It’s been a manic few days since my book was released on the 24th. I’ve been inundated with texts, tweets and calls not to mention some fabulous reviews. Thanks to everyone concerned. But today I’m not talking about my book. I’m talking about your book (or short story or flash fiction) and, specifically, how to handle dialogue.
Over the past few weeks we’ve looked at some of the elements of writing dialogue such as using pauses, managing exposition, and handling identification tags. Today we’re going to look at the actual dialogue and explore what works, what does, and why.
The Value of Bad Manners:
Firstly, you can’t write dialogue if you can’t hear dialogue. To that end, you must listen. I know, duh! It’s hard to do that when you’re in the middle of a conversation, of course. Yes, you might replay the conversation in your mind later, but if the dialogue is memorable chances are it’s because it’s emotionally laden. “He said he’d call…” “What did she mean when she said I had nice eyes…?” “He had no right to talk to me that way…” See what I mean? We don’t usually replay dialogue simply because it was an example of witty repartee. Not saying it can’t happen, but unless you’re mates with the likes of Oscar Wilde or Truman Capote those snippets of conversation are not going to be half as entertaining as you’d like to think.
The truth is we’re usually so invested in the conversation that we don’t hear the words we hear the intent. That being the case, it stands to reason that the best way to study dialogue is to eavesdrop. Yes, I know it’s rude. Sure, your mother would be upset, but does mummy need to know? Go sit in public places with your notebook and your ears open. Sit on a bus or a train and listen. Take notes. Go to a cafe and do some proper earwigging. It’s not rude if it’s for art. OK, it probably is, but think how much you’ll learn.
Just Let it Rip
When you write your first draft — I don’t just mean dialogue here, but whatever you write — turn your filter off. Ignore those voices that say, “That’s crap!” “He wouldn’t talk like that!” or my personal favourite: “You call yourself a writer?!” Just get it down on paper. Now, I’ve said this before. Hemingway has said this before:
First drafts are rubbish.
Be prepared to scrap a huge portion of your first draft. Two days ago I wrote three pages of a conversation between my hero and heroine. It’s good stuff, engaging, the characters are true to themselves. But last night I realised it reflects a romance in the relationship that shouldn’t be there. I’ll cry buckets but I’ll cut it. Well, I’ll save it in case I can use at least part of it elsewhere, but as written… it’s got to go.
BUILDING ON THE BASICS
So you’ve listened to strangers and friends, you’ve made notes, and you’ve written a nice piece of dialogue. What’s next?
1. Take to the Stage.
Not literally. But do try acting the parts with the dialogue. Note when it sounds clunky or when the voices start to sound too much alike. If possible, record yourself; better yet, ask a friend or two to do the reading for you. Takes notes about what needs to be fixed, but also congratulate yourself when you get something spot on.
2. Sing the Music.
Donna Ipolito has written a really excellent piece about writing dialogue and I strong recommend it to you. http://www.expert-editor.com/id11.html One of the things she points out is how important it is to develop an ear for what she calls “the music of speech.” We’ve talked about rhythm before, but where dialogue is concerned, this is hugely important. All speech has a rhythm, a cadence, and all speech patterns are unique to the individual. Consider, for a moment, two famous denials from American presidents. Firstly, you have Richard Nixon saying, “I am not a crook.” Simple, emphatic. We won’t get into its validity here, but the sentence is a mere five words, all one syllable. Now remember Bill Clinton: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Another declarative statement, just as emphatic, but slightly more lyrical. Both sentences are specific to their speakers; the fact that they were written by speechwriters is irrelevant. A good speechwriter understands the rhythm of their boss’s speech patterns.
Here’s an excerpt from chapter one of my novel A Biased Judgement:
The boy fixed my pillows and shook out the bedclothes so I was quite comfortable, or as much as was possible in my condition.
“You’ve had some experience in the medical arts,” I said. “But you’re not a practitioner.”
He cocked his head on one side. “What makes you say that, then?” he said.
“You understand the need for food; you’ve done an excellent job of dressing my wound; but this bed does not have the regimented appearance so approved by Miss Nightingale.”
“Spot on, sir,” he said. “My dad died a few years ago and I looked after ‘im for a bit before the good Lord took ‘im, Gawd rest ‘is soul.”
“And your mother, is she still alive?”
“Ain’t got no one,” he said. “Might say I’m an orphan,” and he laughed as if it was a joke. For reasons I cannot explain, I laughed too. That was not wise, for it sparked a spasm of coughing and I was exhausted when I finally stopped.
“That fancy doctor left you some linctus,” the boy said. “Will stop you coughing and help you sleep.”
“I feel I’ve slept for days,” I said.
“You must need it.”
I settled back in the bed and closed my eyes. “I don’t even know your name,” I said as I dozed off.
“Jack,” he said. “Call me Jack.”
I’m using this passage to illustrate how my narrator, Holmes, has a different speech pattern to the boy, Jack. Holmes is scientific, questioning, well-spoken. Jack is cheeky, compassionate and has the speech of an uneducated member of the lowest classes. Could you tell the difference between them, even without the identifiers? Except for the last four paragraphs, the speech is intended to be very specific to their ages, social positions and characters. Which brings me to…
3. Know Your Character
Ideally, you should be able to tell one character from another just by reading the words of the dialogue. Blanche du Bois doesn’t sound like Stanley Kowalski, for instance. This isn’t as easy to do as you may think and even great writers sometimes have difficulty with it. Those of you who have read this blog for a while will now I revere Aaron Sorkin, but there are times when Toby’s dialogue (in The West Wing) is interchangeable with Josh’s. Yes, it’s a screenplay and he can rely on the actors to make the words their own. If you’re writing a novel or a short story you don’t have the luxury of a Richard Schiff or a Bradley Whitford to make those voices unique.
Some screenwriters do a good job. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a case in point. Giles never sounds like Willow or vice versa. Thank goodness!
It can be helpful when you’re writing dialogue to imagine a real person saying those words. It could be a work colleague, a friend, or a movie star, but having a real voice deliver the dialogue can really make it come to life.
4. And the Oscar Goes to…
If you want your character’s dialogue to work you really need to get inside the part. The more real the character is to you the more real he will be to your reader. That means you have to know exactly what this person sounds like. So make the speech fit the character. Give them an individual rhythm, pitch, means of expression. Use scatology, stammers, impeccable grammar, coarseness, or slang to distinguish one character from another.
Make sure the speech matches the person’s education, time-period, social standing, and personality. This last is the most important. You might have an under-educated fisherman living in 1930’s Grimsby and you’d be inclined to give him a northern accent, a certain amount of swear words, and references to the sea. But you don’t want him to be a cliche, so perhaps he’s taught himself by reading Shakespeare. Maybe now you’d inject a few Shakespearean quotes rather than those sea references.
This is particularly important when your character’s speech seems to contradict what the reader knows of him. A character you’ve established as particularly religious might use scriptural quotes, ‘thank God’ and other such references when they speak. But if you want to portray them as hypocritical or venal you can have them swear, be judgemental or show how their pious speech is directly in contrast to very bad behaviour. The better you know your character, the more authentic they will sound.
5. Keep it Real. But not too Real.
Yes, you want your dialogue to sound real, but you need to tread lightly: real dialogue can be pretty boring. To that end, skip the uh-huhs and the uhms. A little of these go a long way. I recently saw a film in which one character was identified as Canadian. Every time she spoke it seemed she had to end the the sentence with an ‘eh’. Don’t do that.
Avoid the repetitions. Yes, some people will say the same thing five or six times in the same thirty seconds. You have to put up with it if it’s your father, but you don’t have to put up with it in literature. It’s much easier to walk away from a book than it is from dear old dad.
Likewise, avoid preaching. I mean, if your character is a minister and is delivering a sermon you might want to give us a snippet, but we don’t need the whole thing, and we certainly don’t want it. Neither do we want to see your political / religious / social agenda forced into the mouths of your unfortunate characters. It’s fiction, pal. You want to influence social policy then run for office.
6. Don’t Treat Your Audience as Idiots
‘Cos we’ll spot it and we’ll hate you. As I said during my discussion of exposition, you really don’t want to force it into dialogue. Obviously, dialogue has to further the story and yes, there is a way of introducing exposition elements that seem natural. However, if it’s force it will seem unnatural and make you look like a plonker. I’m thinking of the kind of thing that goes, “As you know, Bob, for the past twelve years I’ve been working for Bracket and Bracket and I really hate my job… But last week Bracket senior called me up and spoke to Jenny my wife of ten years while my son Tom, with dyslexia and his sister Mary, who has an imaginary friend called Daisy, were sat at the table. (Bought in Clerys in 1980 a week before my mother died of cancer…” Phew!
Want to know how to do it right? Learn from the masters. Here’s William Goldman handling Miracle Max’s backstory in The Princess Bride:
Inigo Montoya: Are you the Miracle Max who worked for the king all those years?
Miracle Max: The King’s stinking son fired me, and thank you so much for bringing up such a painful subject. While you’re at it, why don’t you give me a nice paper cut and pour lemon juice on it? We’re closed.
Do that for us. Write dialogue that conveys information, reveals the character, and maybe gives us a laugh and we will adore you forever.
7. Miss your Cue.
Sometimes dialogue that takes an unexpected turn can resonate more powerfully. Can save you a lot of meandering through inane conversation too. Here’s how Elmore Leonard did it in Out of Sight (1996)
“Your dog was killed?”
“Got run over by a car.”
“What did you call it?”
“Was a she, name Tuffy.”
That “was a she” comes out of nowhere, except not really. A pet owner will react to the word “it”. This little snippet hints at how the speaker feels about the loss of Tuffy.
Now, Take a Bow
Whole books have been written on this subject. I know because I’ve read a lot of them. If you have a good ear for dialogue a lot of this will come naturally. If not, you can learn. Watch great plays or movies and pay attention to how dialogue is handled. Read great books and study them. Learn from the masters. And when you’ve written a great piece of dialogue you’ll know it. You’ll feel it in your gut. Now, celebrate. Pat yourself on the back. Acknowledge what a great job you did.
And begin again with a new piece of writing.