It’s not what you say. It’s the way you say it.
by Jeff Bowles
I love good dialogue. In fact, it may be my favorite thing about reading a book or watching a truly excellent film. Many serious writers will tell you that it’s an important tool in the author’s toolkit, but that it is by no means the most essential. I respectfully disagree. I say good dialogue can elevate your writing like nothing else. After all, it’s not what you say. It’s the way you say it.
Looking back, I realize I’ve always been polishing up my ability to generate interesting, gripping, or just plain funny dialogue. I self-studied writers and filmmakers who made it a priority in their storytelling, folks like Douglass Adams, Elmore Leonard, and Quentin Tarantino. I read a lot of Marvel and DC comic books, which as you may or may not know, are almost completely composed of dialogue. I don’t know why it mattered so much to me, but I absolutely lit up whenever characters interacted with each other in snappy and surprising ways. I still light up when I read, see, or hear the good stuff, and maybe I can’t speak for everyone on this, but when was the last time you saw a well-produced Shakespeare production and thought to yourself, Gosh, that guy just couldn’t write people to save his life?
That’s the key. People live in dialogue. Not in long winded descriptions or deep internal navel gazing. Characters come to life in their interactions with each other. You could say it’s the one thing that makes them leap off the page. It’s how people work in real life, too. Which is to say, without conversation, people tend not to work at all. Sit together with someone in an awkward silence long enough and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
When it comes to short stories and novels, good dialogue is essential. Sure, you’re a master of scene setting and description, but do all your characters seem to communicate like wooden B-movie stereotypes? Or another problem many writers have, have you noticed you’re timid on engaging your readers with dialogue, and so you tend to rely on big blocks of text to get your message across? Scene setting, subtle character development, basic point-to-point plotting, visceral sense engagement and description, and basic personal style may be the rhythm of the music we call fiction, but truly inspiring dialogue is quite essentially the melody.
If you think about it, you don’t even really know characters until they open their mouths. If you struggle with dialogue, or if you’re just looking to brush up on the basics, there are a few exercises you can employ. One, of course, is to go to a public place and listen to people converse in real time. Admittedly, not really a viable option during Coronavirus lockdown, but you can easily work this exercise from the comfort of your own home. Tune into some reality TV, or simply listen to the conversations your family have. Write down every word verbatim, if you can. You’ll notice that people tend to speak in a pretty roundabout way, with lots of umms and starts and stops thrown in the mix.
Good dialogue should contain elements of realistic conversation, but you also need to focus it like a laser beam. If you were to write a scene in which people talk like they do in real life, you’d end up with so many pauses, ellipses, and false starts it’d drive your readers nuts.
“Hi, Jim, how’d work go?”
“Oh, you know, I don’t know … the boss, he’s real … umm … I don’t know, he’s real pushy when it comes to … when it comes to, uh … oh, I don’t know”
Doesn’t really flow all that well, does it? May I present the alternative that what you’re going for with good character interactions isn’t so much realism as pointed randomness. That is to say, make an effort to produce dialogue that cracks like a whip, pops and snaps like lightning. Only make sure also that it’s random enough no one can accuse you of stiffly holding your reader’s hand.
“Hi, Jim, how’d work go?”
“Ah, you know, the boss … ever get the feeling some people’s neckties are on too tight?”
“Uh-oh. I know that tone. He got pushy again, didn’t he?”
“Pushy? I haven’t slept in weeks. Pretty sure I had a waking dream while filing a client’s paperwork today. By the way, if the office calls asking why I’ve suggested one Dana Baker should just hit the clown on the nose and fly away on his trusted dragon, I’m not in.”
Also, don’t be afraid to surprise yourself. If you’re surprised by your writing, you can guarantee your readers will be, too. Zig instead of zag when you approach character interactions. Also, try producing more dialogue on the page than you’re used to. A lot of readers just kind of sift through text blocks anyway. They consider the dialogue the real meaty parts. Sad, but I think it is true. Readers are less interested in what’s happening now than in what happens next. You can fuel that burning need to find out.
Here’s something else you may not have considered. The first true novel written in the English language was likely published sometime in the 16th century, or thereabouts. A couple centuries later in the Victorian era, the novel had exploded in popularity, and that period is still a gold mine as far as writers who produced work we’re reading to this day. In all the time since, our concept of good narrative fiction has gotten lighter, not heavier.
Have you ever been chewing your way through a Victorian novel and thought to yourself, Why’s it taking this lady so long to get out of her house? Well, it’s because back then, the form and function of the novel was to in some fashion reproduce life. Entertainment is its form and function in the year 2020, because these days authors have to compete with film, television, internet memes, video games, just about anything that’s loud, fast, and gets its point across in seconds flat.
Unfortunately, you are therefore also competing with shortened attention spans across the globe. Do yourself a favor, don’t shirk your duty to write super fun, super engaging dialogue. It can save even the dullest story. Well, maybe not the dullest. Need something more specific? Well, for one, make sure all your dialogue tags (or at least most of them) are of the simple, he said, she said variety. Very few of these said-bookisms you’ve heard so much about.
Also, try bouncing back and forth between characters like they’re playing verbal tennis. Keep each line short and snappy; play a game of hot potato. And don’t forget to edit like crazy when you’re done. If you’re not removing bulk between those quote marks, you’re doing it all wrong. Even in my short examples above, I went back in and cut the detritus. Because good dialogue should flow, not lay inert like a dead body on some old science fiction TV show.
Similarly, characters should all sound distinct from one another. Don’t give them so many affectations they no longer sound realistic, but look, not everyone talks the same, do we? We have accents and ticks and odd regional slang we depend on. Try speaking your dialogue aloud as you’re writing it. Kind of helps to clear out the mental cobwebs. If you can hear it from your own mouth, and it sounds pretty good to you, odds are it’ll work well enough on the page.
The truth is, most readers depend on good dialogue to communicate story. You can build or establish character relationships with it, key in on essential plot points, foreshadow upcoming events, or just plain have fun and make people laugh. One more time, dialogue is the melody of this music we call storytelling. So make sure yours is enjoyable to listen to. Speech, language, it’s the engine that drives everything we do. It binds us together, tears us apart, and isn’t that the essence of story?
If you’re struggling with this, the old adage, practice makes perfect, is as always the essential factor. You’ll thank me once you’ve mastered this new superpower, and your readers will thank you. Is it possible to overdo it? Certainly. But wouldn’t you rather read a beautiful mess that sounds like Mozart rather than racoons rattling around in your trash cans late at night?
Heh. That’s a funny line. Maybe I should jot it down and have one of my characters say it someday. Until next time, everybody. Wooden conversation is as wooden conversation does.
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