We talk every day. We hold
conversations wherever we go--at work, out shopping, or at home with our
families. You could say we're all experts at casual chatter. Why, then,
do many writers find dialog so difficult to write?
I may not be The World's
Finest Fiction Writer, but I've always been a whiz at making characters
converse. Still, when I received a number of requests from Toolbox
readers asking for a column on dialog, I was stumped. How should I
explain something that comes naturally? It wasn't as if I ever had to
learn it--I just do it. So I started thinking about how I write dialog,
trying to bring forth some of the techniques I subconsciously use, and
rules I instinctively follow. This is what I came up with.
AT THE MOVIES
Today's movie audiences
don't buy into hokey dialog. The characters on the screen must speak in
a way that rings true, or moviegoers will turn away. So, it only stands
to reason that a great source for learning dialog would be the cinema.
My brother and I play this
little game where we repeat lines of dialog from movies we've both seen,
and then try to guess the movie title. (Drives the rest of our family
nuts.) We remember dialog because we pay attention. Start listening at
movies and during TV time. If you're a visual person, instead of
watching, close your eyes to help yourself listen. Remember the tone and
style of the characters' conversations. Emulate that real-sounding style
when you write.
READ YOUR DIALOG OUT LOUD
Pretend you're an actor
rehearsing a script. When you're revising lines of dialog, read them
aloud. Try to sound just as your character would--using vocal tones and
inflections to convey meaning. Do you sound ridiculous? If you do, you
need to rewrite your dialog to make it more conversational and
READ BOOKS WITH GREAT DIALOG
From the age of about 14
or so, I've been a Stephen King fan. And whether you love or loathe him,
King writes incredible dialog. As a teenage writer, I wanted to write
like Stephen King. I'm sure the Master of the Macabre is partly
responsible for my ability to create vivid conversations between my
characters. If you read writers who have a knack for dialog (and you'll
know who they are when you read their books), you'll most likely pick up
some ability by osmosis.
OBEY THE DIALOG RULES
I know, I know--you're
saying, "What dialog rules? I never got any dialog rules!" They're not
exactly handed out on the first day of Creative Writing 101, but they do
exist as a sort of unwritten law. Here they are:
Never use attributes
other than "said" or "asked." (Like all rules, this one may be broken
from time to time--just be careful to break it only when the alternative
truly adds something to your story.) Often, if it's clear who's talking,
you don't need an attribute at all.
Don't try to write in
dialect unless you're a real pro (in which case you probably wouldn't be
reading this article). It's awkward, and you have to use some creative
spelling and punctuation. Telling us Velvet Johnson spoke like a
southern belle is preferable to making us read (and decipher) lines of
dialog like: "Whah, I ain't nevah seen nothin' like that in mah life!"
Do throw in regional
expressions and slang to make dialog seem real. Just don't pepper your
manuscript so full of them that it's no longer palatable.
Experiment with giving
your character a vocal tick--some oft-repeated word or phrase that
becomes his trademark. Remember Joe Pesci's character, Leo Getz, in the
Lethal Weapon movies? Aside from a constant stream of fast-talking
chatter, Leo's vocal trademark was: "Okayokayokay...."
Don't have your
characters make small talk. In real life, we may chat about the weather
and the stock market. In fiction, unless those things happen to be
important to the story--say, for instance, you're writing a book like
The Perfect Storm, or a screenplay like Wall Street--leave them out and
cut to the chase. Small talk is dull in real life. It's even more boring
Break up dialog with
action. People don't simply stand face to face and talk. We make facial
expressions and gestures. We move around and do things as we're talking.
The physical action in your story shouldn't grind to a halt when your
characters speak any more than it would in real life. Here's the rub,
though--when you're including action in your dialog sequences, make
certain what you've included helps your story. It should show character,
set the scene, or move the plot forward in some small (or not so small)
Making your characters
chatter shouldn't be a scary thing--it's fun! And we all enjoy reading
good dialog, because suddenly people are talking and things are getting
interesting. If you have trouble with dialog, practice it. Try writing a
story with nothing but dialog, and try making it so that a reader would
be able to learn something about the characters through the dialog and
distinguish them, one from the other, by their speech. You might even
practice conversations in your head. It's not weird or schizophrenic--I
do it all the time.
Well, then again, maybe it
is weird--but we're writers, for Heaven's sake!