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Tips on Writing Good Dialogue

Biff Barnes

Well written dialogue in a book does not duplicate the way people really talk. It simulates how a real conversation might sound, but it doesn’t try to recreate one.

Courtesy of gaif548 under Creative Commons

Have you run across the advice that the way to learn to write dialogue is to listen carefully to people’s random conversations and then to incorporate the elements of what you hear into your dialogue? That’s a good idea because it will help you to reproduce the way speech sounds. Novelist Elmore Leonard, who writes some of the most crisp, witty dialogue around, said, ““I'm very much aware in the writing of dialogue, or even in the narrative too, of a rhythm. There has to be a rhythm with it … Interviewers have said, you like jazz, don’t you? Because we can hear it in your writing. And I thought that was a compliment.” Listening to people talk can help you to get a feel for their rhythms.

But don’t try to reproduce the way they actually talk. Real conversation contains a number of things that will kill the dialogue in a book. People often have trouble getting started, particularly when they are going to tell a story. They circle trying to find an entry point. Here’s an example of the way an older gentleman begins a story in an oral history interview about something that happened to him as a child:

Let’s see. Summer of [19]27. Yeah. We moved from 54th Street down to Grandma’s house because we were gonna move over to Linden and we were living at Grandma’s house in the interim time, you know. So, ’27, I was nine years old.

Then he gets to the story. The information in the passage above is not essential to understanding the story he tells. If you were going to include it in a book, leave out the circling that takes place before he gets to the point.

If you are listening to people talk you’ll notice that a lot of what they say is uninteresting, irrelevant or repetitious. Says Elmore Leonard, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Another thing you’ll notice is that people don’t make speeches. They will speak a line or two. The person they are speaking to will interrupt or comment. Sometimes the speaker simply pauses and heads off in a new direction as if he’s thought of a new idea. Your dialogue needs to demonstrate a little more focus and stick to the point.

At other times, the person being addressed doesn’t respond. Maybe she doesn’t hear the comment. Maybe she’s thinking about what the speaker said. Maybe she’s studiously ignoring the speaker. In any case, dialogue is not always, he said, she said, he said, she said, with the conversation moving back and forth.

Good written dialogue gets down to the essence of the conversation, paying attention to the rhythm of the speaker and moves along quickly. To maintain that flow in dialogue, there are a few things to avoid. First of all, people, for the most part anyway, pay attention to the conversation itself. They are not looking around the room to check out details of the setting. Once people start talking, let them talk. Interrupting the dialogue is useful only if the interruption advances the story’s action.

One interruption writers often overlook is attribution tags. There are a myriad of ways to say “He said.” Avoid the temptation to use them. Elmore Leonard’s advice: “Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue… Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…he admonished gravely.” The dialogue itself should convey the speaker’s feelings and the way he might have delivered the lines. If it doesn’t, it’s more effective to fix the dialogue than to try to make up the deficiency with an attribution tag. Anything more than “He said” interrupts the flow of the conversation.

Dialect worked really well for Mark Twain. For the rest of us it is often problematic. For one thing, the alternative spellings you might use make the reader stop to decipher what you meant. Your dialogue itself should convey whatever you want to show about your character’s ethnic or regional background. If you read Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, you won’t find a lot of dialect, but you have no difficulty in hearing the Irish voices of the characters. Some of that’s word choice; a lot of it is duplicating the rhythm of their speech.

Finally, characters must speak in their own voices, not yours. Know your characters well enough so that when you put them in a situation you can simply let them says what they would say rather than forcing them to say what you would like said to advance your plot. Readers can tell immediately when you are putting words into a character’s mouth that don’t belong.