I just got a message from an excited writer eager to tell me all about the novel she’s writing. “My greatest fear was the dialogue,” she wrote. “I was afraid I couldn’t make it realistic enough. But I stumbled onto a secret. I’m hiding my tape recorder in the house so I can capture real talk.”
See, the aim isn’t really to write “real talk.” In real talk, we say such things as:
“Hey, guess what! I just got back from the… what’s it called… um… oh, I hate getting old! That place where we had your brother’s birthday deal, remember? Over by the apple place? Anyhoo, I thought I saw Micky. So funny after what happened that other time. Last year, you know… You were there. It was so hot and windy and that funny guy who sells the….”
No, the aim is to give the illusion of real talk while you actually accomplish something important such as moving your story forward or revealing a character or showing an incident rather than simply telling about it. The illusion of dialogue might say something like:
“Hey, I just got back from Gray’s Farm. I thought I saw Micky, but after what happened last year, it can’t be!”
Writing good dialogue is an art. (Okay, that dialogue isn’t so good, but you get the idea.) If you do dialogue well, it will add great strength to your work–non-fiction as well as fiction.
So what can you do to help your characters speak well? I’m so glad you asked! Here are some dialogue-polishing pointers I call: “Don’t let this happen to you.”
- Unnatural Dialogue: “You’re crazy, Justin!” said Megan. “Look who’s talking, Megan,” Justin replied. When we talk to people, we hardly ever say their names. Yet the tendency in dialogue is to repeatedly address our characters by name. Don’t. Better: “You’re crazy!” said Megan. “Look who’s talking,” Justin replied.
- Over-descriptive dialogue: Too many adjectives and adverbs give a fake, amateurish feel to your writing, and dialogue is no exception. “When I gazed upon the snowy-white petals of the lilies, so like winter’s icy coat of velvet, I knew Louie’s love for me was at an end,” she murmured tragically. Choose your adjectives carefully and sparingly. Make certain each one is worth its presence. Be even more stingy with your adverbs. Much better to let your sentence set the emotion than tack instructions on at the end. Better: “When I saw the white lilies, I knew what they meant; Louie no longer loved me,” she murmured.
- Lectures or soliloquies: “You will be taking the driving test next week,” Mother said. “All the days of practice, all the hours of study, all the mistakes and all the do-overs will come into play when you sit down behind the steering wheel, take off the parking brake, and put the car in gear. Take a deep breath, my dear daughter, and clear your mind of everything but the test. I know you can do this.” Long speeches grow stale very quickly. Don’t try to pack too much information into a passage. Dialogue isn’t the place to display all the research you did, either. Nor should you use it to sneak in “And the moral of this story is…” Better: “You will be taking the driving test next week,” Mother said. “You’re ready. I know you can do it.”
- Exposition: “I happened to run into your sister Julia, the one who married the doctor, Tim, from Peru, and who has the three children–Luisa, Freddie, and Lizzie. She was telling me that your mother moved to an eight-bedroom mansion on the tip of Florida where she lives among writers.” Oh, my! Please, do not have your characters tell each other what they already know just for the sake of letting your readers in on it. If you want us to know that kind of information, give it to us in narrative form. Better: I had wanted to hear the words from Sarah‘s mouth. Her sister Julia was in town with, Tim–her doctor husband from Peru— and their children. Julia had talked on and on about her mother’s eight-bedroom mansion on the tip of Florida, and all her writer neighbors. When I finally saw Sarah, I said, “I talked to Julia.”
- Unnecessary Dialogue: “Frank, this is my good friend, Jean. Jean, this is my neighbor from up the street, Frank. I thought it would be nice for the two of you to have a chance to shake hands and at least say hello to each other.” If the dialogue has no real purpose, leave it out. Dialogue that fills the page and simply serves to bide time succeeds only in slowing your story down and boring your reader. Better: She introduced Jean and Frank to one another.
- Repetitious Dialogue: All day, Marianne had been busy painting the room. She paused when Philip entered. “I’m painting,” she told him. She lifted her blue brush high. “Blue,” she said. Tell us in the narrative or tell us in the dialogue, but don’t do both. Better: Marianne had been busy painting the room. She paused when Philip entered. “Blue,” she said, holding her brush high.
- Sugary-Sweet Dialogue: “Oh, Mother, the dinner is delicious, as always. Brother, dear, please pass me more of the wonderful potatoes,” little Francine said. You say you have to be extra nice because you are writing about your own family? And you don’t want anyone to look bad? So you just add an extra touch of the positive and pare off anything that could be interpreted as negative? Your readers won’t believe a word of it! Better: “Eat your dinner, Francine,” mother said. “Starving children around the world would be glad to have those mashed potatoes!”
- Creative Attributions: “Don’t talk back,” he coughed. First of all, attributions must be other ways of speaking. People cannot cough words–or smile them or laugh them or sneeze them, for that matter. Second, plain old said and asked and answered are far more serviceable than more creative options, such as queried or extrapolated or implored. Third, look for opportunities to use an action in lieu of any attribution. Better: Franklin’s face went livid. “Don’t talk back!”
Okay, that’s my “get started” list. Any dialogue hints you want to add?
“The wastepaper basket is the writer’s best friend.”
Isaac B. Singer