump in dialogue unless you really, really have to. Almost no one speaks like that.

I hope that helps. And I really really hope that some other writers leave some excellent tips for writing dialogue in the comments. That would be awesome.

  1. Though, on the other hand, I am so bad at action scenes that I still haven’t figured out how to do them well and no way could I give anyone else any useful tips. Other than not to do what I do. My action scenes require a million drafts and many helpful suggestions from people who are good at writing them before I can make them kind of okay. Stupid action scenes! I love them. Why can’t I write them as effortlessly as I can read them? Waaah! []
  2. Idiot savant, that’s me. []
  3. Which is fine if that’s what you’re going for. []

7 comments

  1. Mike on #

    Barry Lyga posted a 5 part series on writing dialogue on his blog back in July 2009. You can find the first post at http://barrylyga.com/2009/07/page/2/

    While I don’t write fiction, I did learn a lot and used some of it with my students.

  2. Miriam Forster on #

    I used to struggle with dialogue, probably because I read too many of those pulp sci-fi novels as a kid. :) You know the ones were everyone’s really snarky and there’s no real character voice. (Come to think of it, a lot of the action novels I read back then were the same way.)

    One thing that helped me was learning how people answer or don’t answer questions in conversation. People who are having casual conversation with someone they know don’t always answer direct questions. Instead the answers are implied. For example:

    “Hey, what’s going on Steve? You ran out of that room like the devil was on your tail.”

    Steve looked into the darkness of the empty pool. “Have you ever done something terrible to someone, Phil? Something so bad that you don’t expect them to ever forgive you?”

    Well that explained the look on his friend’s face. “Lacey’s friend,” Phil said. “The blond one. You know her.” It wasn’t a question.

    “Yeah. I knew her. Once upon a time.”

    Steve doesn’t directly answer Phil’s question, but we get a sense of what’s going on anyway. Real conversation is full of implied meaning like that.

    Hope that makes sense! :)

  3. Justine on #

    Mike: Thanks for that link. Barry’s usually spot on.

    Miriam Forster: Oh, nice observation. Thanks.

  4. Michelle on #

    Great post. I love Sumner Locke Elliott’s writing, too! I’m sure it helped that he’d written hundreds of plays, radio scripts and TV scripts before he wrote ‘Careful, He Might Hear You’. He knew from experience what would work as dialogue when read aloud, as well as how to move the plot forward and reveal character through conversation.
    (And I always pronounce that word as thwARt now. Vere is fabulous.)

  5. Justine on #

    Michelle: Yay for another Sumner Locke Elliott fan! Wasn’t he amazing? I feel a certain amount of kinship with him because he, too, spent so much time in the USA. Careful, He Might Hear You is a nearly perfect book. Not many of those in existence.

  6. Marc Vun Kannon on #

    It also helps to find a few TV shows or movies with really excellent (or even just halfway decent) dialog and model yours on that. The trick, of course, is being able to recognize good dialog when you hear it.
    I’m like you in that most of my first forays into a section of my stories will be pure dialog, to which I then add stuff like the action-y bits. With that model much of what you recommend here is already accomplished, like advancing the plot and revealing character.

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