From the Director….How to Write Dialogue that Rocks
Dialogue is an important element in Memoir, Fiction, and other Creative Nonfiction, so I thought I would discuss it.
What was I thinking? There are so many elements of writing craft to be considered—point of view, narrative voice, setting the scene, introducing the characters.
But for some odd reason, I promised a lesson on dialogue. Perhaps a little bird told me to do it.
He was a pompous, erudite little bird in a bow tie. He looked over his reading glasses as he said, “You must expound, with brevity and wit, upon the subject of dialogue.”
Or perhaps, he strolled in slowly, pushed back a cowboy hat, and said, “Pilgrim, I reckon dialogue ort to be the next thing.”
Or perhaps he was really a she. She minced in on tiny bird stilettos, throwing a little feather boa about her neck, as she said, “Dahling, do tell me about dialogue.”
Or perhaps she stood in the middle of the room, an apron around her matronly bird waist, looking around in despair and saying, “Poor child. You’ve got to clean this house and write about dialogue.”
And so we see that the first question to be considered in writing dialogue is not what is said, but who says it.
I’m not a fan of writing exercises, but there are several things that I advise writers to do. One of these is to eavesdrop.
In a conversation, we are so focused on the content of the speaker’s message, we often miss the subtle characteristics that distinguish his speech. We typically only notice these if they are exaggerated, like those belonging to my little birds.
So it’s an interesting exercise to really listen to how people talk. Open your ears and keep a notepad handy. You’ll discover all sorts of speaking signatures, turns of phrase, slight mispronunciations, odd sentence structures. Keep these in your writer’s paint box. Mix them together on your writer’s palette. Because dialogue is a critical element in painting the scene.
Dialogue is not conversation. Repeat this five thousand times: Dialogue is not Conversation. Good dialogue is a distillation of language appropriate to the speaker and his circumstances.
You absolutely cannot listen to two people talking, reproduce that verbatim on the page, and have anything that anyone would have the patience to read. We are too verbose, too repetitious, too unimaginative in everyday speech. Dialogue must keep the reader engaged every second.
So, in recognition of the fact that whole books have been written on the construction of good dialogue, let’s lay out a few key rules to help you rethink what dialogue is all about.
Dialogue has several purposes: It can reveal the character, his emotions, attitudes, and his relationship to another character. It can advance plot, and it can reveal the theme. Every sentence of good dialogue will accomplish at least two of these.
The character is not the author. The character should not sound like you. Every character should have a distinctive voice. Even if they come from the same part of the country, or use the same slang because they are the same age, they must be different enough that we can hear each one’s voice. (This is where you use the speech signatures you heard when eavesdropping.)
Never have a character give information that the hearing character already knows. (“As you know, Muggledorf, a comet is heading toward Earth and will impact North America in seven hours and fifteen minutes.”) People don’t usually include exposition in their speech in the real world, and to a reader, this will sound false and clunky.
Use beats, not tags. A tag is a verb like “he snarled,” or “she lectured.” Modern style advises strongly against these, and they are now considered amateurish. They draw attention to the writer and take the reader out of the scene. Always use “said,” even for a question. “Said” is invisible to the reader. Do not use an adverb, for example: “Muggledorf said harshly.” This is telling the reader, rather than showing him.
A beat is a piece of action occurring just before the dialogue. A beat will take the reader further into the scene. A beat can be a line of description or an action by the character, and you can dispense with “said.” Muggledorf jerked the curtain open. “What comet?”
Dialogue is not conversation, but writing good dialogue is a skill that can be learned. It takes practice and patience.
Here’s a tip: The next time you write a scene with dialogue, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, take a moment to read your dialogue out loud. Does it advance the plot? Does it reveal character? Then you’re on the right track.