Mmmm, yes, good dialog must you have

I’ve decided that today is Speak Like Yoda Day.

Bereft I am when lousy dialog do I see. Boring it is and throw away the manuscript do I want.

Okay, it really isn’t Speak Like Yoda Day. But there are times when I wonder if Yoda didn’t get his grimy little paws on authors’ manuscripts and wreak havoc. There I am, reading away, loving every word, thrilling in the author’s use of her language skills, when screeeeech! I bang up against the wall over the dialog. Those vibrant, three dimensional, living, breathing people now sound like robots in dire need of engine grease.

I know many authors who quiver at the thought of writing dialog, and I’m always quick to remind them that dialog is as much a writer’s tool as a computer and Thesaurus, so they better learn how to do it – and do it right.

There are any number of things that can take a reader out of a story, and dialog is one of them. I’ve talked about it before, but it bears repeating.

Believable Dialog

By believable, I mean is this something that would really come out of a character’s pie hole. Contractions. Use them. People don’t say, “I do not think it will matter if the beagle drinks too much tequila.” Well, unless they’re Martians, foreigners, or Star Trek’s Commander Data. They’d say, “I don’t think the beagle will blow her cerebral cortex if she drinks too much tequila.”

Character Development

I love books where I learn more about the character through their dialog than through developmental narrative. So much can be revealed through dialog that reveals the specialness of your character. Your narrative can get across the idea that your character is wry, silly, casual, but those are sort of elusive characteristics. How to show that true essence of their core personality? Hello, Dialog.  If, for example, you’re in the middle of a tense scene and your character says, “All things considered, I’d rather be shaving my eyebrows,” that communicates far more than any description you could come up with because it’s show, not tell.

How Would Your Character Talk?

I’ll never forget reading a spy novel. The main character was your typical gritty, tough talking, swearing, swaggery type. Yet he asked his fiance, “Are we going to be having relations tonight?”

BWAHAHAHAHA.

After seven years, I still remember that line. And I’ve never forgiven the author or his editor. It was so pathetically pathetic because there is NO WAY the character would have ever talked like that. And really…who does talk like that? “Relations”? I’m not saying that everyone gets down and dirty when they’re discussing the horizontal mambo, but geez, they’re going to speak in the manner that’s comfortable.

You have to know your characters very well in order to understand the things that would come out of their mouth and the way they’d say it.

I know this seems simplistic, but I see a ton of dialog where I think the character would never talk like that. And I use my bloody red editing pen all the time. Dialog is vital to your book, and you have to respect it and your characters to get it right.

Boooring!

Consider the conversations you have with your friends, co-workers, family. If you stop to analyze those conversations, you’ll notice how informally we speak. Mimic that. Make it realistic. If you do, then you’re creating a smooth transition between your narrative and your conversations.

You’ll also note that much of what we say is duller than the beagle’s eyes after a weekend bender. I see a lot of dialog that mirrors this fluff, nonessential stuff, and my bloody red editing pen gets a serious workout. If your readers have to wade through the “Hello, are you?” “I’m fine, how ’bout you?” “Doing well, though my back is acting up.” “Have you tried good bourbon and radishes before bed?” Blah, blah, blah. By this time, your readers are looking for rope and high ceiling beams.

You need to keep your dialog tight, taut, interesting, and important. Have something to say. Otherwise, why say it? Why write it? Just like your chapters, your dialog has to have a reason for being there, so treat it with the proper respect. Dialog is the backbone of your story. It’s what keeps readers engaged. Too much narrative, and most readers get weary. They need it to be broken up with white space and dialog.

If you follow these simple guidelines, better dialog will you have. Go Yoda…

Do you have a hard time with dialog? Do you feel it’s because you don’t know your characters well enough?

14 Responses to Mmmm, yes, good dialog must you have

  1. Dialog is where all my stories start. I sometimes find after doing several pages that it’s all dialog, with no info on what the characters are doing, so I have to go back and add that all in.

  2. S.P. Bowers says:

    I do have problems with some of the dialogue of secondary characters because I don’t know them as well. It takes several passes to get it just right. Or rather, I’ll make several more passes and hope to get it right.

  3. Terry Odell says:

    I’ve been studying up on dialogue because I’m doing an online workshop on the topic at the end of the month, so thanks for this post!

    One thing that irks is when there’s a disconnect between dialogue spoken in normal character conversation and the dialogue used when that character is relaying information, still in dialogue, but it’s a total change in voice. Screams author intrusion to me.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place

  4. NinjaFingers says:

    Read it out loud ;). Then you’ll KNOW if it’s something that would flow when said.

    Of course, real dialog has umms, ahhs and pauses…you can be too realistic too.

  5. kimkircher says:

    Relations? Ha, now that’s funny. Realistic dialogue is an art form. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Frank Mazur says:

    “Are we going to be having relations tonight?”… I’m guessing, but is that from the Bill O’Reilly first novel?

  7. Marisa Birns says:

    Another point: prefer that dialogue only hints at accents or affected speech patterns. It stops the reader’s pacing when they have to read a passage a second or third time while trying to decipher.

    Such as, “Shet da doe.”

    ‘Nuff said. 🙂

  8. Another problem that I’ve seen in at least one fantasy novel : dialogue that’s trying to be archaic.

    “I haveth the honor to bringest thee to the sacred circle, fair mortal, yet thine countenance maketh me feareth for thy safety…”

    No, just no.

  9. Love this post.
    Also, people don’t ‘take turns’ to talk in the real world. There can be five people at the table, but two will do most of the talking, one will talk over them a bit, and the other two will talk amongst themselves for a bit, occasionally joining the group with a short line.

    When I’m revising, if I find the characters are ‘taking turns’ I re-do the scene to make it more unbalanced, which in turn can help it feel more natural.

    (As natural as a talking ferret and a girl and a witch can be)

  10. authorguy says:

    Ebony,
    That’s one of the things I hate about dialog in most stories, the way each character speaks in his own turn. I write my dialog as part of all the things the character is doing at that time, talking, thinking, moving, all at once. It gets me a little flak since I had to come up with some non-standard punctuation to make it work, but doing it in some linear fashion just doesn’t seem right.

  11. Pelotard says:

    I’m told I write good dialogue. (I think the implication is that the rest stinks.) But it only works when I’m not thinking too hard about it – because, as Lynn says, written dialogue can’t be like real conversations written down, it’d come out gibberish.

    It has to be more like a telephone conversation. “Live” conversation depends on words, tone of voice, facial clues, body language and gestures, referring to the thing you’re both looking at, etcetera. Phone conversation is more like fiction conversation: you have to make the words count in a way you don’t have to at the dinner table, especially since nobody will see if you’re juggling turkey legs att he same time.

    One trick I do make use of (that’s usually put in later, when I edit) is to make people answer questions with questions. Because real people won’t go, like,

    “Did you see that article about Skinner in the paper?”
    “Why yes, Mulder, I read it with great interest. Did you notice how they even got his height wrong?”

    The confirmation will be left out. Scully will go directly to the height issue. The confirmation is understood, and the reader will understand it, too.

  12. Lev Raphael says:

    All dialogue on paper is artificial in one way or another, so what we have to do as authors is make it believable for the situation and the characters. I read my dialogue aloud to hear it for rhythm, reality, and everything else. Hearing it often makes me trim or rewrite. I often notice repetition.

    I love Philip Roth for dialogue, ditto Don DeLillo. Both are stylized, both inspiring.

    Pet peeves: repetition. A highly praised thriller I couldn’t stand for more than one chapter had the speakers keep using “this.”

    “Don’t do this.” “This is what I need, so let’s get on with this.” Line after line in a long scene was filled with “this” taking the place of any number of possibilities. There was absolutely no indication that it was meant ironically or comically, or that the characters were mocking each other. It just felt like a first draft where the author plugged in the first things he thought of as placeholders.

    Another peeve: Overly formal language. “I’ve not heard that before.” I rarely hear that except in a screenplay. Yes, it’s a contraction, but most people say “I haven’t.”

    Last one: Too much profanity. A sequel to a superbly voiced book I read was possessed by the F-bomb and almost every line of dialogue used it. It made the scenes feel empty. Look at a brilliant movie like “Snatch.” Plenty of profanity but it’s inventive, funny, and not repetitious.

  13. Sarah Allen says:

    My biggest rule of thumb for dialogue is to make sure it sounds natural when I say it out-loud. I’ve also been involved in theater quite a bit, and I think that has helped. Dialogue is actually one of my favorite things to write. I’m less good with setting.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

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