The following was originally published in Fiction Fix Newsletter in January, 2002.
We talk every day. We hold conversations wherever we go–at work, out shopping, or at home with our families. You could say we’re all experts at casual chatter. Why, then, do many writers find dialog so difficult to write?
I’ve always been a whiz at making characters converse, but when some friends in my writers’ group asked me how I do it I found myself stumped. How could I explain something that came naturally? It wasn’t as if I ever had to learn to write dialog–I just do it. So I started thinking about my process, trying to bring forth some of the techniques I subconsciously use and the rules I instinctively follow. This is what I came up with.
LISTEN TO PEOPLE
It’s pretty simple–listen to people when they talk. What sorts of things do they say? How do they say them? Listen for the rhythms in their speech. Listen for their vocal ticks. (Do they say your name a lot when talking to you, for instance? Or maybe they use a certain phrase repeatedly.) Replay conversations in your head during quiet times. In fact, make up conversations in your head.
AT THE MOVIES
Today’s movie audiences don’t buy into hokey dialog. The characters on the screen must speak in a way that rings true, or moviegoers will turn away. So, it only stands to reason that a great source for learning dialog would be the cinema.My brother and I are constantly quoting movie lines. Drives the rest of our family nuts. We remember dialog because we pay attention. Start listening at movies and during TV time. If you’re usually a visual person, try closing your eyes to help yourself listen. Remember the tone and style of the characters’ conversations.
READ YOUR DIALOG OUT LOUD
This is a probably the best tip I have in my arsenal. Pretend you’re an actor rehearsing a script. When you’re revising lines of dialog, read them aloud. Try to sound just as your character would–using vocal tones and inflections to convey meaning. Do you sound ridiculous? If you do, you need to rewrite your dialog to make it more conversational and realistic. Are you stumbling over your lines? Perhaps they’re too complex or you need to pay more attention to syntax. Rewrite and rewrite some more until you’ve got it down.
READ BOOKS WITH GREAT DIALOG
From the age of about 12 or so, I’ve been a Stephen King fan. And whether you love or loathe him, King writes great dialog. As a teenage writer, I wanted to write like Stephen King. I’m sure the Master of the Macabre is partly responsible for my ability to create vivid conversations between my characters. If you read writers who have a knack for dialog, you just might pick up the ability by osmosis, but… it’s even better if you can analyze the writing to see what makes it tick. Read bad dialog, too, and discover what you don’t like. Pay Conroy is a great writer, but when I started reading The Prince of Tides recently I realized that his characters say one another’s names far too often in dialog. It was all “Sara, this…” and “Tom, that….” As good as Conroy’s books are, the dialog put me off because people just don’t talk like that.
OBEY THE DIALOG RULES
I know, I know–you’re saying, “What dialog rules? I never got any dialog rules!” They’re not exactly handed out on the first day of Creative Writing 101, but they do exist as a sort of unwritten law. Here they are:
- Never use attributes other than “said” or “asked.” (Like all rules, this one may be broken from time to time–just be careful to break it only when the alternative truly adds something to your story.) Often, if it’s clear who’s talking, you don’t need an attribute at all.
- Don’t try to write in dialect unless you’re a real pro (in which case you probably wouldn’t be reading this article). It’s awkward, and you have to use some creative spelling and punctuation. Telling us Velvet Johnson spoke like a southern belle is preferable to making us read (and decipher) lines of dialog like: “Whah, I ain’t nevah seen nothin’ like that in mah life!”
- Do throw in regional expressions and slang to make dialog seem real. Just don’t pepper your manuscript so full of it that it’s no longer palatable. Season lightly.
- Don’t have your characters make small talk. In real life, we may chat about the weather and the stock market, but in fiction, unless those things happen to be important to the story–say, for instance, you’re writing a book like The Perfect Storm, or a screenplay like Wall Street–leave them out and cut to the chase. Small talk is dull in real life. It’s even more boring in fiction.
- Break up dialog with action. People don’t simply stand face to face and talk. We make facial expressions and gestures. We move around and do things as we’re talking. The physical action in your story shouldn’t grind to a halt when your characters speak any more than it would in real life. Here’s the rub, though–when you’re including action in your dialog sequences, make certain what you’ve included helps your story. It should show character, set the scene, or move the plot forward in some small (or not so small) way.
And now that you know some dialog rules, you can break them when you have to. There are no absolutes in writing–if what you’re doing is effective, then damn the rules and full speed ahead.
Making your characters chatter shouldn’t be a scary thing–it’s fun! And we all enjoy reading good dialog, because suddenly people are talking and things are getting interesting. If you have trouble with dialog, practice it. Try writing a story with nothing but dialog, and try making it so that a reader would be able to learn something about the characters through the dialog and distinguish them, one from the other, by their speech. And remember that practicing conversations in your head is not weird or schizophrenic; I do it all the time.
Well, then again, maybe it is weird… but we’re writers.