Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How to Write a Novel 6: Dialogue

Quote: “A dialogue is more than two monologues.”
Max M. Kampleman.

Song Playing: Word that We Couldn’t Say from the Cowboy Bebop Soundtrack (yes, that was on purpose too)

Here is an example of how separate, yet related things can come together to make your novel.

I watched this video by one of my favorite bands, called Apoptygma Berserk. The song is called “In this Together” and it’s about a hostage situation at a bank.

Here's the video:

(sorry about the crappy link guys, I STILL can't get my link button to work)

I thought, “Wow, Detective Brewster is dealing with a hostage situation. Funny that.” If you watch the video, you will see there’s a twist ending, and a bit of a double cross. Maybe that doesn’t jive with your idea of the end of the book. Maybe you want Dective Brewster to live, and obviously, he’s not one of the hostages. But it could spin more ideas for you. Like, what if one of the hostages was in on the robbery? What if it was one of the cops who were in on the robbery? What if this guy was Detective Brewster’s mentor, and there’s a speech at the end that the mentor makes like:

“You were never supposed to take that call, David (Detective Brewster’s first name). You were supposed to let someone more experienced handle it.”

“Cripes, John, my sister is in there. My sister.”

“I know. And I am sorry for that. An unfortunate coincidence—“

“I don’t believe in coincidence.” David said, wiping his face with his hands.


You get the point. I could go on. This is actually a good lead in for today’s topic: Dialogue.

Today we’re talking about talking. Or rather, how to use dialogue well. I must admit, I personally think dialogue is an area I excel in. Not that I don’t still have loads more to learn about dialogue, but I seem to have an ear for it.

Which brings me to my first point. Some people believe that you either have an ear for dialogue or you don’t, and there’s no real changing that. Not that those who do dialogue poorly couldn’t improve, but it will never be a strong point for that writer.

I don’t know how I feel about that idea. I would like to think that people are naturally good at some aspects of writing, but what they aren’t good at they can learn. It feels elitist and snobbish to say some people are just “born” with magical writing pixie dust and other people aren’t. But there is compelling evidence, namely the quality of writing, and how short or long of a time it takes that person to write well, that speaks to the contrary, that some people are naturally born with talent, like some people are naturally born with amazing basketball abilities.

So there you have it: food for thought.

The bottom line is I believe even if you aren’t talented with an aspect of writing, it doesn’t mean you can’t be good at it, just that it’s going to be work. I was always particularly good with dialogue, but trust me, I am an abyssal failure at other, almost MORE important things *cough*grammar*coughcough*. Just because you suck at something doesn’t mean you should sit back and say, “Oh well, I’ll just pay an editor to fix all my spliced commas and run on sentences.” because that’s lazy, and how will you ever learn and improve if you don’t stretch yourself? So yes, moral for today ramble: writing is hard, and you should know your strengths and weakness, and try to improve both.

People theorize that writers who are good with dialogue also spend more time talking to people, so they know how natural speech sounds like. In my case, at least, this is true. I can talk a blue steak if I want to, and spend a lot of time with people, and listening to how people talk. So if you want to get better at dialogue, hit a mall or public place, and listen to how people are talking.

1. An Ear

When someone says you have an “ear” for dialogue, it means that you can effectively capture what your characters are saying down on paper, without it being boring, or talking about something know one cares about. It also talks about the way these sentences are typed, too. Basically, how effectively you simulate speech in a novel.

For example, the following bit of dialogue would be laughable from the character’s three year old:

“Mother, I would like some orange juice.”

This would be closer to the truth:

“Juice! Juice! JUICE!” The child screamed, and threw his Sippy cup at his mother.

See the difference? A three year old would not be that formal. This, of course, is an exaggeration, but you get the point.

This example, while technically correct, is not good dialogue:

Detective Brewster: Hello sister, how are you?
Shelly (his sister): Fine, how are you?

Detective Brewster: I am okay. Just graduated with honors from Hostage Negotiation School.
Shelly (his sister): That’s wonderful. I am so happy for you. When will you start work again?

Detective Brewster: Soon, I think. How are Mom and Dad?
Shelly (his sister): Oh, they are fine. Dad’s cholesterol is up, but who’s surprised?


Boring! It’s not that your characters can’t talk about menial stuff, or they have to be at each other’s throats to make the dialogue interesting, but it should be going somewhere. Just like you shouldn’t randomly describe a potted plant or have a character pop in that doesn’t serve some purpose, neither should you have long bouts of dialogue where nothing happens. The best dialogue makes you feel like you’re eavesdropping on an important conversation.

Here’s a secret: dialogue isn’t actually an exact replica of speech.

Try it. Write down someone’s conversation word for word. See how many extra stutter words you have, all the “umm” and “uh” and “well”, how people repeat themselves a lot, how the conversation meanders through several subjects without ever making a point? You don’t want your dialogue to look like that. Just like you’re writing an abbreviated version of a few events in someone’s life, so you do the same thing with dialogue.

Sol Stein has a good method to use regarding dialogue: give the characters opposing goals. If two characters have different objectives for the conversation it will be more interesting. It doesn’t mean that they should be at each other’s throats, just want a different thing from the conversation from the other. Like when your mom keeps asking you about when you’re going to settle down and have kids, and how all YOU want to talk about is your great new job.

In the above example between Detective Brewster, and his mentor, they are both talking about the same thing: the mentor’s betrayal. But they have different goals for the conversation. The mentor wants Brewster to see why he is right, and Detective Brewster wants his mentor to see that his is wrong.

Try it. Pick two characters and give them different objectives for the conversation, and see what happens. This works even if the two characters like each other, and are on the same side.

2. Beats

Beats are the action indicators that tell your readers what the character is doing while the conversation is taking place. Some writers use them all the time, and others only throw a couple in there.

While it’s generally advisable to use a couple, too many will slow down the dialogue. Try to keep beats simple, and to the point. If they are too complicated, the reader will spend too much time trying to figure out the position your character is contortioning (take that spell check!) himself into.

3. Some Housekeeping

Some housekeeping bits about dialogue:

*Use the word “said” whenever possible. It’s an invisible word that the reader skims over just to follow the conversation. Most of the time, the action of the scene will carry how the speaker is talking.

*Try to avoid getting fancy with the dialogue tags when not using “said”. “Muttered”, “whispered”, and so on are more visible than “said”, but not as visible (and therefore distracting) as word like “stormed” and “grated”.

*Adverbs in dialogue are considered a sin. Use them carefully, if ever. “said quietly” should be changed to just “said” or if you have to tell us how it’s said, “whispered”. Remember, no extra words!

Ultimately, how you use dialogue and dialogue tags is a personal choice. Every writer does it slightly differently. Try to find what works best for you and the story, and move on from there.

So what do you guys think? Are you good with diagloue? Horrible at it?

(Pictures from


  1. I'm in the middle of fixing my dialogue. I truly hate the word 'said' and when I read it in a book, it trips me up. I guess I'm weird that way. So I used it rarely, and learned earlier this week that I should use it almost always, so I'm revamping all my dialogue. What a chore!

  2. I'm not great a dialogue, but I'm trying to improve. Actually, I'm in the same boat as Christi with regards to "said" - it just irritates me when I'm reading.
    Hence, I have to work on using the word more and dropping the all the adverbs that I'm so fond of. It's difficult, I blame my childhood english teacher for telling me that "said" was unimaginative...

  3. Christi: OUCH! Could "Find+replace" help?

    Mia: I know, I love adverbs. It kills me to get rid of them, but most of them don't need to be there. *sigh*

    Most people are taught to vary "said" with other, more imaginative words, and it's true, "said" can be distracting, especially if it's used too much. Have you guys ever read something that tried to get creative with the dialogue tags, though? For me it's even worse than said! It was like the author kept inserting their thoughts into my mind every couple of seconds.

    I acutally don't use dialogue tags a lot. I usually just use beats to indicate who is talking, and occasionally, I will throw said in if there are more than two speakers.

    I count 7 uses of "said" or other dialogue tags in my blogfest scene. That scene is actually a good representation of how I usually write my dialogue. Mostly I mention how the characters react to what is being said, as opposed to throwing a whole bunch of tags in there.

    Again, I am not expert, and everyone has their preferences how to do things.

    Would guys want to do a workshop on dialogue? Maybe we could all talk more about our issues and figure out a way to fix them? Thoughts?

  4. I've been told by many that I write good dialogue. I can't say whether I agree or not, because I'm always going back to fix something.

    I completely agree with you about giving characters separate goals in a conversation. I think it's incredibly rare to find two people on the exact same page while talking to each other.

    What you said about "said" I've read before, and for me it was a difficult lesson to learn, but it makes sense when you consider that the dialogue should stand on it's own. There are times when rules can be broken though. A scene in a theater might indicate that the characters are whispering to each other, and if one is supposed to shout, well "he shouted..." might be appropriate so that the reader understands the character is being obnoxious.

    One other thing I would add is that a Character's dialogue should be unique and identifiable to that character alone. If you were to remove every name and descriptive pronoun the dialogue should still covey clearly who is saying what. Think of "Inglorious Bastards"; Aldo talking to Landa--even in writing it's impossible to get them confused.

    Great Post, Elizabeth!

  5. I would, what exactly would it involve..?

    *shakes head* I'm so new to this.

    I also like the idea about opposing goals in a conversation. Now that I think about it, most of the passable dialogue I write happens when two characters are trying to get totally different things out of the interaction. It makes the whole thing so much more funsies.