The key to writing good dialogue is putting yourself into the character’s shoes and becoming them when they’re talking. The secret to writing better dialogue is to be a ruthless editor who uses common sense rather than some set of arbitrary rules developed for academic or journalistic writing.
As an example, people often repeat the same word when they’re talking. Listen to any conversation. They also say things like um, and uh, and you know, and kind of, and like, all the rest of the “sloppy” catalog of things you’re advised to excise from your writing. The problem is that if you follow that counsel you’ll wind up with dialogue that sounds nothing like the way people talk. So you need to own your characters and pay attention to how people actually speak in the real world, which is easier than it sounds.
Stephen King is a master of dialogue, in that his characters immediately sound genuine when we meet them. They’re fully formed and consistent. There’s no pretension. They sound like people do. That should be your benchmark.
When you’re done with a dialogue-heavy scene, read it aloud. Act it out. Be the characters. How do they sound? Like some bad version of a Mamet play, or like real people? If they sound anything but genuine and natural get out your red pen, because your job ain’t over. You gave birth to these people. You’re responsible for them being believable.
And of course, when you write dialogue, you should apply the same question you do with everything else: What’s the point? If you know the reason you have dialogue in a scene, whether to move the plot along or to offer the reader insights into some aspect of the characters’ inner workings via that verbal window, understand the objective before you write the dialogue. It’ll go way better for you and the reader if you do.
There are countless books available on how to write decent dialogue. I’d advise you to read some of them, but if you don’t, I just basically told you what’s in them.
The only other thing I’ll add is that less is more in dialogue. If you can communicate things non-verbally, such as state of mind or attitude, do so. If a guy walks onto a crowded bus and seems like he’s about ready to explode with rage, how would we know it in real life? There would be nonverbal tells. Clues. We’d see things. Maybe his coloring. Maybe the way he looks at people. Maybe his expression. Maybe he sighs, barely controlling his anger. Maybe he’s breathing differently, or grinding his teeth, or his eyes are narrowed, his nostrils flaring, jaw muscle pulsing, lips thinning, whatever. There are dozens of ways to convey his state of mind so that when he does say something, we instantly know this man’s pissed, and his words are only a small part of the powder keg that is his temperament at the moment.
Dialogue is as much about what’s said as what isn’t. If you view every bit of it as an important opportunity to inform the reader of important clues about the characters, you’ll wind up with far more interesting scenes. And if you pare the dialogue down to what’s essential to getting the point across, you’ll be ahead of the game.
• The Blackhouse, by Peter May
• Bye Bye, Baby, by Max Allan Collins
• City of Dragons, by Kelli Stanley
• House of the Hunted, by Mark Mills
• Little Green, by Walter Mosley
• Peeler, by Kevin McCarthy
• A Quiet Flame, by Philip Kerr
• Rosa, by Jonathan Rabb
• The Song Is You, by Megan Abbott
• Wolves Eat Dogs, by Martin Cruz Smith
I’m not going to tag anyone with the responsibility of following me in this daunting venture. But if you wish to submit your own choices, please do so under the Comments tab below.
Way back in September, The Mysterious Bookshop hosted the book release party for The Getaway Car, University of Chicago Press’ stunning collection of Donald Westlake’s long-unpublished nonfiction miscellany...
My house is full of books. I sometimes think I should put signs up, like a bookshop: crime section along the outside wall downstairs; general fiction and travel upstairs; plays, poetry and non-fiction between dining room and kitchen; various assorted children’s books up in the loft. Not that I need to draw attention to the books, exactly. They’re pretty much the first things people see. Which is exactly as it should be.
I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t a book person. At infants’ school I ached to be allowed to progress faster through the reading scheme which was meant to enrich our vocabulary and teach us pronunciation, and get on to the real books. Later, my friends pushed doll’s prams or played football with the boys, while I curled up in a chair with Heidi. I joined the adult library when I was twelve, having exhausted the kids’ section’s stock of boarding school tales and science fiction.
These days, a day without reading time is a bleak one, and if I reach for a book and there isn’t one there, my hands don’t quite know what to do. During our recent three-day visit to my Welsh homeland, I misjudged: I packed the book I was reading at the time, finished it on the first night and had to go in search of a replacement the following day. Not that buying a book causes me any distress or difficulty – rather the opposite. But since my to-be-read pile already had nine chunky volumes in it and was about to be expanded by a further four, words like overkill and excessive come to mind. Though not for long. It’s not possible to have too many books. Ever.
Given the above, it’s hardly surprising that the freelance life I’ve built for myself revolves around the printed word. If I’m not writing it, I’m editing it, and when I’m doing neither I’m reading it, sometimes for review, sometimes purely for pleasure. Take this week. It’s only Wednesday, and already I have:
- researched and written two 300-word features for a local newspaper;
- researched a third feature, to be written later today;
- started to give a book I’m editing its final read-through, a task I’ll probably complete tomorrow;
- reviewed the book I finished that first night in Wales;
- read the first of the four new additions to the pile, which were in Monday morning’s post, ready for
- reviewing it, which will probably happen tomorrow, along with the editing.
After that, doubtless other book- or print-related tasks will appear in my in-box. If they don’t, there’s a novel in manuscript which a friend has asked me to give an opinion on; I made it to halfway last week, before the paid and deadlined work kicked in again.
All this and the Sunday papers and general knowledge crossword too...
But then words are essential. They’re part of the warp and weft of life. They’re the way we humans communicate. Stating the obvious, maybe, but since there is a manifest determination to devalue what writers do by cutting book prices to the bone and putting publishers in the position of paring their costs likewise, I think it’s an obvious that needs to be stated now and again. That way, writers maybe feel a little more valued and their very real skills are properly appreciated.
And if I’ve done my bit to make that happen, my work for today is done.
Scenes from last night’s event with David Shafer and Lev Grossman at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. The conversation was so insightful; I learned something new about both authors’ novels.
Curious about where David will be next? Check out the dates on his Whiskey Tango Foxtrot book tour.