Storyville: Writing Dialogue
There are many components that go into a great story. You need to have a layered, vivid setting. You need to create a narrative hook that pulls your audience in and a story that keeps them interested. You need characters that are complex, flawed, and realistic. And you need dialogue that rings true.
FUNCTION OF DIALOGUE
Why do we use dialogue in our stories? Like everything else in your fiction, it should move the story forward, give us information, or reveal character. It can help to foreshadow events, reveal a vivid setting, and show us deep, layered relationships. If you aren’t doing some (or all) of these things with your dialogue, then you aren’t using all of the tools in your tool belt. So how do you do that?
Whenever you are out and about, or even watching television, movies, or listening to the radio, be more aware of how people talk. Most people are pretty casual about how they speak. Absorb conversations at coffee shops, write it down if you want. Take notes at bars and clubs, family gatherings. And watch how people react. You can put all of that into your writing, and your dialogue.
Most of the time you’ll want to use contractions in your dialogue. People aren’t as formal as you may think. See, right there. I said “you’ll” not “you will” as well as “aren’t” instead of “are not.” Now, if your character is an 18th century baron, maybe he speaks in a more formal tone, or if you are writing about a character where this fits, even in contemporary times, current day, by all means speak that way. But most of the time you should use contractions.
BREAK IT UP WITH ACTION
Long lines of dialogue are fine, but I wouldn’t go more than a few exchanges back and forth without adding in some lines that tell more of the story, reveal what is happening, describe physical action, use all five senses, tell the thoughts of your narrator or characters, etc. It’s also easy for your readers to get lost, even if you constantly tag your dialogue with he/she said or Bob/Mary said. When you show us what is happening, it does those three things I mentioned above: moves the story forward, gives us information, or reveals character.
Two people are talking about an affair a friend had, smoking cigarettes, drinking bourbon. We want to hear them say the words, “I knew she was fooling around,” but we also want to see a hand run through unkempt hair, fingers drumming on the table, eyes darting to the attractive bartender as she rubs a glass dry, over and over again.
99 percent of the time, all you need is he said, or she said. That’s it. “That’s not my shrunken head,” he said. “Well, it’s not mine, either” she said, tossing the dry, brittle skull in the air, a grin spreading over her face.
Dialogue and then action—or if you’re feeling brave, action tags. Now, I don’ t mean those horrible Tom Swifties. You know what those are? “We just struck oil!” Tom gushed. Or, “Pass me the shellfish,” Tom said crabbily. Those are terrible, right? But if you think you can handle it, and I challenge you to push yourself, add action tags to your dialogue—it can show you what is happening in a powerful way. But if you say, “I don’t know,” Jim shrugged, we get more on body, physical information. Those little beats, those breaks—revealing a blush of skin, a hand gesture, usually something physical—they will add to the scene, grounding the words in reality.
This goes without saying, but know how to use your commas and quotations marks. I’m sure you all have it down by now. Refer to a guide, Strunk and White, if you need to. Make sure you capitalize where it’s needed, get your commas inside the quotation marks, all of that obvious stuff. Once you get used to it, you won’t even think about it anymore.
I personally hate ellipses…a lot. But find a way to interrupt your dialogue, because people do that. Think about the last fight you had with a spouse, friend or family member. Did you wait for the other person to stop speaking so you could have your say? Do children always wait patiently to speak? I’m a much bigger fan of fragments than ellipses.
“Shut up, Roddy,” she said.
“I’m not waiting anymore. For anyone.”
“No but, no nothing. Not anymore.”
“Please,” he said. “Listen to me.”
“I’m done listening,” she said.
Something like that might work.
Be sure to use slang, where appropriate. People use words like “dude, man, yeah,” all the time. Sprinkle it into your dialog. SPRINKLE, I say. Unless a character has a chorus, a voice that begs for it, you could end up sounding like Beavis and Butthead or Jeff Spicoli.
Be careful about writing characters that are dull and obvious—avoid stereotypes. Is every mafia don a fat Italian man? Is every inner city criminal a muscular black guy? Is every woman in distress a buxom blonde? Whatever your characters, try going against type. That’s why Mike Tyson is so hilarious, that high-pitched, lisping voice. It’s not at all the Barry White voice you’d expect from a boxer. But then again, a dock worker in Brooklyn or Baltimore may really speak in a certain way, with stereotypical language and word choices. So if you go that route, find a way to mix it up. A factory worker that always tries to use big words, that can become an amusing trait—or it can reveal a hidden intellect that shows us how dangerous he really is.
READ IT OUT LOUD
One of the best ways to check your dialogue is to read it out loud. Wherever you stumble, mark it, and fix it. Is it your word choice, the phrasing, the way you break the dialogue apart, does it need more/less tags?—all of that. Listen to the words you say and think about who is speaking. Does the mousy librarian say, “Get out of my fucking library, you assholes!” or does she say, “Get out of my precious library, you hooligans.” Think about region—are you in the north, south, east or west? Is your character highly educated or a dropout, living on the street? Their status, their history, their current situation (drunk, angry, dying, lost, scared) will dictate how they speak.
In the end, dialogue has to ring true. In addition to moving the story forward (“I slept with your wife.”) giving us information (“And that thing, with her tongue, did you teach her that?”) and revealing character (“I liked it.”) your dialogue has to be believable. It can’t pull us out of the story. It can’t break character, unless done really well. A cold-blooded killer that suddenly shows a soft side on the last page, scooping up a kitten and whispering sweet nothings in her ear—no, that probably won’t work. The same killer that early on quotes poetry in private, tends a flower garden, and helps at his church—then, at the end picks up that same kitten and mutters nonsense to it—that may work. Read it out loud, listen to the words, and ask yourself, “Does this sound right? Would I say that? Do I believe this?” Trust your instincts, your gut. In time, it will all be second nature.
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