Greetings citizens of the realm! Wednesday falls upon us once more, and that means it’s time to sharpen up our writing chops! Today’s discussion (no pun intended) is all about dialogue – specifically, how to write great dialogue.
A Bold Claim…
I know. I do have an M.A. in English and creative writing, but what the hell have I ever published that has great dialogue in it? Well, I honestly think a lot of the stories here have some pretty great dialogue, but the reality is, I don’t have to have published great dialogue to be able to recognize it when I read it, and be able to articulate what makes it great to you. So where I have failed thus far, ‘haps thee can succeed.
Let’s start with an example.
When the subject of dialogue comes up, a lot of times I hear it in reference to movies, and the two powerhouse screenwriters of my generation when it comes to dialogue are Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. But while it’s true that those two definitely write some of the best dialogue in the business, we’re going to look to literature first, you uncultured goons.
Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”
If you’ve never read the story, do it now – it’s short – and come back when you’re done. Then let’s talk about the dialogue.
Okay, now that you’ve read it, we first have to talk about what Hemingway did with the narration style. It’s called third-person-limited, and it’s basically a way of writing a story from the perspective of the proverbial fly on the wall. In most third-person stories, the narrator relays the characters thoughts or other background details to the reader, but with third-person-limited, the reader gets only what the fly on the wall gets. This makes it nearly impossible to pull off without strong dialogue.
For this story, it’s almost as if Hemingway were in that train station in Spain, with the fertile valley on one side and the barren hills on the other, with a tape recorder in hand (even though they didn’t have tape recorders in 1927) and just transcribed what he recorded. The entire story – the intrigue, the suspense, the conflict – it all rests in the dialogue between the man and the woman, whose names we don’t even know. Through his dialogue, Hemingway’s characters come alive and we get to know so much about them. This brings me to tip #1.
Tip #1: Listen to the way people talk.
Hemingway may not have had access to a tape recorder, but we all have access to recording devices these days. Now, in my state at least, it’s definitely against the law to record someone’s conversation without their consent, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get their consent. I’m talking about asking friends and family, or even posting ads for volunteers.
Say you’re going to have a big get-together. Ask everyone at the party if it’s okay if you just have your voice memo app on in the background for a while. If you’re worried about them not being genuine if they know someone’s recording, distract them for a while, then you’ll get the good stuff. Please understand: I am NOT advocating recording anyone’s conversation without their consent. What I am suggesting is a version of a journalistic technique by which interviewers soften up interviewees before taping.
Of course, you could just sit in the park and eavesdrop for a while, too. Still somewhat creepy, I guess, but as long as you’re not using anything you hear unethically, you’re probably okay. The key is, pay attention to the way people actually talk. They use slang. They curse. They say um, and they pause a lot. They say things they assume the other person already knows about but that the reader wouldn’t.
An example of that is when the woman in Hemingway’s story says “…And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.” The reader doesn’t know what “it” is the entire way through the story explicitly. Instead, one is left to infer what she means. Those inferences are artfully directed by context clues and the man’s responses to her other statements throughout the story.
Tip #2: Don’t rely on your dialogue to do your exposition for you.
They do this on shows like Criminal Minds and it drives me bonkers. In a way, it’s a good technique to keep the action rolling along, and in television, you kind of need that, but for non-screenwriting fiction, the dialogue should feel honest, and bogging it down with unnecessary expository details is a sure fire way to keep it from being honest.
There is, of course an exception worth noting here. If you’re writing dialogue between two people who know each other well, then expository details are probably going to stick out like a sore thumb. On the other hand, if you’re writing a crime drama, the dialogue in a police/suspect interview may be the perfect place to do your exposition – just make sure you do it in a way that’s honest for the character.
Tip #3: Know your characters.
You need to know your characters as well as you know your best friends and closest family members. Do character profiles for every story every time, and refer back to them often. If your character is poor and uneducated, he’ll tell you he “spent all fuckin’ afternoon pickin’ up dog shit from the goddamn back yard.” On the other hand, if your character is well off and has a good vocabulary, she’ll tell you “Picking up this dog’s excrement is going to be the bane of my entire life.” You have to know your characters, and you have to know how they’d talk to one another.
One story in which I think I did this well was the only screenplay I’ve ever written, “Among Thieves.” I think I really had a good thing going in the relationship dynamic between Bruce and Toji. However, I don’t think I got the dynamic between Serena and the others quite the way I envisioned it – maybe that’s where the actors are supposed to come in and make me look good. I guess we’ll never know unless some film student wants to make the movie.
The Wrap Up
Writing is an art, and with all art there is going to be variation of technique. Some people like their dialogue to be odd, and they use that to serve their stories like Pollack or Picasso. It’s not realistic, but if it’s done by a master, it definitely works. Others – myself included – prefer our dialogue to be natural and realistic, and in order to do that, you’ve got to listen to the way people talk, don’t rely on your characters to do your exposition for you, and know your characters intimately. Then it’s just a matter of imagining the words they’d say to each other and hopefully moving your fingers fast enough to keep up with our imagination.
I hope this has helped you fiction writers out there. I think next week we’ll switch gears a little and do some discussion on grammar and usage rules. Won’t that be fun? Make sure you subscribe so that you can get the notice when it drops. Also, be sure to check out my social media pages below and like and subscribe there as well – it really helps me out!