Writing Dialogue (not a tutorial)


Just my own experience.

I’ve heard that talking to oneself was once considered a sign that you need taking away and put in a straightjacket. You’ve only to stand on a street corner and just about everybody who passes you will appear as someone talking to themselves. Of course, this is not true, they are simply talking into a cell phone. But did you ever listen in? I can’t count the amount of times I’ve walked alongside a person talking on a cell phone, not to be rude, or intrude on their conversation, but just to listen to the speech.

I write as an old man, having had no tuition, not even from a book. Had I read more as a child, I’d be a more complete writer today, though I don’t know if I’d be a better writer.

Basically, dialogue is conversation and nothing more. My characters talk to each other, so shouldn’t they sound like real people? I like this idea because then all I’d have to do is transcribe a person’s conversation, and there’s my real person on the page. I’m done.

Unfortunately, I’ve since learned, (it was a Thursday, about two in the afternoon, I was twenty-seven) when it dawned on me it’s not that simple — or rather, fortunately, it’s not that complicated to write dialogue.

Real conversation of a teenager may sound like this:

“Er, Jim, like, have you heard the latest thing, like, on, what’sis name, you know, er, I mean the guy, you know, who’s like in the news all the time — “

Even in direct transcription resembling this one, I can’t accurately indicate where vowels drag, consonants double and so on. Moreover, in real speech, I get to hear a person’s melody of voice, watch his body language, and so I might suffer all the hesitations and indirectness and irrelevancies much better than when I read the transcript in print.

I cannot reproduce real speech. End of story!

I should maybe have given up writing then, at twenty-seven, about two in the afternoon, that Thursday.

Instead, well instead, I learned what any good writer had learned long before me. I can approximate real speech, and in doing so learned that dialogue should be quicker and more direct than real speech.

Moreover, I found there was no need for talk unless there’s a point to be conveyed. Then another dawning, weeks later, sat a coffee shop, how can I find the right balance between realism and economy of speech.

To make realistic dialogue, create a distinctive level of diction. Allow some characters to speak in fragments, others in complete sentences; some in slang, some in professional jargon, others in standard English. Dialogue should convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk.

I was in the shower (I have a lot of ideas when taking a shower) when I began to work it out that most often the important part of dialogue takes place in body language and in the exposition between the lines. Good dramatic dialogue is multi-layered, so that in addition to body language and direct meaning, there’s another parallel meaning to what’s being said.

Every sentence spoken in a piece of fiction ought to convey some kind of information. Dialogue brings us closer to the characters and their conflicts. When I need history, philosophy, biology, and most other sorts of information, I put them in the narrative; unless my character happens to be a bloody historian. Then I’m screwed!

Getting it right.

Another lesson I learned, (don’t even ask at what age for this one) when characters in a scene begin talking, after some discourse, I lost freaking track of which character was talking, where he was, and what the hell he was doing.

This usually occurred because I became aware of repeats in dialogue attribution, so compensated by cutting away tags — resulting in lots of “fluffy floater” quotes. I’m not kidding, I was having my hair cut (I don’t have a lot) when I started to do away with adverbial modifiers for attributions, such as: he said hotly, she said coolly, anyway, you get my drift. Used in moderation I guess these aren’t so bad, (although many will argue that a stronger verb choice is better than the verb/adverb construction) but when we start seeing several per page their effect becomes both diluted and annoyed the hell out of me. More importantly, while they might describe how something is spoken — they are more telling in nature than showing.

When every attribution I wrote was: he snarled, she snapped, he interjected, she declared, he asserted, she affirmed, he announced, well, I drove myself fucking nuts!

I kept one little rule in mind: There’s nothing wrong with the word ‘Said.’

It’s all right — really.

I’m bored now, so I’ll stop. But just wait till I tell you about my experiences with punctuating speech. That’ll send you over the edge, which is probably where you’ll find me.

I’m taking the dogs for a walk. I need some air.

I was born in London, adopted, lived my youth on an island off the west coast of Scotland. I now live in California. I write to travel.

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