How Can I Write Better Dialogue? 4 Quick Tips

Dialogue matters.  A lot.  In fact, I have stopped reading many an otherwise solid novel due to sub-par dialogue, and I wanted to provide a friendly warning to authors out there: even casual readers can sniff out sloppy dialogue, and that could cause said readers to stop reading, which could mean they write a bad review, or worse, no review at all.  And what happens to the novelist then?  Well, that lack of reviews could lead the writer in question to quit writing and take up drinking, which could lead to the downfall of his marriage, which could lead to him losing custody of his kids, which could lead to more drinking and financial problems, which could lead to getting behind on the mortgage.  The end result: the writer ends up homeless.  . . .all because he wrote piss-poor dialogue. Tragic.

dialogue new

Anyhew, I’m in the midst of new writing project, and to remind myself not to screw up dialogue and end up drunk, divorced, destitute, and only seeing my adorable son Harry on every other weekend, I’ve jotted down 4 quick tips. Enjoy.

tension

Tip #1: Dialogue creates tension.

  • Speaking in completely reductive but useful terms, I lump all novel writing to do with tension-building into two broad categories: characters either DO things that create tension, or characters SAY things that create tension. So when writing dialogue remember to allow a character’s true personality to come out to play. If they’re mysterious, dole out their words carefully, and with utmost attention paid to timing. If they’re a smartass, dialogue is an ideal place to showcase that particular talent (yes, it qualifies as a talent; otherwise, I would have no discernible talent). All of these should help increase tension between the characters.

character counts

Tip #2: Dialogue builds a character’s backstory.

  • It takes a seasoned novelist to achieve what I’m about to suggest, but it can be done and done well: use dialogue to help round out a character’s backstory. Now I’m not suggesting nor do I advocate for information dumps; those take readers out of the story, which defeats the purpose. But if you can weave in memorable (and, occasionally, important) bits about a character’s biography then dialogue is wonderfully efficient place to do so. Plus, it saves time and space. Being lazy, I like that.

dialogue new newTip #3: Dialogue helps create separate and unique characters.

  • Every character, from the protagonist to a minor character with only a few lines, should have a distinct way of speaking. This helps brand them as unique characters, and it helps readers differentiate between characters, especially recurring ones who have lots of dialogue. Find ways to make every character’s speech memorable. Does a character stutter? Talk really fast? Speak in clipped phrases? Whatever, just make it memorable.

feelings

Tip #4: Dialogue, on occasion, reveals a character’s most important thoughts and feelings.

  • Again, a seasoned novelist will do this sparingly. Unless, of course, the character in question is someone who wears his or her heart on his or her sleeve and keeps up a constant monologue. But still, dialogue is a nice place to, on occasion, toss in how a character feels about an issue (say, the crime in question, for example). This will help cement a reader’s feelings toward the character, and it will also help other characters who are involved in the dialogue parse their own feelings.

talk

So how important is dialogue to you as a reader? Got any tips on how to create meaningful and memorable dialogue? Have any Italian sandwiches you’d like to send my way? (What, I’m hungry.) Would love to hear from you. Drop a comment.

 

Random List: An Obscure Mystery Novelist Offers Up a Mixed Bag of Advice on Improving a Writer’s Craft

Be mentally-ill.  Believe me, if you want to be a writer, having a reasonable, manageable amount of mental illness is a God send. (Note: being neurotic can and often does reek havoc on your personal and professional life, but the fleas come with the dog).  Here’s why being afflicted with a mild to moderate mental illness is beneficial to a writer: because you suffer, you better understand the suffering of others.  Your suffering allows you to better understand human frailty, and that, in turn, fosters empathy for others, which will help improve the depth of the characters you write. Plus, do I really need to list all of the great writers, male and female, who struggled with depression, anxiety, OCD, and other neurotic ailments?

toddler

Have a toddler.  Or, if parenting isn’t your thing, then babysit a friend’s toddler for an hour or two.  Playing with a toddler is an excellent crash course in the art of improvisation, and there’s only one rule when it comes to improv: ALWAYS say yes.  This is important to remember, especially when writing a first draft. Don’t try to control everything; don’t dictate every little thing your characters say and do and think.  Allow your characters to surprise you, allow them to hurt themselves, make mistakes, say boneheaded things. In other words: improvise. You’ll be amazed what those figments of your imagination will get up to once you stop helicoptering over them all the time.

Listen to Rap music.  My old man forced John Prine and Jimmy Buffet and the Allman Brothers Band down my throat when I was a kid, and, eventually, I grew to love that music, too, but really my first love was rap. I love the rhythm and attitude in hip-hop, the bravado, and all of those things have helped improve my writing. I’ve been told my books have a pretty strong voice, that the words create a rhythm when read, and I credit my love of rap for that. Plus, whenever I write a hardcore villain, I try and channel the devil-may-care-attitude of classic rappers like Public Enemy and NWA.

letter

Handwrite letters. It’s a tragedy that people don’t write letters anymore. A real shame. I still write them though, and I love receiving them as well. Writing anything by hand helps you develop patience, the ability to slow yourself down and reflect before simply, for example, pecking away at a laptop or tablet. Letters are more personal, too, and the best writing, whether it’s a mystery novel or an email, has an element of the personal to it.

Read outside your genre. Yeah, I know: this is a mystery blog, and I like mysteries. I’ve written several. I’m writing another one as we speak (well, it’s sort of a mystery, sort of a meta-spy, break-all-the-rules novel of complications).  But anyway. Reading outside your genre: this will only improve your writing, expose you to new ideas, new styles, and new modes of storytelling, and that is always a good idea. Too, I get bored reading the same types of stories over and over and over again. Am I the only one?

watching-tv-clipart-watching-tv-2.png

Watch TV. Before I get lambasted for suggesting something as crass as staring at the Idiot Box, let me clarify. Watch good TV. And actively, not passively, watch it.  Guess what, there’s plenty of great TV shows out there these days (movies, not so much). Better Call Saul, Mr. Robot, and Silicon Valley are just a few of my current favorites. Watching good TV is a quick and easy way to improve your dialogue writing skills. Ditto storytelling. Good TV also teaches you to always, no matter what, focus on the story. No fat. No filler. Everything in a good TV show serves the story in some form or fashion, and the same should hold true for your novels.

Tell lies. Yes, I know: lying is bad. I’m not saying you should lie about anything important, but when you meet a stranger at a party, go ahead and tell a few whoopers. Why? Again: improvisation is a tool every storyteller should have in his or her toolbox. If you can tell a credible lie (or a series of lies) to a stranger, and they actually respond to them, that tells you you have created a believable fib, and, possibly, a fascinating character. That’s what we writers do, isn’t it?

INTROVERT-WRITE-BETTER-THAN-I-SPEAK

Be an introvert. My opinion, you want to be good at writing, you need to spend a lot of time alone honing your craft. Sure, workshops are. . .no, I can’t even tell that lie with a straight face. I don’t like workshops, never have, not even when I was required to attend them in order to obtain my so-called Master’s degree in English. But full disclosure, I do not and never will work and play well with others. Writing is a solitary endeavor. Period. Hell, that’s at least half of its appeal to me; I get to be alone for a few hours every day. You can talk to writers and readers and hang out at conferences, and all that’s fine by me. But if you want to get good at this tricky thing called writing, go inside, shut the door, and write. And you need to be alone when you do it.

Which reminds me, I need to be alone for a while, so the next sound you hear will be my door shutting.

 

Crash Course: E. Michael Helms on Improving Dialogue in Your Writing

helmsOn writing dialogue:Dialogue is an invented language (not a reproduction of how people actually speak; it’s the writer’s job to create effective, believable dialogue for the reader).

By E. Michael Helms

He said, She said: Tagverbs, Adverbs, and other Miscreant Uses of Dialogue
 
It’s ’fess up time. All writers are guilty of it. No matter how experienced a writer one may be, it’s a pitfall we must always be vigilant to avoid. So, at the risk of offending writers everywhere, I present a brief refresher course on dialogue.  
 
Overusing colorful verbs (or “tagverbs,” as I like to call them) as dialogue tags
 
In dialogue, the overuse of strong verbs used as tags tends to draw attention to the words themselves and become 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 (yes, that Robert Ludlum):
 
bourne“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 “show” how it was said. Here are a few examples from McNally’s Secret, by Lawrence Sanders (yes, that 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.
                                
*Examples for Your Perusal—which sounds better to your ear?*
           
“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’s temperament)
 
            “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 (or, lazily packing dialogue with information)
           
*Do people really talk like this?*
 
“I suppose we could ask our son, Joe, to handle the lawsuit,” Mr. Jones suggested. “After all, he is one of the best attorneys in town, and we did put him through law school.”
 
“I know, dear,” Mrs. Jones replied, “but he is already representing his sister, the Harvard professor, with her slander case against the university newspaper.”
 
*Well no, 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?  If needed, you can impart information to the reader if you word the dialogue carefully.
 
word countDispensable dialogue (or, empty, wordcount-building dialogue)
           
“Good morning, Joe,” Sharon said, seeing her friend approaching down the hallway. “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 absolutely nothing to reveal character, show conflict, or propel the plot.)
writing image 
 
 
A Reminder
 
Dialogue is an invented language (not a reproduction of how people actually speak; it’s the writer’s job to create effective, believable dialogue for the reader).
 
Dialogue is action and conflict (characters interacting with one another).        
           
Dialogue is drama (the story is unfolding, or moving forward by what the characters say).
           
Dialogue is immediate scene (characters are on-stage, acting out scenes before the reader’s eyes).
 
Closing Words from author P.G. Wodehouse
 
“[A]lways get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a big slab of prose at the start.”