I walked into the local Starbuck’s for my customary morning doppio. Sipping standing, I eavesdropped on two teenagers’ conversation.
“And he was like—hey, well—you know, um, just wouldn’t say.”
“He’s always reminded me of, like, a guy I—“
“Yeah, and he’s been—well, you know. Whew! And he just wouldn’t say.”
“He didn’t get it?
“About the prom.”
That’s real, authentic dialogue. Would it work well in a novel? Heaven forbid!
When you sit down to write a dialogue passage, your goal is to construct the illusion of speech. Yet, you’re faced with the “ums” and “likes,” the sudden changes in topic, the chatter as speakers try unsuccessfully to pin down the subject. Worst of all, what about those unneeded words? Put all that into your novel’s dialogue and you’re dead in the water.
Here are some tips to avoid this trap and turn dialogue into lively entertainment.
Use as Few Words as Possible
Consider this exchange regarding a billiard match between a Count Greffi and a young man named Frederic.
“…Should we play or are you too tired, Frederic?" the Count asked.
"I'm not really tired, Count Greffi. I said that for a joke. Sometimes I joke when I shouldn’t. Say… what handicap will you give me?"
The Count picked up a cue, held it up and checked to see that it wasn’t twisted. He thought about the song from The Mikado, about twisted cues and elliptical billiard balls. He studied Frederic. “Frederic, have you been playing very much?"
"Actually, no, none at all," Frederic replied.
"You play very well. Ten points in a hundred?" His angled glance suggested he had an advantage.
"You flatter me, Count," Frederic said.
"Fifteen points in a hundred?" Count Greffi suggested.
"That would be fine but you will beat me," Frederic replied.
Getting tired yet? This wordy exchange is based on a far more precise one from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Here is how the master of brevity handled the challenge.
“…Should we play or are you too tired?"
"I'm not really tired. I said that for a joke. What handicap will you give me?"
"Have you been playing very much?"
"None at all."
"You play very well. Ten points in a hundred?"
"You flatter me."
"That would be fine but you will beat me."
Study the two versions. Notice in the Hemingway original how he stripped away all but the most essential words, with no asides whatsoever. Also, since the dialogue participants were identified earlier, such brief exchanges went ahead without the usual “he said,” “she said” insertions. That makes reading go even quicker.
Make such economies integral not only to your dialogue, but also to your entire novel. Never forget, attention spans are growing ever shorter and readers’ patience wears increasingly thin. Think of Twitter with its 140-character limit. Take a hard look at your own dialogue and prose. Look for opportunities to trim. Be merciless. Your readers will thank you—and keep reading.
Make Your Dialogue Interesting
First, consider this exchange:
“What’s on the menu?” Jim asked.
“The usual. Big Mac, Quarter Pounder, fries,” Amanda said.
“I always like a Big Mac.”
“I like the salad.”
“I guess we should each order what we want.”
No high drama here. No reader interest, either. Let’s recast this a little with some conflict and livelier wording, keys to brightening the dialogue horizon.
“I can’t believe you dragged me to McDonald’s again!” Amanda said.
“Hey, there’s lots of good stuff to eat here.”
“Yeah. Big Macs and Quarter Pounders—death in disguise!”
“Better than that rabbit food you nibble on,” Jim said.
“I plan to live on more than 10 years. I want the salad.”
“Big Mac for me. Grease is good for the soul.”
Why is this version better fiction? First, each character is demonstrated as having different tastes, a source of conflict. Second, the words characterize the speakers, Amanda going the cautious health route, Jim being more of a risk taker. Possibly this conflict will be resolved as the novel unfolds.
The issue of lively wording—“death in disguise”—is not only a part of effective dialogue. It should be the centerpiece of your prose. Always look for the telling phrase and the most vivid wording as you struggle through the writing task. Dodge all platitudes in favor of original expressions.
Where Dialogue Belongs
Have you noticed that writing dialogue is far easier than handling expository passages? Do not give in to the temptation to overuse this fiction component. If you “over-dialogue,” you upset the balance of your novel. Test your dialogue passages against this short list of purposes:
- Advancing the plot. Write dialogue that extends the storyline, provides tension and suspense, exposes motives, clarifies goals, and heightens or lessens characters’ determination.
- Helping to describe characters. Speaking characters can be revealing characters when they provide personal information—a former relationship, a past misfortune or a lifelong goal. Dialogue also is very useful for heightening insight into a character’s motivation.
- Sliding in dry details. Here’s the chance to work in bits needed to understand the plot. These might include important facts about a character’s early years, past relationship and social and physical environment. One caveat: don’t let characters share information that’s already known!
While no writer wants to bore the reader, it can still happen. One way of doing so is to write dialogue lines of roughly the same length. This hypnotic cadence is guaranteed to put readers to sleep. For example, read this:
“It’s getting late,” Amanda said.
“Didn’t watch the time,” Jim replied.
“Time for bed.”
“A little early.”
“I don’t think so,” Amanda said.
Big yawn! Much more effective dialogue might run like this:
“It’s getting late,” Amanda said.
“Night’s been sneaking up on us. I think it’s the time change,” Jim said. “Circadian rhythms and all that.”
“Yeah, we’re all sort of wired like a motherboard on a 24-hour cycle—plants, animals, fungi and even some bacteria.”
Amanda stared at him.
“We’re all like on the Great Wheel. Studies show—“
“Time for bed. Too much talking.”
“You’re twisting my arm. It’s still a little early according to my circadian clock.”
“Your ‘clock’ is a crock,” Amanda said.
See how the varying line length keeps the reader alert? And so does starting and stopping the conversation with a single word or a silent beat...
Putting it All Together
That’s what it takes to improve dialogue. Cut out unneeded words, make it lively with conflict and imaginative phrasing, use it where it belongs, and mind your line length. Your readers will show their appreciation by wolfing down your words.