1/ PAY ATTENTION
All other principles are refinements of this one. For me, the first step in learning to write good dialogue was deciding that I wanted to write good dialogue. This required me to pay attention to the way that my characters’ spoke, rather than just using dialogue to push the story forward.
I noticed that good dialogue was an attribute of my favourite writers (Garth Ennis, Elmore Leonard, Joe Lansdale, Quentin Tarantino, Cormac McCarthy) and I decided that I, too, would be a ‘dialogue guy’. While I did spend a lot of time looking at what they did, I think the main improvement came from taking the time to look at every line I wrote and asking “Does this sound like a person actually speaking?”
But it’s not just about how good your ear is. Good dialogue is all about how you edit what you’ve heard to that the story flows with it naturally.
Good dialogue doesn’t just happen. Writers need to develop the skill of writing a conversation, just as they do for writing an action or describing a landscape.
2/ DIALOGUE IS HOW CHARACTERS COMMUNICATE WITH EACH OTHER
The heading should be self evident, but perhaps the corollary is not:
Dialogue is the means by which characters communicate information to each other–not to the reader.
You see this all the time, especially in television, where slabs of plot need to be communicated quickly within a fixed episode runtime and genre convention combined with the medium itself removes other obvious tools. But it’s still bad writing.
Here are two dialogue clues that the characters are speaking for the benefit of the audience, not each other:
- The Exposition Dump: This one usually begins with the phrase “As you already know…” If character A already knows what’s going on, why is character B explaining it to them… and why are they listening? The clock is ticking, people–the bomb is gonna go off, the episode is running out of minutes, the reader is losing patience with your shitty dialogue.
- What’s My Motor-vation: “But, don’t you see…?” Uh, yeah. If your killer has to explain why they dunnit in a big speech, after we’ve spent a whole episode/chapter/book/trilogy working out who and why, something is broken.
Readers are smart. They can work out a lot of stuff just from the context of the story. If there really is too much information to get across naturally then find another device to get this across, rather than making your players drop character and vomit it up.
In prose you can take a moment and deliver information through your narrator. I like to use small chunks of a sentence or two interspersed through action or dialogue, to avoid bogging everything down, but many writers approach the info dump with the relish of a rock guitarist playing a solo. That’s okay, too. If you’re gonna go for it, you may as well go hard. I know they teach you ‘show, don’t tell’, but that’s what prose is–telling. If you have to exposit, but you do it in prose than in dialogue.
In script there are other ways to deliver exposition. Scrolling titles, like the opening of Star Wars. I’m not a fan of the voice-over, but I prefer it to endlessly speech-making characters.
Another way to do this is to give the characters an in-story reason for dumping information: a classroom, a lecture, a press conference, a briefing, a wedding speech, a job interview. Just realize that in real life, these kinds of events tend to be boring. Which is fine if you’re a teacher or a manager (sorry, teacher friends), but if you’re a writer, being boring is the greatest of sins. Remember: everybody likes a short speech. So if you have these kinds of scenes, you need to cut them hard. Showing that your characters are bored with the proceedings is not going to make it any more interesting to the reader.
3/ DIALOGUE IS INTERACTIVE
Even if one character is speaking and another listening, don’t forget that the other character is still present. The listener will respond to what is being said in various ways and the speaker will respond to the listener as well as to their own memories and agendas. You need to think about what both characters are doing all the while. Don’t be afraid to let them interrupt each other. Think about what the characters are physically doing while they converse (drinking coffee, playing pachinko, cutting up a body) and think about how that effects the conversation.
4/ AVOID PHONETIC SPELLING
“YOUSE GOIZ IS DA BESTUST GANGSTAS IN THE WOILD.” Phonetically spelling everything a character says instantly makes them a caricature.
How many people do you know who are really good at imitating accents and dialects? I bet the number is a lot smaller than the number of friends you have who THINK they’re good at accents (hint: me).
The occasional phonetic spelling will add a bit of colour, but if in doubt, avoid. Careful word ordering and word choice will usually do more to convey an accent than bad spelling.
5/ GOOD DIALOGUE SOUNDS NATURAL, BUT ISN’T
Listen to some conversations between strangers. Go on. Eavesdrop on the train or in a cafe. Listen to your neighbours over the back fence.
Real conversations are terrible. People repeat themselves. They stutter, they flub punchlines, they spout cliches, they make weird grammar errors, they talk in circles, they go off on tangents, they fail to deliver their points, they over-explain, they leave out crucial details… Did I mention that they repeat themselves? Oh, I… I did? Do you think that’s irritating? I think it’s really fucking irritating.
Anyway. Nobody wants to read your shitty conversation with your mates unless you are a bunch of professional standup comedians. Even then, you need to understand there’s only so much time an audience is prepared to listen to you drunkenly compare your antidepressants.
Good dialogue sounds natural, but isn’t. It has inflections of accent and dialect and it shows character. It bears contans enough of the qualities I have just complained about to sound realistic, but like good writing it’s concise and clever and properly paced.
6/ KEEP IT SHORT
Best way to avoid all of these traps is to keep the dialogue short. Punchy.
Here’s a trick that I have used on more than one occasion when a big slab of dialogue just isn’t working:
First, take every line and cut it in half. Literally: try to break every line at half the width of the page.
Then have a different character respond to it on the next line. Even if it’s just a “Go on…” when the prior character peters out. When you break it up like this it’s much easier to spot the clauses that are redundant or awkwardly phrased… and it hurts less to slash them out.
You probably won’t be able to break every line, but try everything you can before you give up. If some of the dialogue is a big paragraph of text, see if you can summarize it in one or two sentences. See if you can throw it away altogether. You will be surprised how often you can.
Even if you don’t keep this cropped version and have to start over, hopefully you’ve learned enough about the scene that you can find a btter way forward.
7/ SILENCE IS GOLDEN
It doesn’t just sound like a cliche, it is a cliche… but what your characters fail to express really is more important than what they do. What they conceal from each other and from the reader, what they refuse to admit, and all of the implications that go along with it. A well placed beat is worth 100 lines of expositing or emoting, and it reads a damn sight better. The punchline that you don’t even have to say is the best punchline there is.
8/ LEVEL OF STYLIZATION
Like most art, you as a writer will bring your own style to the dialogue. Or many styles. Depending on what it is that you are doing, you may want to bring a different style or a different degree of realism to bear on your work.
So for example, in Bloody Waters I deployed what I think of as an ultra-snappy style. The protagonist, Clarice, is quick-witted and has an immediate comeback for everything–but part of the trick there is that I set up every conversation to maximize her opportunities to do that. These one-liners are the source of most of he humour in the book.
I don’t do this in the Sixsmiths, which is an ensemble drama, in which characters are socially awkward or treading difficult emotional ground. The characters are less self-aware and the jokes are constructed out of the situations, because the characters generally aren’t trying to be funny or smart. The style of dialogue I’ve employed for this is a few degrees closer to realism, because, while Clarice is a rockstar, the Sixsmiths are everyday people. Even the rockstars among them.
And then there’s Faerie Apocalypse. The dialogue in this book is very stylized. The characters, for the most part, speak formally and eloquently and I made no attempt at all to make it sound natural, because I was looking for a particular effect. One of the conceits of the story is that the setting itself alters the language of its characters–no matter which language they speak. Which leads me to:
9/ THE USUAL DISCLAIMER
The usual disclaimer applies: writing is an art. There are no hard and fast rules. There are writers who produce amazing dialogue that violates every single one of the items I have written above. The key is to think about what you’re doing and to employ or ignore rules like the ones given above purposefully. Know when you’re going against principle and why and your work will be strong. Go against them out of ignorance and it will almost certainly not be.