Writing Effective Dialogue

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The most memorable writing takes advantage of the faculties of human speech. Of all the narrative forms, dialogue is the most human in design. Unlike description or narrative, dialogue requires a person’s presence. As such, it’s intrinsically empathetic. Dialogue injects an identifiable voice into an otherwise impersonal medium; it doesn’t carry the prescriptive distance of description. Dialogue captures people just being people. When readers arrive at dialogue, they let down their guard.

Stories that plod on without dialogue for too long will almost invariably suffer. (There are exceptions. Just read anything by Borges.) However, dialogue is an ingredient that should be used judiciously. One problem with dialogue is that unlike narrative — which can move forward or backward in time —dialogue keeps the story frozen in real-time. Moreover, dialogue between two or more people comprises a “scene,” whether you like it or not, so just like narrative or description, it can get dull quickly. Therefore, dialogue should typically be reserved for “big” moments: when you want to share important details about a character, or reveal vital elements of the plot. (Again, rules are made to be broken: just look at the pages-long blocks of dialogue in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.) A good personal rule is to use dialogue when it counts, not simply to fill white space.

Dialogue reveals

One of dialogue’s greatest benefits is its ability to show who characters truly are without paragraphs of tedious description. Dialogue is intrinsically descriptive; it allows the writer to do more expository work in less space. In Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children for example, we’re introduced to Aadam Aziz, a doctor who treats and eventually marries Naseem Ghani, the daughter of a wealthy landlord. As we soon discover, their marriage is a tempestuous affair. After a medical procedure, Aziz enters a room covered in medicine, which his wife believes is blood. Rushdie wisely uses this trivial incident to reveal a working paradigm of how their marriage operates.

“It’s Mercurochrome, Naseem. Red Medicine.”
Naseem — who had become a whirlwind of activity, seizing clothes, running taps — freezes. “You do it on purpose,” she says, “to make me look stupid. I am not stupid. I have read several books.”

Rushdie could've added this detail by writing something to the effect of “Naseem was insecure, and resented it when Aziz lorded his medical knowledge over her.” But that would be boring, and the reader might miss it entirely. Instead, this passage illustrates the conflict within their relationship in detail, and in doing so tells us volumes about both characters: one is methodical and knowledgeable, the other is ill-tempered and probably more than a little self-conscious about her lack of pedantic knowledge. As a bonus, the dialogue has brought an otherwise static scene to life by creating conflict and action, which rouses reader interest.

Watch out for dialogue that’s too convenient. Characters shouldn’t exchange information they already know, and they shouldn't engage in “soap opera” soliloquies where they simply divulge information to express the writer’s narrative strategy (“Dakota enterprises will be mine!”). Dialogue should peel back plot and reflect the theme of the work, but if it’s “bull’s-eye” convenient all the time — if characters always say what they mean and never waiver from their placard positions, or if they give away too much of the plot — it will reveal the writer working behind the character.

In Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” the dialogue serves as anything but a convenience. Two characters — a man and a woman, the latter of whom is on her way to have an abortion — resort to discussing everything but what’s on their minds: the woman’s pending procedure. Here, a sort of negative space around the dialogue bolsters the theme of the story; there’s a noted, critical distance between what’s being said and what’s being thought. The characters’ inability to say what’s on their minds says more about the magnitude of what’s to come than anything they could possibly put into words.

‘I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.’
‘And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?’
‘I love you now. You know I love you.’
‘I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?’
‘I’ll love it. I love it now but I just can’t think about it. You know how I get when I worry.’
‘If I do it you won’t ever worry?’
‘I won’t worry about that because it’s perfectly simple.’
‘Then I’ll do it. Because I don’t care about me.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t care about me.’
‘Well, I care about you.’
‘Oh, yes. But I don’t care about me. And I’ll do it and then everything will be fine.’
‘I don’t want you to do it if you feel that way.’

Dialogue authenticates, subverts

Because dialogue is revelatory, it should reflect the authenticity of the character. Dialogue should always adopt a character’s language and jargon; it should showcase a character’s distinct mannerisms of speech. One way to avail authenticity is to use the dialect and vernacular of an existing region or culture so the story comes with an armory of adjuncts the writer can then subvert or ally to his/her advantage.

Mark Twain was a master of dialect. In Pudd’nhead Wilson, the main character Tom is a light-skinned black man raised to believe he's a white, wealthy landowner. Over the course of the novel he argues with the family’s maid Roxy, who, unbeknownst to him, is actually his mother. Because the reader knows the "white" character is actually "black," a reversal of “traditional” racial dialogue offers a scathing commentary on how ultimately superfluous our presumed identities are.

“Cut it short, I tell you, and get along! What do you want?”
“Oh, Marse Tom, de po’ ole mammy is in sich hard luck these days; en she’s kinder crippled in de arms en can’t work, en if you could gimme a dollah — on’y jes one little dol—”
“A dollar! — give you a dollar! I’ve a notion to strangle you!”

I should mention that writing this kind of dialect-heavy dialogue is very difficult nowadays without veering into a minefield of clichés. Using jargon can add authenticity to a character, but use it sparingly and make sure to avoid common, ready-made phrases and instead aim for language that fits and supports the character you’ve created.

Dialogue compresses ‘real’ language

On the matter of dialect and realism, we should mention that dialogue’s purpose walks a fine line in fiction. Dialogue should always sound natural, yet it should exist as a sort of convenient abstraction of real speech. Watch out for unnecessary rambling and unneeded repetition. When we speak, ‘real’ dialogue is filled with lots of etymological junk (“er,” “uhm,” “yeah,” “like,” “totally”). It’s a noble goal to make speech sound as ‘real’ as possible, but littering dialogue with these common inflections is distracting. Granted, some of these utterances are great for exposing character details, but you’ll want to find a sensible middle-ground: dialogue should be realistic, but like all writing, it should be ordered and structured enough that it doesn’t overpower. Be sensitive to the rhythms within sentences, and make sure to vary your sentence lengths as you would your overall narrative.

In Flannery O’Connor’s “The Barber,” a liberal college professor named Rayber finds himself doomed to a life in a notably uneducated southern town. When he has a chance run-in with a racist barber, O’Connor’s pits two political extremes against each other for a series of hilarious political dialectics that, as descriptive as they may be, exist in alarmingly compressed form.

“I am neither a Negro- nor a white-lover,” Rayber would have said to the barber.
The barber drew a clean path through the lather and then pointed the razor at Rayber. “I’m tellin’ you,” he said, “there ain’t but two sides now, white and black … You know what Hawks said? Said a hunnert and fifty years ago, they was runnin’ each other down eatin’ each other — throwin’ jewel rocks at birds — skinnin’ horses with their teeth. A nigger come in a white barber shop in Atlanta and says, ‘Gimme a haircut.’ They throwed him out but it just goes to show you.”

Here, O’Connor showcases both an extreme socio/political position and regional dialogue without choking the sentences of legibility or flow. In real life both characters would be at each others' throats for pages, but O’Connor is aware of her medium and delivers conflict with austere economy. In classic O’Connor fashion, the passage is also darkly humorous: the noted ignorance of the barber — his child-like gullibility to believe anything he is told — is ironic, given he purports to be more evolved than the ethnic group he is describing. This detail tells us more about the character than he could've ever told us about himself.

Dialogue offers new words, new worlds

Jargon shouldn’t be explained. Breaking the fourth wall to annotate why someone speaks the way they do yanks us out of the world you’ve worked so hard to create. Surprising the reader with jargon can do a great deal for tone, and more often than not, the effect of letting jargon lay is worth the lack of explanation. Like all dialogue however, its use has to be earned. A shy character shouldn’t scream a barrage of expletives, for example, unless you’re trying to reveal something about him/her we didn’t know.

In this "standard" passage from Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, there’s no question we’ve entered a world unlike anything else we’ve encountered, yet Burgess never breaks the spell to explain why the characters speak the way they do. The result is a well-harnessed incursion of character description, intent, brogue, authenticity, voice and narrative conflict.

“Yarbles,” said Dim, sneering, “great bolshy yarblockos to you … I’ll meet you with chain or nozh or britva any time, not having you aiming tolchocks at me reasonless, it stands to reason I won’t have it.”

Dialogue can also be used as a fantastic transitioning tool. It can be inserted in the action to offer a contrast from description and narrative. And while dialogue can’t “time travel” like narrative, it can be used to bookend scenes with ease, thereby implying the passage of time when readers arrive at the following scene.

Take this bit of dialogue from Raymond Carver’s “Elephant,” where summary of dialogue is employed with actual dialogue to allow both economy and narrative mobility.

He cried over the phone and said he’d pay me back. February, he said. Maybe sooner. No later, anyway, than March. He said his income-tax refund was on the way. Plus, he said, he had a little investment that would mature in February. He acted secretive about the investment things, so I didn’t press for details.
“Trust me on this,” he said. “I won’t let you down.”

Dialogue is one of the only times in fiction writing where summary is permissible. Carver, a master of economy, has summarized what would otherwise be a hearty hunk of dialogue, and then used actual dialogue to both strengthen the prior summary and usher us along to the next scene.

Finally, make sure your dialogue tags are unobtrusive. Many writers will tell you that “said” should be the only tag a writer uses, and I’m partial to this opinion. Dialogue tags should exist only to attribute the speaker; phrases like “he exclaimed” or “she retorted” take us into an editorialization of what was said. If your dialogue powers are intact, what they said should suffice for an explanation of how they said it. Also use caution when modifying the word “said” with adverbs (“she said dryly,” or “he said quickly”). Modifiers, while they intend to specify the action, actually have a habit of doing the opposite. Worse, additives such as these shatter the intended illusion of dialogue, that we’re literary flies on the wall capturing real people in a real moment in time.

Image of Midnight's Children: A Novel (Modern Library 100 Best Novels)
Author: Salman Rushdie
Price: $11.51
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (2006)
Binding: Paperback, 536 pages
Image of The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson
Author: Mark Twain
Price: $6.99
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2013)
Binding: Paperback, 138 pages
Jon Gingerich

Column by Jon Gingerich

Jon Gingerich is editor of O'Dwyer's magazine in New York. His fiction has been published in literary journals such as The Oyez Review, Pleiades, Helix Magazine, as well as The New York Press, London’s Litro magazine, and many others. He currently writes about politics and media trends at www.odwyerpr.com. Jon holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Some of his published fiction can be found at www.jongingerich.com.

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Comments

Chester Pane's picture
Chester Pane from Portland, Oregon is reading The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz January 4, 2012 - 2:48pm

Thanks Jon.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. January 4, 2012 - 6:08pm

The only time I would use something other than 'said' or 'asked' or add an adverb to a speech tag is if it directly contradicts the words that are spoken.  Like if someone whispers, "Help."  Or "Go fuck yourself," she said politely.

This is a great essay and should be included in the craft essays.

jl85's picture
jl85 from originally East Tennessee now Southern California is reading everything I can January 4, 2012 - 9:45pm

Jon I love reading all your craft essays! They are always full of great advice and information. Looking forward to your next great article.

boxofcode's picture
boxofcode from a small cotton town in West Texas is reading REAMDE January 5, 2012 - 2:08am

I've always been of the opinion that any author worth his salt would expect intelligence from his own readers, yet I have never given thought to the condescending result of the use of poor dialogue constructs.  Whether by accident, lack of skill, or lack of planning, the result always seems the same: the story loses its rhythm, and as a side-effect, its believability.  Great essay.

poisonous_ink's picture
poisonous_ink from India is reading The Stranger by Albert Camus January 7, 2012 - 6:57am

Thanks a lot...