Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Elements of Dialog

Dialog is one of the most important componants of story, for many reasons.
  • It relays important information and moves the story forward
  • It shows what a character is thinking, feeling, doing
  • It can be funny, scary, sad, dramatic
  • It breaks up the visual monotony of large, clunky paragraphs
  • It reads quickly
  • It can be the most memorable part of a narrative

But what makes good dialog? What are the things to do and to avoid when writing dialog?

Here are the rules that I personally use.

1. Make it sound natural. People talk differently than they write. Writing is slower, more deliberate, and more thought goes into it. Speaking is looser, freer, less constricting, and less precise. Record some dialog in natural settings--at the mall, on the phone, on the radio. Then transcribe what you heard. You'll notice a big difference between the spoken word and the written word.

2. It shouldn't be too natural. In real life, people use speach hesitators (um, uh) and repeat themseves a lot. They also can talk for mintues at a time without a break. In your narrative, you need to cut to the chase, and trim all of this extraneous stuff. Briefer is better.

3. It has to have a point. Stories are built around conflict. It should be in your dialog as well. Two people discussing the weather happens all the time in real life, but there's no place for it in a novel (unless the book is about an evil weatherman.) Dialog needs to propel the story forward. Keep it moving, and use it to reveal things about the plto and the characters.

4. Speaker attribution only when needed. Dialog tags are distracting. They interrupt the flow and cadance of the words. Use 'he said', and only use it sparingly. Tags like yelled, shouted, screamed, sobbed, laughed, usually aren't needed. Neither are adverbs. Said loudly, softly, cruelly, jokingly, stupidly---that gets old really quick. Using action instead of tags to denote who is speaking is a better way to do the scene.

5. Remember the scene. Where are these characters talking? The environment, the situation, the position of their bodies, the action; all of this is important, but not as important as you think. Less is more. Give the reader just enough information to imagine the scene, and then get on with the story. Over-describing every detail is annoying, and bad writing.

6. Avoid dialect. Some authors are great at dialect. You aren't one of them. Avoid creative spelling, which makes words unrecognizable, just so the reader knows your character is Italian, or Southern, or from Bahston, because the reader has to look at a word three times to realize you mean Boston.

7. Avoid funky punctuation. A few exclamation points is fine. More than a few a chapter is overkill. Ditto italics, apostrophes, and double punctuation. Know wha' I'm sayin'??!!??!?

8. Different characters speak in different ways. A cop wouldn't speak a line the same was a criminal would. While you should avoid dialect, it's okay to use improper grammar or vocabulary if it sounds authentic. Write like people speak, even if it ain't right.

9. Read it aloud. When you've finished a scene, read it out loud to see if it works. If you're tripping over the words, the character would be too. If it doesn't sound natural, it won't read natural. After reading it aloud, you'll find that you can take words away pretty easily.

Bringing it all together. Here's a brief snippet from Bloody Mary which hits all of the points mentioned above. Read it in your head once, then read it aloud. Look for what's on the page, as well as what is deliberately left off the page.


The apartment was air-conditioned, neat, nicely furnished. An entertainment center, crammed full of state-of-the-art equipment, sat next to a wide-screen TV.

Colin stood about Benedict’s height, but rail thin. He wore an oversized Steelers jersey and a thick gold chain around his neck that seemed to weigh him down.

“Business must be good.” I eyed his place, annoyed that the crooks always had better stuff than I did.

Colin shrugged.

“Colin?” A woman’s voice came from one of the back rooms. “Who’s there?”

“No one, Mama. Stay in your room.”

“Mama know you deal?” I asked.

“I don’t deal. That’s all a big misunderstanding.”

I fished through the pockets of my blazer and took out a folded head-shot of Davi McCormick.

“Do you recognize this woman?”

I watched Colin’s face. He glanced at the photo without changing his expression.

“Never saw her.”

“She called your cell phone a few days ago.”

“Don’t got no cell phone.”

I read the phone number to him.

“Don’t got that phone no more. Lost it.”

“When did you lose it?”

“Couple weeks ago.”

Herb bent down, reaching for Colin’s foot.

“I think you dropped something, Colin. Well–-lookee here.”

Herb held up the bag of powdered sugar.

“Dog, that ain’t mine!”

Herb made an innocent face. “I saw it fall out of your pocket. Didn’t you, Jack?”

“I don’t even deal that shit, man. I just distribute the herb.”

“Where’s your phone, Colin?”

“I told you, I lost the phone.”

Benedict dipped a finger into the baggie, then touched his tongue.

“How much you think is here? Eight, ten grams? That’s what–-thirty years?”

I moved closer to Colin. “We found the arms. We know she called you.”

“What arms? I don’t carry, man. I’m low-key.”

“Where’s the phone?”

“I don’t know.”

Colin looked frightened. Though I couldn’t arrest him for possession of a known confectionary, I decided to push my luck.

“You know the drill, Colin. On your knees, hands behind your head.”

“I don’t have the phone! I swear! You need to ask your people!”

“What people?”

“Cops. When I got arrested last month, they took my phone. I never got it back.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Herb was dipping back into the baggie for another taste. I stepped between him and Colin.

“You’re saying we have your phone?”

“I had it with me when I got booked, and when I got sprung no one knew anything about my phone.”

I had a pretty good internal BS detector, and Colin was either a much better liar than I was used to, or he was telling the truth.


Will I win a Pulitzer for that dialog? No--the comittee sadly passed. But it did do all of the things I mentioned dialog should do.

I wrote this over two years ago, and looking at it now I'd tweak a bit here and there. But it still works as a scene. It sounds right. The reader can picture what's happening, and who is talking, even though it is under-described and there are four different characters. The story is being moved forward, and at a quick pace. Plus, I threw in a bit of humor to make it go down a little easier.

Dialog can be the most fun, and the easiest, part of a story to write.