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.


Unknown said...

How's my raped child pornographer going to talk?

Can you give me a N****r Jim accent a la Mark Twain? If not, an Anthony Burgess-esque Clockwork Orange-ian "viddy well ill, my droogies" is also competely acceptable.


Jude Hardin said...

I love writing dialogue. A lot of my pages end up looking like this one, Joe, with lots of white space. I'm glad it seems to be in style now, because that's the way I naturally write, with short paragraphs and very little description.

That said, I think it's important to note that we're not writing screenplays. We owe the reader SOME description. We need to anchor the scene in the readers mind, using all five senses.

I think it's good to throw in a "beat" every few lines of dialogue, showing action, emotion,
facial expression etc. I've read books where the dialogue goes too long without a break, and I tend to get lost or even bored sometimes.

Plus, when I open a book and see TOO much white space, I hesitate to shell out the dough. Something psychological about paying for a bunch of blank pages.

Lee Goldberg said...

Could you expand on this comment:

"Plus, I threw in a bit of humor to make it go down a little easier."

I'm doing a panel on Humor in Mysteries at the Palm Springs Book Festival and I'd love to use that quote...along with what you meant by it.

JA Konrath said...

Hi Justin---

You'll probably wind up being a cop. Got lots of cops in the new one.

Bernita said...

Real people don't talk exactly the same way in all situations either.

Jeff said...

For me, dialogue is easier than description.
Informative post, Joe. Thanks :)

Jude Hardin said...


I'm assuming the "bit of humor" is when Herb dips back into the baggie for another taste.

You have to know a little bit about Herb to get the joke.

I think it might have been interesting to see Colin's reaction to Herb's double dipping.

Lee Goldberg said...


I'm aware what the "funny part" was...what I'm curious about is using it the make the rest of the scene go down easier. What would the scene be like without the "funny part?" Would ie better, worse, or just different? How does humor make the drama more dramatic? Or does it? Is humor actually a tool to make the characters more human? Or does it work against the reality and the drama? these are issues writers deal with every day...balancing the drama and the humor... and I'm just curious about Joe's take on in.

I've walked that line myself many times in TV shows and books (especially with THE MAN WITH THE IRON-ON BADGE) and it's not easy. MONK is another one that's hard ... there's a real danger of the character turning into a cartoon (or Inspector Clouseau). I think one reason MONK works is the delicate balance between humor and pathos.

Lee Goldberg said...

Sorry for all the typos in that previous post...

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Reading dialogue aloud. That's an important one. In fact, you should probably read EVERYTHING aloud.

My wife will tell you that when I'm working I'm always mumbling, and it's true. I always read aloud as I write.

I think I've been exposed to too many books on tape.

Oh, and if you want to learn to write dialogue, pick up FLETCH by Gregory MacDonald. It's practically ALL dialogue -- and one of the best crime thrillers written.

Mark Terry said...

Interesting dilemma, actually, that I remember from reading that scene. That is to say, TV or movies notwithstanding, a cop who tastes an unknown substance is an idiot.

Which, both times I read it, including just now, my brain said, "Joe's been watching too much TV." Then I realize it's a setup to a joke.

In a real cop situation, any cop that "tastes" an unknown white powder, may end up a very dead cop--not to mention contaminating evidence. But I assume you knew this and were just setting up the joke.

Anonymous said...

Wow, some of these guys are SOOOO serious and literal. Makes me wonder how they get the humor in their own books.

Martha O'Connor said...

"It can't be too natural."

You mean it CAN be too natural, right? As in, there's such a thing as dialgoue being "too natural"?

I like replacing dialog tags with action in order to further the scene. Every "he said" can be replaced with "he dropped the anvil on her head" or something of that nature, heightening conflict.

JA Konrath said...

Lee--I just wrote an essay all about understanding humor. I'll post it tomorrow.

Mark--Herb is the one that planted the powder, so he knew it contained sugar.

Martha--You're right. I'll change it too "It shuldn't be too natural."

Jude Hardin said...


I know what you mean. It's tough to find the right balance between drama and humor sometimes.

To me, Herb seems quite a bit like Lula in Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels. Sometimes I wonder if their sole purpose as characters is to provide comic relief. In both cases, the overeating jokes get tired pretty quick and the characters do come off as cartoonish sometimes.

No offense, Joe, but maybe that's why your editor came down hard on your most recent manuscript.

JA Konrath said...

No offense, Joe, but maybe that's why your editor came down hard on your most recent manuscript.

No offense taken. But the jokes I cut had nothing to do with Herb, and my editor didnt' come down hard on my manuscript in the least bit. I changed very little, but it was difficult to change because it involved adding another day tot he story, which screwed up the overall timing.

Jude Hardin said...

What's so hard about adding another day? All you have to change is...EVERYTHING.

Damn. Are editors sadistic sometimes or what?

JA Konrath said...

There was two much action int he first two days, so I had to make it three days, which threw off a lot. Like pulling a thread in a sweater.

Anonymous said...

A good resource. Many good points to keep in mind.

I love your tag line.

"There's a word for a writer who never gives up... published."

Lauren said...

Though there are a few typos...this article was right on. Thank you.