How to Write Amazing Dialogue
Once Upon a Story...
There was once a guy called Flashpants (not his real name) who wrote fantastic stories. He told tales of heroes and villains, evil geniuses and boy-next-door conquerors. His stories were funny, clever and entertaining. One day Flashpants decided to write a stage play. He showed it to Cleverclogs - someone who knew about such things. Cleverclogs went off with the script tucked under his arm. He settled down with a bottle of beer and prepared to be entertained. And then he began to read...
But you know what? Flashpants couldn't write dialogue. Oh sure, he was great with descriptions - he could charm elephants out of the fridge with descriptions, but his dialogue simply wasn't flash. In fact, it was pants. (See what I did there?)
Okay, so no prizes for guessing that I was the Cleverclogs character, and of course, I was keen to read this brilliant writer's attempt at a stage play, expecting it to be the same high standard as everything else he'd written. But it wasn't. It was awful. And not just awful, but crushingly awful.
So what was wrong with his dialogue?
Here's an example:
BOB: How you doing?
BOB: Nice day.
PETE: Not bad.
BOB: Fancy a beer?
PETE: Go on then.
And it went on like that. Nothing happened. His characters talked, but they didn't really say anything. I didn't learn a single thing about them apart from the fact that they were both as boring as a rainy day in Wrexham.
"They say that when good Americans die they go to Paris," chuckled Sir Thomas...
(Oscar Wilde - The Picture of Dorian Gray)
But that wasn't all. This writer was very fond of clichés. Here's another example:
BOB: Fancy another drink?
PETE: I'm not made of money.
BOB: Pull the other one.
PETE: Why, has it got bells on?
BOB: D'you want a drink or not?
PETE: Beggars can't be choosers.
BOB: Be back in a minute.
PETE: That's what they all say.
BOB: Better go for a leak first.
PETE: Have one for me.
BOB: Does a bear shit in the woods?
PETE: He does if he's with you.
Now, admittedly, if this was done well, it could be quite amusing, but how many pages do you think you'd want to read before it became tedious? Not many. You certainly wouldn't expect Oscar Wilde or Arthur Conan Doyle to be so boring and predictable, would you?
The above illustrations are obviously in the form of a stage play, rather than a novel or short story. But whichever way you look at it, the actual dialogue still has to be interesting. It must also do three specific jobs.
- move the plot forward
- reveal something of each character's personality
- show how your characters relate to each other
Now, there's probably a ton of other stuff that's also important, but these three things should be at the top of your list when writing dialogue.
Let's look as some more examples.
Repeat That Again, Please...
Here's a case of repetition - saying/showing the same thing:
"Hey, Frankie," says Mike with a wide smile, swinging the door open. "What you up to?"
"Nothing much, Mike." Frank waves at Susan, Mike's wife, as she busies herself in the kitchen. She waves back. He coughs. "Wondered if I could have a word, you know, in private, like?"
The other man nods. "Sure, come on in, we'll go through to the back. Grab a couple of beers if you like?"
Frank nods. "Yeah, that'd be great, Mike. Thanks."
Points to ponder
1: The phrase - Hey, Frankie - already tells us Mike is happy to see Frank, so we don't need the wide smile as well. Also, he opens the door, confirming that Frank is welcome.
2: Unless there's likely to be some doubt that Susan is Mike's wife, we don't need to underline it.
3: The phrase - Wondered if I could have a word - suggests Frank doesn't want to discuss his business in front of Susan, so we can leave out the - in private - bit.
4: Again, we don't need Mike to echo his dialogue - Sure - with the nod, so we can leave that out, too.
5: Finally, we've got way too many "Mike's" in here - in reality friends don't usually repeat each other's names all the time - they already know them!
So now we have:
"Hey, Frankie," says Mike, swinging the door wide. "What you up to?"
"Nothing much." Frank waves a hand at Susan in the kitchen. She waves back. He coughs. "Wondered if I could have a word?"
"Sure, come on in, we'll go through to the back. Grab a couple of beers if you like?"
"Yeah, that'd be great. Thanks."
"Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"
(Arthur Conan Doyle - The Hound of the Baskervilles)
So that was about repeating in dialogue something that is also present in the description. But the more usual kind of repetition is when we use the same word more than once in a piece of writing, such as:
Harry held her hand gently. Then pulling her towards him, he held her close.
Not a great example, admittedly, but this would be better:
Harry took her hand gently. Then pulling her towards him, he held her close.
Using repetition effectively though, can be a powerful tool, as here - in my story A Tale for Halloween:
As they stood together in the darkness, listening, somewhere in the distance a clock struck the hour. And as the last chimes of midnight rang in their ears, their fingers touched the cold, clammy stone of the castle walls, and they smelled the witch's breath in their nostrils, and they saw her cloak spreading out as it fell across them and pulled them down into the black, black night.
Repeating the words they, their and them, helps build the tension as the fate of the children reaches it's chilling conclusion.
Breaking Things Up
Dialogue should flow easily and carry the reader along with it. To do this effectively you can try several things:
- Vary the length of your sentences
- Have characters talk in different styles (so they don't all sound the same)
- Intersperse dialogue with action.
Frank nods towards the ambulance. "Evie Brown had another fall last night, they're taking her to a residential home."
"Oh. She going to be okay?"
He shrugs. "Dunno. Her son's come over to look after things."
Angelina looks across the street. "Is that him?"
Frank follows her gaze to the dark-haired young man who's talking to one of the ambulance guys. "Think so. Saw him last Christmas. Nice guy."
The girl nods. "He's cute. Bet he's real friendly too." She turns back to Frank. "You coming out to play tonight?"
He looks away for moment. "Angela..."
"Don't call me that. Are you?"
“Good-morning to you, Clarissa!” said Hugh, rather extravagantly...
(Virginia Woolf - Mrs Dalloway)
Dialogue tags are the 'he said/she said' bits that we find a lot in chunks of dialogue. There are many other tags too - not all of them good.
"I certainly will," he confirmed.
"Over my dead body," she snapped.
"Tell it like it is," he drawled.
"Show me the money," he muttered.
Putting in too many of these will irritate your reader, and don't be tempted to add them in the hope of making your dialogue more interesting - it won't work. It's absolutely fine to just stick to the 'he said/she said' ones, but again, don't use them all the time or your dialogue will look like this:
Robertson was silent for a moment, staring into the fire. "So you searched the apartment, found nothing and left?" He said.
"That's right," said Foggarty.
"Leaving the woman's body on the top landing?" Robertson added.
Foggarty's head drooped. "Yes," he agreed.
"There must have been blood?" Robertson noted.
Foggarty nodded. "Around the entry wound in her chest," he said.
Admittedly, you'll have to put some in or readers might lose track of who's speaking. The edited version looks like this:
Robertson was silent for a moment, staring into the fire. Then, "So you searched the apartment, found nothing and left?"
"Leaving the woman's body on the top landing?"
Foggarty's head drooped. "Yes."
"There must have been blood?"
He nodded. "Around the entry wound in her chest."
Much better, I'm sure you'll agree (he added, confidently).
Great Bad Writing
It can be tempting to try and emulate the style of someone you admire - experimenting with similar sorts of language, comparable phrases and related humour. I did this recently with a story I wrote called How Green Was My Lovely Big Sleep. It was intended to be as sort of homage to Raymond Chandler, and because I like the way Chandler writes, I tried to copy his style (though with a touch of the tongue-in-the-cheek).
So whereas Chandler would write like this:
"What kind of girl do you think I am?" she snapped.
"I came in too late to tell you."
My version of Chandleresque goes more like this:
"Are you Fillip Marloh?" She stepped into the light, her eyes flashing.
I winced at her spelling, but figured I'd just hike up my rates to cover it.
But this sort of thing is just a bit of fun, and in any case, it's probably not a great idea to copy someone else's style. More sensible to create your own characters, your own settings and more importantly, your own voice.
Expose That Exposition
Exposition is a device used to tell the readers stuff they need to know. However, you don't want to have your characters telling each other things they already know, or saying things that are irrelevant, otherwise you'll end up with something like this:
Marjorie sits at the kitchen table, eyeing the half-eaten pizza with suspicion.
"You've seen my husband Jim," she says. It isn't a question.
"Could hardly avoid him. Took time off his work at the police station to come down to the supermarket to find me." He sits down opposite and waits. She doesn't raise her eyes from the pizza. Tom takes another mouthful then pushes the plate across the table, startling her.
"I'm not hungry," she says. "I had chicken and chips at six o'clock while I watched the news on TV." She looks directly at him, eyes wide and tearful. "Maybe we should sit down and chat about how we got into this mess?"
Tom sighs. "What? Talk about how I ended up in jail because of what you did to that boy? What good would that do, Marjorie?"
These two know each other well enough to cut to the chase, so:
Marjorie sits at the kitchen table, eyeing the half-eaten pizza with suspicion.
"You've seen Jim," she says. It isn't a question.
"Could hardly avoid him. Came down to the supermarket to find me." He sits down opposite and waits. She doesn't raise her eyes from the pizza. Tom takes another mouthful then pushes the plate across the table, startling her.
"I've just eaten," she says, looking directly at him, eyes wide and tearful. "Maybe we should..."
Tom sighs. "No point dragging things up again."
Modes of Speech
A ghost writer's job involves tidying up and re-writing the scribblings of whoever happens to be paying them at the time. One of their tasks is to make dialogue sound fresh and sparkling - that is, not talking in the same way, using the same sort of language, the same phrases and colloquialisms.
However, if you're not a ghost writer, you'll have to create the dialogue yourself, so you'd better make sure all your characters don't speak with the same 'voice', since it'll be much harder for the reader to hear the differences between them. Of course, you can give different people different accents or dialects, but the consensus is that you probably shouldn't do too much of this, as it can end up being difficult to read. However, you can give them different ways of speaking - the sort of language they use: simple, complex, educated or common. Like this, for instance:
"Reinvention is a state of mind, Charles, and one which I feel you will benefit from enormously."
"Pit's closed. Didn't tha' know?"
"Course, we thought they was wild."
"Life's awfully dull around here. We like to spice things up."
"No bother. Could've been worse."
"She’s attractive sure, but will she be a mother to your children? Does she have real beauty? Can she solve the unsolvable?"
"Christ, sorry. What must you think?"
"Bleedin' dead, ain't she?"
So, to Sum Up...
Remember that dialogue is:
More than one person speaking
Move the plot forward
It should not:
Be a monologue
And it definitely should not be: