23 October 2014 by Published in: Uncategorized 6 comments

The key to writing good dialogue is putting yourself into the character’s shoes and becoming them when they’re talking. The secret to writing better dialogue is to be a ruthless editor who uses common sense rather than some set of arbitrary rules developed for academic or journalistic writing.

As an example, people often repeat the same word when they’re talking. Listen to any conversation. They also say things like um, and uh, and you know, and kind of, and like, all the rest of the “sloppy” catalog of things you’re advised to excise from your writing. The problem is that if you follow that counsel you’ll wind up with dialogue that sounds nothing like the way people talk. So you need to own your characters and pay attention to how people actually speak in the real world, which is easier than it sounds.

Stephen King is a master of dialogue, in that his characters immediately sound genuine when we meet them. They’re fully formed and consistent. There’s no pretension. They sound like people do. That should be your benchmark.

When you’re done with a dialogue-heavy scene, read it aloud. Act it out. Be the characters. How do they sound? Like some bad version of a Mamet play, or like real people? If they sound anything but genuine and natural get out your red pen, because your job ain’t over. You gave birth to these people. You’re responsible for them being believable.

And of course, when you write dialogue, you should apply the same question you do with everything else: What’s the point? If you know the reason you have dialogue in a scene, whether to move the plot along or to offer the reader insights into some aspect of the characters’ inner workings via that verbal window, understand the objective before you write the dialogue. It’ll go way better for you and the reader if you do.

There are countless books available on how to write decent dialogue. I’d advise you to read some of them, but if you don’t, I just basically told you what’s in them.

The only other thing I’ll add is that less is more in dialogue. If you can communicate things non-verbally, such as state of mind or attitude, do so. If a guy walks onto a crowded bus and seems like he’s about ready to explode with rage, how would we know it in real life? There would be nonverbal tells. Clues. We’d see things. Maybe his coloring. Maybe the way he looks at people. Maybe his expression. Maybe he sighs, barely controlling his anger. Maybe he’s breathing differently, or grinding his teeth, or his eyes are narrowed, his nostrils flaring, jaw muscle pulsing, lips thinning, whatever. There are dozens of ways to convey his state of mind so that when he does say something, we instantly know this man’s pissed, and his words are only a small part of the powder keg that is his temperament at the moment.

Dialogue is as much about what’s said as what isn’t. If you view every bit of it as an important opportunity to inform the reader of important clues about the characters, you’ll wind up with far more interesting scenes. And if you pare the dialogue down to what’s essential to getting the point across, you’ll be ahead of the game.

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Comments

  1. Thu 23rd Oct 2014 at 9:38 am

    Great advice, Russell, as always.

    Reading dialog aloud is crucial. But you have to be aware that some of the meaning you can convey with various vocal inflections when speaking aloud are difficult to do on paper. You can use italics, of course, to emphasize certain words, but that’s not always enough. I find that sometimes I just have find some other way to say it.

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  2. Thu 23rd Oct 2014 at 6:31 pm

    I like to read dialogue as myself first, asking whether I’d ever say something like that in a conversation. If not, there might be something wrong. Then I read it as the character and ask whether it fits the character. Now I just hope that I’m not personally awkward and pretentious and don’t know it.

    Reading aloud is key. It triggers warnings in your hearing that wouldn’t be triggered by silent reading. It also forces you to mentally process things in a different way, which helps counter the challenge of finding errors in a document you’ve read dozens of times already.

    Reply
  3. Thu 23rd Oct 2014 at 6:42 pm

    “What’s that you’re writing?” the guy said.
    “Nothing.”
    “No seriously,” he said. “I wanna know.”
    I put my pen down and faced him. “Dialogue. Now you know.”
    His face split wide in a toothy grin. “Ah, you got that Russel Blake newsletter, too. How’s that working for you?”
    I picked my pen back up and said, “Ask me when I start selling ‘loads of books.’ ”

    🙂

    Reply
  4. Thu 23rd Oct 2014 at 7:48 pm

    Hello Blake,

    Here is an example of realistic dialogue:

    “Get your sorry ass in here now! The meatloaf is getting cold!”
    “But I’m writing something to Russell Blake.”
    “F**k Russell Blake! NOW!”

    OK Blake, gotta go…

    Reply
  5. Thu 23rd Oct 2014 at 9:12 pm

    Another helpful post. Thanks!

    Larry: That last sentence is making me laugh.

    Reply
    • Larry Bonner  –  Fri 24th Oct 2014 at 7:56 am

      Hi, Kim,

      Truth is often funnier than fiction…

      L.

      Reply

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