A Brief Study on Using Dialogue in Fiction, by E. Michael Helms
(Author’s note: I was feeling “preachy” today, so I decided to present a sermon on one of my pet peeves in writing. Please forgive my verbosity.)
What is dialogue?
Dialogue is a new, invented language (not a reproduction of how people actually speak; it’s the writer’s job to create effective, believable dialogue)
Dialogue is action (characters interacting with each other)
Dialogue is drama (the story, or plot, is unfolding or moving forward by what the characters say)
Dialogue is immediate scene (characters are on-stage, playing out the scene before the reader’s eyes)
Two of the most common faults I find with many fiction manuscripts are:
1) Too much narrative summary (i.e., too much “telling”, not enough “showing”)
2) Stilted or poor, ineffective dialogue
Let’s look at Narrative summary (i.e., what’s happening off-stage) versus Immediate Scene (i.e., what’s happening now, on-stage, before the reader’s eyes).
Many novels of the 19th and early 20th centuries contained a lot of narrative summary (i.e., what happens “off stage”). Today’s readers have been spoiled by movies and television. They’re used to “immediate scenes,” i.e., seeing a story unfolding before their eyes as it happens.
(Example of Narrative Summary, or “telling” through extended narration):
Margaret Dauncey shared a flat . . . with Susie Boyd; and it was to meet her that Arthur had arranged to come to tea that afternoon. The young women waited for him in the studio. . . . Susie looked forward to the meeting with interest. She had heard a good deal of the young man, and knew that the connection between him and Margaret was not lacking in romance. For years Susie had led the monotonous life of a mistress in a school for young ladies, and had resigned herself to its dreariness for the rest of her life, when a legacy from a distant relation gave her sufficient income to live modestly upon her means. When Margaret, who had been her pupil, came, soon after this, to announce her intention of spending a couple of years in Paris to study art, Susie willingly agreed to accompany her. Since then she had worked industriously at the Colarossi’s Academy, by no means under the delusion that she had talent, but merely to amuse herself.
— The Magician, by Somerset Maugham
(Example of “showing” through an immediate scene):
Joe sculled the boat into the shade of the tree-lined bank. He looped a half-hitch around a gnome-like cypress knee and pulled the rope tight.
“Hand me a beer,” he said, reaching under his seat for the box of wigglers.
Candy lifted the top of the cooler and dug into the ice. “Brr, that’s freezing,” she said, brushing off the shards of ice clinging to the can.
Joe laughed and looked up from baiting his hook.“I put rock salt on the ice before we left. Gets it extra cold.”
“Ick, it’s slimy, too,” Candy said, frowning and swishing the can in the cool creek. “Wish you’d’ve rinsed out the cooler. Smells like dead fish in there.” She pushed the can into a foam coolie cup and handed it to Joe.
Joe grabbed the can, popped the tab and took a swig. “You the one wanted to come fishing,” he said, then let out a low belch. “I reckon now you’ll be wanting me to bait your hook.”
Candy began unwinding the line from her cane pole. “You know I can’t stand touching that wormy gunk.”
Now let’s compare stilted (bad) dialogue with effective (good) dialogue
“Where are you going at this late hour, Bob?” Agnes inquired.
“I am going to the store, Agnes,” Bob replied pleasantly. “Is there anything I can get for you?”
“Why yes, a carton of milk if it is not too much trouble,” Agnes intoned. “The children used the last of it this morning with their breakfast cereal.”
“Certainly, dear,” Bob answered, “I will be glad to.”
(Why is the above bad? It’s not only stilted, but there’s no conflict or tension, and it doesn’t really move the plot.)
“It’s late,” Agnes said, glancing up from her paperback. “Where you think you’re going?”
Bob stopped in the doorway and turned. “To the 7-Eleven. I’m out of smokes, not that it’s any of your business.”
“I’ll bet,” she said, turning a page. “Pick up a gallon of milk. We’re out.”
Bob frowned. “Again? Christ, between you and them kids I’d be better off buying a cow.”
(The above has tension, conflict, and tells us something about their relationship. Agnes doesn’t believe/trust Bob; Bob is disgruntled, may be up to something, etc.)
The function or purpose of dialogue.
1) Reveal character
George stood at the podium and scanned the restless crowd. “I agree that desecrating our nation’s flag is a despicable act,” he said, lifting a copy of the Constitution above his head, “but the fact remains, it’s protected under our right of free speech.”
Roy jumped up, his chair clattering as it slid back. “And I say, anybody wants to burn Old Glory is a damn commie bastard,” he shouted. “Love it or leave it! Anybody don’t like it here, I’ll buy the sumbitch a one-way ticket to China.”
Tom took a seat beside Bill and passed him a slip of paper. “Thought you might need this.”
“What’s this?” Bill said, glancing at it.
“The answers to today’s English exam.”
“No thanks,” Bill said, handing back the cheat sheet.
2) Advance the plot
Mack ducked under the open wall of the command tent just as another barrage of outgoing artillery thundered through the surrounding hills. He hardly noticed anymore. The sound had become part of the landscape, no more distracting than the buzzing of insects. He walked over to the colonel who was leaning over a folding table, studying a map of the area.
“You wanted to see me, sir?”
“We have to take this hill at all costs,” Colonel Brown said, pointing to a red circle on the creased map. He looked up and locked eyes with the young lieutenant. “And your company’s got to take it, Mack.”
Mack studied the colonel’s grim face for a moment, then looked away in the direction of the objective. “You know we’re way under strength, sir. The men are exhausted. They haven’t eaten in two days, and we’re low on ammo. It’ll be suicide.”
Colonel Brown massaged his tired eyes between thumb and forefinger and let out a deep breath. “It’s got to be done, son. Battalion’s promised us artillery support. Jump-off is at 0600.”
3) Evoke reader emotion (get the reader to identify with the characters)
John opened the door and set his briefcase on the coffee table. “I’m home, honey.”
There was no answer. For a moment he thought Linda must still be out shopping, then he heard muffled sobs coming from the kitchen. He hurried through the hall and found his wife sitting at the table, face buried in her hands, a stained slip of yellow paper laying in a puddle of spilled coffee.
“What is it?” he said. Then he noticed the telegram. He reached for it, his bowels churning cold.
Linda lifted her head and wiped at her puffy red eyes. “It’s Jimmy. Oh, God — he’s been killed!”
John’s stomach pitched and he felt he might pass out. He managed to catch himself and slumped in a chair beside Linda. “No . . . that can’t be. His tour is almost over. He’s coming home next week. He just said so in his letter!”
III. Common mistakes of dialogue
Too many direct references (overusing characters’ names in dialogue)
“What did you think of the movie, Kristie?”
“I loved it, Frank. Tom Cruise is such a dreamboat.”
“Watch it, Kristie, you know I’m the jealous type,” Frank said, smiling.
“Oh, Frank, I love your sense of humor. And you’ll always be my favorite star.”
“Tagverbs” and adverbs (i.e., describing dialogue with verbs and adverbs)
Overusing colorful verbs (or tagverbs) as dialogue “tags” tends to draw attention to that particular word and can be distracting to the reader. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Here’s what The New York Times Book Review had to say about best-selling author Robert Ludlum’s, The Bourne Ultimatum:
“Mr. Ludlum has other peculiarities. For example, he hates . . . “he said” . . . and avoids it as much as possible. Characters in The Bourne Ultimatum seldom “say” anything. Instead, they cry, interject, interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble, whisper . . . intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter. There is one especially unforgettable (one): ‘I repeat,’ repeated Alex.”
Another common fault is using adverbs to describe how a character speaks. It’s so much easier to “tell” the reader how the character said something than it is to “show” how it was said. Here are a few examples from McNally’s Secret, by Lawrence Sanders:
I said resignedly; father asked idly; I said heartily; I said hastily; he inquired anxiously; she said darkly; she said lightly; she said cheerily; I said cheerfully; he cried with unexpected fury; she said fondly; I said politely; he said proudly; he said with unnecessary vehemence; he said coldly; he said hotly; she said faintly; she said bitterly; she said crisply; I asked eagerly; she said doubtfully; he said grudgingly; he said mournfully; I added earnestly; she said hesitantly; I said gratefully; she said in a doleful voice; and my two personal favorites: someone remarked sententiously; I caroled as melodiously as I could.
“You’re fired!” Fred blurted hotly. (Tagverb and adverb)
“You’re fired!” Fred said, slamming the folder on the desk. (“said” is hardly noticed)
Fred slammed the folder on his desk. “You’re fired!” (action denotes speaker)
“You always manage to spoil the evening,” Mary sobbed pitifully.
“You always manage to spoil the evening,” Mary said, bursting into tears.
Mary turned away to hide her tears. “You always manage to spoil the evening.”
A good rule: When a tag is needed, “he said/she said” works just fine in most situations. Use more colorful tags occasionally if you must. Always try to “show” how something was said rather than “telling” how it was said.
Loaded dialogue (packing dialogue with information for the reader that wouldn’t come out in normal conversation).
(In real life, nobody talks like this):
“I suppose we could ask our son, Joe, to handle the lawsuit,” Mr. Jones said. “After all, he’s one of the best attorneys in town, and we did put him through law school.”
“I know, dear,” Mrs. Jones said, “but he’s already representing his sister, the Harvard professor, with her slander case against the university newspaper.”
(But, they might reasonably say something like this):
“Let’s ask Joe to handle the lawsuit,” Mr. Jones said. “There’s no conflict of interest for an attorney to represent his parents. Besides, it’s about time he did something for us. If he can afford to drive a Ferrari, he can afford to pay us back something for five years of law school.”
“I know, dear,” Mrs. Jones said, “but I’m afraid it will conflict with his handling of Susan’s case. If she doesn’t get tenure because of those lies the Harvard Herald printed, she’ll be devastated. Joe won’t let that happen. You know what a protective big brother he’s always been.”
The lesson here? If needed, you can impart information to the reader if you word the dialogue carefully.
Dispensable dialogue (using pointless or unnecessary dialogue to fill up space)
“Good morning, Joe,” Sharon said, seeing her friend in the hall. “How are you today?”
“Fine, Sharon, and you?”
Sharon smiled warmly. “I couldn’t be better. Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?”
“Sure is. Couldn’t ask for better. Makes you want to skip work and go on a picnic.”
“It sure does,” she said, glancing at her watch. “Oh well, back to the grindstone. Nice seeing you, Joe.”
“Nice seeing you, too, Sharon. Tell Steve ‘hello’ for me, would you?”
“I sure will, and please give Tammy my best.”
“I will. Well, have a nice day.”
“You, too. Bye-bye.”
(While the above exchange is technically okay, it’s boring and does nothing to reveal character or move the plot.)
Redundant dialogue (using excessive repeated phrases or information in dialogue; sometimes called “echoing”):
Dr. Brainwick finished scanning the folder and laid it on his desk. “Now,” he said, leaning forward and staring into Henry’s eyes, “exactly when did these recurring nightmares begin?”
Henry took a deep breath to calm himself. “Exactly when did the recurring nightmares begin? That would’ve been, let me see . . . around the first of the year, if I remember correctly.”
(Avoid repeating narrative information in dialogue):
That morning Ed decided it was now or never, so he quit his job of fifteen years as a reporter for the Miami Herald, determined to make it on his own as a freelance writer.
Later that day, while enjoying happy hour at his favorite bar, he ran into his old flame, Martha. “Well, I finally did it,” he said. “I quit my job at the Herald.”
Martha nearly choked on her olive. “Why on earth would you do that?”
“I decided if I didn’t do it now I never would,” he said, idly stirring the ice in his scotch. “I gave them fifteen years good years. Now I’m determined to make it on my own as a freelancer.”
(While this often happens in real conversation, it has no place in effective dialogue. One or the other above should be cut because of its redundancy.)
(A repeated word or phrase can be dramatically effective. In this scene, Vic is trying to explain to his wife, Karen, why he just quit his job):
“Why can’t you learn to take orders like everybody else?” Karen said. “This isn’t Vietnam. You’re not a hot-shot pilot anymore.”
“I tried, honey, I really did.” Vic reached to hold her, but she shrugged him off. “But Joe Larrimore kept getting on my case, filling Peterson’s ears full of crap. I can only take so much.”
“You can only take so much?” Karen said, slapping the tabletop. “What about me, what about the kids? How much of this crap are we supposed to take? I’m working and scrimping, trying to put food on the table and take care of two kids and a house, and you can’t handle it when somebody tries to tell you what to do. No, you just quit!”
Dull dialogue (no conflict or tension in dialogue)
“I’m glad you’re home,” Bob said when Sarah pulled into the driveway and parked the car. “I was starting to worry.”
Sarah got out, then grabbed a couple of Wal-Mart shopping bags from the back seat. “Traffic was terrible,” she said. “There was a fender-bender on the bridge. It took forever to get across.”
“At least you’re home safe,” Bob said. “Did you remember to pick up the gallon of paint?”
Sarah stopped and rolled her eyes. “I’m sorry, honey. I knew there was something I forgot.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Bob said, “I’ll pick it up tomorrow after work.”
“It’s about time,” Bob said when Sarah pulled into the driveway and parked the car. He pointed to his watch. “You’re an hour late.”
Sarah got out and grabbed a couple of Wal-Mart shopping bags from the back seat. “Traffic was terrible,” she said. “There was a fender-bender on the bridge. It took forever to get across.”
“You could’ve called and let me know you’d be late,” Bob said. “You keep that damn cell phone stuck in your ear enough.”
“I forgot, okay?” Sarah said, brushing past him. “Christ, you’d think I robbed a bank.”
“Did you remember the gallon of paint?”
Sarah stopped and turned. “I can’t remember every damn thing. If you wanted paint, you should’ve gone yourself.”
Know your characters!
You should know everything about your characters — background, social status, their past, their present situation, goals, dreams, desires. Give each character his/her own distinctive voice (their speech should match their education, occupation, social status, etc.).
Is your character a high school dropout, or a college graduate; from Boston, Brooklyn, Alabama; a ditch digger, or an industrial engineer?
A construction worker with a 9th grade education is unlikely to speak the same as a college professor with a doctorate in English.
An illiterate migrant worker won’t speak like a NASA flight engineer.
Does your character use any particular word or pet phrase that sets his speech apart from others? Speech markers can be another valuable aid for making a character’s voice unique from others:
In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald had Jay Gatsby use “old sport” as part of his normal speech pattern.
In Comanche Moon, one of Larry McMurtry’s characters used the phrase, “Bible and Sword!” whenever he became excited.
Always make dialogue serve a purpose (character; plot; emotion).
Make dialogue realistic, (use contractions, incomplete sentences, etc.; avoid “uh,” “er,” “um,” etc.)
Use character gestures to accentuate your dialogue (also known as “stage business”).
Gestures can portray character: (“At your service, madam,” he said, bowing smartly.)
Gestures can show mood: (“I treasure you,” she said, tracing a finger across his lips.)
Gestures can emphasize a crucial moment in the story: (He shook his head, refusing the hood, and shouted, “I regret I have but one life to give for my country!”)
Gestures should always match, or complement, the dialogue: (He shook his fist in Wilson’s face. “Get out!”)
Gestures should be believable: (Mother Theresa patted the orphan’s cheek. “Time for supper, little one.”)
Make dialogue confrontational or adversarial (Even well-written dialogue can be mundane or boring unless it contains conflict, tension, argument, etc.)
(This example isn’t bad dialogue, but there’s no conflict or tension):
“Did you watch the Super Bowl last night?” Jerry asked, pouring himself a cup of coffee.
“Yeah, good game, wasn’t it?” Mark said.
“Sure was, except for the twenty bucks I lost.”
Mark laughed. “You and a million other Rams fans.”
“Yeah,” Jerry said, shaking his head. “Who would’ve thought the Patriots had a chance?”
Remember: there is okay dialogue, good dialogue, and better dialogue:
“Where are you going?” (Is not confrontational)
“Where do you think you’re going? (Is confrontational)
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” (Even more confrontational)
“Clean up this mess.” . . . “Okay.” (Is not adversarial)
“Clean up this mess.” . . . “No.” (Is adversarial)
“I said, ‘clean up this damn mess!’” . . . “Clean it up yourself!” (Even more adversarial)
Make dialogue indirect or oblique (Twists and turns, “parrying” between speakers involves the reader and sparks his interest)
“May I buy you a drink?”
“Sure, thanks. A margarita, please.” (Obvious answer, dull and boring)
“May I buy you a drink?”
“I don’t do one-night stands.” (Unexpected and interesting response)
“You have the prettiest eyes.”
“Thanks, blue eyes run in my family.” (Normal, mundane)
“You have the prettiest eyes.”
“Thanks. Can you tell which one is glass?” (Anything but boring, even if it’s said as a joke)
In dialogue, silence can be golden (sometimes what a character doesn’t say can be more powerful than words)
Thursday evening John was well into his third bourbon and Coke by the time his wife arrived home.
“Working late again?” he asked when Eileen walked in and closed the front door.
“I’m sorry,” she said, leaning down to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. “The inventory shouldn’t take but a couple more days.”
John nodded as she turned to set her purse on the counter. “I got off early today,” he said. “I dropped by your office to take you out to dinner. Carol said you left at three-thirty.”
Eileen froze with her back to him.
“She said you’ve been leaving early all week to spend time with your parents before they have to go back home.”
Eileen turned and leaned against the counter, her face pale and drawn, her eyes beginning to cloud.
John glared at her for a moment, then looked away. “Don’t worry, I didn’t say anything.”
He stared into his drink, took a sip and looked back at his wife. “Who is he?”
Be careful using dialect (Phonetic spelling draws attention to itself rather than the speech—the reader spends effort trying to decipher individual words rather than experiencing what is being said. Instead, try using word choice, grammar, missing words, colloquialisms, rhythm of speech, etc., to show your characters’ geographical, educational, or social background.)
In Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is reading to Jim, the runaway slave, about kings, dukes and earls from a book he’d found. Fascinated, Jim comments:
“I didn’ know dey was so many un um. I hain’t hearn ‘bout none un um, skasely, but ole King Sollermun, onless you counts dem kings dat’s in a pack er k’yards. How much do a king git?”
“I didn’t know they was so many of them. I ain’t heard about none of them, scarcely, but old King Solomon, unless you counts them kings that’s in a pack of cards. How much do a king get?”
By choosing and using words carefully, the writer can give the impression of a character’s dialect. It’s much easier for the reader to understand, and allows him to concentrate on what’s being said. In dialect, a little goes a long way.
Read your dialogue out loud.
What looks right on the page, what “sounds” okay to the eye when read silently, may not stand up when read out loud. Good dialogue should pass the “ear” test. The tongue might trip over what the eye misses. By reading out loud, you can often pick up awkward or excessive words, phrasing, rhythm, etc.
“I talk the lines out as I write …” — Tennessee Williams
“I always read my dialogue out loud, give it what actors call a ‘cold reading’ without dramatics or … inflection. Typewritten words have a lot of power—they look very official and convincing even though you know you just made them up. Your ear may catch what your eye is fooled by.” — Film maker/novelist John Sayles
Okay, my sermon on dialogue is finished.
Th … th … th .. that’s all, folks! (Porky Pig)