Dialogue, Part One (of God Who The Fuck Knows How Many Because People Rarely Get It)
Okay kids, let’s get real. Dialogue. Why is it so hard for so many people? Everybody talks, right? Everybody hears people talk, right? So why do the words on the page often feel wrong?
I think about this a lot because — not to brag, but dialogue comes naturally for me, and people notice, and mention it. Also, I have had to help a lot of writers fix dialogue issues. That’s because it’s a huge part of fiction, and in modern genre fiction, it can make or break you. Literary snobs have their own take on it, but genre fiction isn’t even “put up or shut up” anymore. It’s “put up or fall off the planet and sell nothing.”
That doesn’t mean I can’t write mediocre dialogue or screw up, because I definitely can, and I certainly give my dialogue as much thought as I do the narrative sections when revising and editing. I just have good instincts for written dialogue, which actually makes it harder to talk about. I didn’t have to learn as much to produce good dialogue as someone without that inborn knack, which — let’s be honest — is rare.
I’m going to take the easy route and talk about what’s wrong with dialogue, because talking about what’s right with dialogue won’t convince you to fix anything. You’ll see yourself in all of it if you’re not careful, and anything that’s done right by one person can be done with very different results by a different person. And since I can’t teach talent or ‘knacks’ or basic inherent competence, I’m going to try and explain where things go wrong, so that you can catch it in your own work.
So let’s think, in big terms, about the problems that come up. There’s nothing formal about these categories. It’s just how I think of them.
Huge categories of bad dialogue
There’s wooden dialogue, where the characters speak in a manner that is necessary. It may be informative or expositional, but wooden dialogue is clearly written when it should feel spoken. Danielle Steel is great at this (although she, and many others, also get deep into the other categories here, as well). If it was a good thing, I would recommend her for study. This kind of dialogue is the most common flaw in modern romances, although every genre can and does suffer from it.
(Don’t study Danielle Steel for craftsmanship. You may break something of your own that you have right.)
Then there’s the stilted dialogue, which is like wooden dialogue kicked up a notch. This is amazingly common and it breaks my heart. When I talk about stilted dialogue, I’m referring to characters who speak woodenly — with or without proper grammar, although again obviously written without the vibes of spoken dialogue — but basically, there’s nothing natural to it. Stilted dialogue almost always requires “backing up” to reread it so the reader can understand what the dialogue is trying to say. This is obviously a huge no-no.
And finally, for me, there is a catchall category that I consider shit dialogue. Again, this is stilted dialogue taken up a notch. Nothing feels or reads right about shit dialogue. Badly done accents, unnatural speaking rhythms, bizarre word choices, incoherent and/or unnecessary conversations—this is shit dialogue.
Waaaaay, way too much of that in our little self-publishing universe, folks.
I adore Lovecraft, but he was semi-professional his whole life for a reason. I’m convinced the reason is that he wrote shit dialogue. His very best efforts are at least stilted and wooden. When you study Lovecraft (and you should), remember that all his dialogue is shit. Study the rest instead. Only.
So how does wooden and stilted dialogue happen?
First, relax. Everything can be improved, so don’t worry.
The most common advice that you’ll find on how to write better dialogue just amounts to eavesdropping. Keeping your ears open, listening analytically, blah blah blah. (This goes hand-in-hand with the other most common, most misunderstood piece of good-bad advice: “show don’t tell” — I’ll get to that someday, and touch on it here no doubt.)
The problem with listening to people speak is that you’re not reading or hearing good dialogue. You’re not learning how to write conversations by listening, not directly. If you do listen analytically, you may or may not have the wherewithal to actually analyze it in a way that can help your writing. If you can, you have realized this key fact:
People don't speak the way character’s dialogue is written… EVER!
That’s right. Even great dialogue — in fact, especially great (and shit) dialogue — is marked by a distinct craftsmanship which separates it from realistic dialogue.
But back to the point: wooden dialogue often comes from a writer who is using dialogue to convey exposition (if it isn’t just beginner craftsmanship needing some more exercise, which is usually the case).
“What’s wrong with that?” you may ask. Writers must convey exposition. Dialogue is automatically “showing and not telling,” right?
No, dearie. Oh my, no. No no no. Follow that trail, my loves, and you’ll soon find yourself damned to the Pit of the Stilted.
Think 1950’s sci-fi dialogue between two scientists who are explaining to each other what they already know, so that you can follow along at home — hideously stilted, often shit, always wooden. And are they really showing you anything, just because it’s in quotation marks?
Doctor Jones held up the prototype Whatchamacallit and adjusted a knob. “As you know, Doctor Brown, the Whatchamacallit is the most powerful MacGuffin of its kind in the Atomic Age.”
Doctor Brown, busy adjusting the Interociter, paused in his labor to join the discussion. “Indeed, Doctor Jones, just as the Whoozis is a bomb of such proportions that the explosions of the last Great War would look like child’s play in comparison!”
A brick-shithouse blonde knocked on, then opened, the door. “Would anyone like some hamburger sandwiches and coffee?”
“Yes please! Thank you, Doctor Gams,” they both said. “And don’t forget, our research paper needs typed by tonight!”
“I’ll have it done! Would you like a drop of Scotch in your coffees, or would you prefer an entire shot?”
That’s just wonky narrative exposition coming out of the mouths of characters. It’s not dialogue. It’s a cowardly author dumping exposition on you and blaming it on their characters. It’s not fair to them, it’s not fair to the author, it’s not fair to the reader, it’s just not fair to anybody. (I made it feel a little more 50’s than I needed to, but come on, I, also, have to enjoy this shit, and I already know how to write good dialogue. Plus I have fun messing with established norms.)
(And did you catch the foul plural-and-subsequently-ambiguous speech tag? You need NEVER use ‘they said’ as a speech tag, but if you do, make sure you only tag the part that could possibly said in unison, because people don’t spontaneously say the same god damn words for ten seconds at a time! Plural speech tags are the worst. They’re always confusing. Don’t do it.)
Wooden dialogue happens because someone has information to convey, and they haven’t developed an ear for it, so they write it the way they were taught to write. It’s a completely understandable development. But if your dialogue only serves one purpose — such as exposition, for example — you’re doing it wrong.
“Why have you not gotten dressed yet, John?” Marcia asked. “We are supposed to leave in less than half an hour. You are not at all ready!”
“I must not have realized the party at their home was this evening,” John said. “I will go get prepared and be right down.”
Typical dialogue in the modern Amazon romance, right there. I would call it wooden with a hint of shit— not quite stilted but if someone called it stilted, I wouldn’t argue with them. It’s comprehensible, the grammar is passable, it’s been fixed for redundancies—but it leaves the reader’s ear hollow. Me? It makes me roll my eyes and wish the author had done better.
Why? Everything they said is something people could have spoken. It’s believable enough to pass muster in the ‘well, people say those words in those combinations’ way. Full grammatical sentences abound. So why does it feel wrong to the reader?
Because it is wrong. We all know it. You know it, even if you wrote it. Just because the Word spellchecker or Grammarly or your uncredentialed editor says it passes muster? That don’t mean shit! People don’t talk that way, so let your instincts interfere if you write crap like that last example.
Surrender the illusion of control and eavesdrop on your characters. Invest time into learning how they speak, what they don’t say, how they communicate nonverbally while they speak. If their words feel differently than what you write for them to say…listen harder and rewrite more.
Verisimilitude Vs. Reality
Let me give you a little tip to keep in mind, all the time, when writing fiction. Best advice evar? I think so:
Fiction is not true.
Listening to people talk does not teach you how to write dialogue, it teaches you how real people speak in real life (if you’re properly analytical, as opposed to improperly analytical — meaning you not only know how to interpret what you’re hearing, but you know how to write what you’re hearing in a realistic way).
Don’t write what they are saying. How fucking boring is that?
Write what you truly hear. With ALL your senses. All your insight. All of the nuance and understanding. Then cut out the rest of the nonsense.
Great dialogue says what the characters mean, and is not dictation of the real-life noises emitting from the real-life face-holes of real-life people — it can be, but it’s almost always bigger than just those vibrations of the vocal cords.
(Cords. NOT ‘chords.’)
Your brain’s heard a million conversations, and filtered them, and you already have all of this information available. You may not have ever realized what you do with it in daily life compared to in your writing, but you can learn. You may need to go out and learn to listen, but you don’t need to learn to hear. (Or vice-versa, whatever. You get the point. So all of you uberpedantic geek-lord semanticists can shut the eff up already.)
Real conversations are tedious, usually annoying to overhear, full of poorly chosen words and deceptive subtext and sarcasm and hemming and hawing and “uh”-ing and “What?”-ing and sighs and sniffles and weird tongue motions and all kinds of noise that you parse, but don’t really listen to.
The problem is, these un-vocalized and sub-vocalized bits inform the context of what you’re hearing to a huge extent.
You don’t want reality in dialogue. Hell, you don’t want much reality in fiction, period. You want verisimilitude.
You want the illusion, the texture, the flavor of reality, not the disappointing reality of reality. You want your lies to feel true. You need believability, not realism. It just has to feel real.
But it HAS to feel real.
Next time you listen to a conversation that captures your interest (by which I usually mean eavesdropping, that is, and if you don’t do it, you’re not much of a writer yet), pay special attention to what is actually entering your mind through your sensory organs. If you can see the speakers and watch them talk, you’ll pick things up you wouldn’t if you were unable to see the speakers — I’d mention some examples, but you should figure this out for yourself.
How many of their actual sonic emissions would you record, if you were dictating that conversation as a fictional dialogue? Probably, either a much smaller fraction than you’d initially guess, or else you’d need far more words than they used to convey the meaning. The point being, reality isn’t enough, but it still informs our ears and creates the baseline of what ‘believable’ means.
Oh, directly related, yet a sidestep from the previous paragraph: how often do people not use contractions? Stop avoiding contractions in dialogue, you amateurs! Don’t let formal writing ruin you. There’s nothing wrong with contractions. Writing formally in dialogue is step one toward stilted dialogue. Formal writing is almost always wooden, by design and definition, because people don’t talk that way. It’s a concession to clarity that fiction doesn’t need in the same way a textbook needs. Even trying to squeeze dialogue into ‘proper grammar’ takes a toll, and usually it ends up hurting the feel and flow enormously.
But real people also don’t talk like they do in Tarantino movies, or in the Whedon-verse. Or the Callieverse, for that matter, arrogant as it may be for me to even tangentially include myself in such august company. It’s not ‘real’ talk. Very few real-life conversations occur between two minds that are that crack-spot-on-top-of-life (Hitchens and Rushdie aside). There’s a ton of craft behind that. A lot of listening by the author, yes, but far more analyzing and applying insight into what’s really driving the whole damn show. Certainly more than just ‘people talk that way.’ Because, again, they generally don’t.
A lot of what people say — those stalling tactics while they gather their thoughts, the sighs and noises, all that shit — should help you write narration, not dialogue. When you start sifting that out, you learn to see how to select the few important words, from amongst the flood of useless but realistically spoken words, that will elucidate your reader to the character’s state of mind. All those ‘ums’ and ‘uhs’ should almost never get written down, and people often filter them out, but are they telling you someone is nervous? Scared? Bashful? Of course they’re telling you something.
Figure it out and use it.
THAT is how you show, and not tell, the right way. In dialogue, at least.
Well, it’s part of it, anyhow.
The one solid I will do you is to say this:
read your dialogue out loud. No, scratch that: act your dialogue out. Rewrite it until you can do so believably. Convince yourself.
Forget the rules when you’re inside quotation marks. That’s fair in dialogue. Narrative has rules, dialogue has different rules. If your characters matter to you and your work, let them have their own voices. Don’t fit their words into some imaginary ‘proper form because grammar’ unless you want your dialogue to make good firewood.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this in another column, so I’ll call this part one. The gods have no idea when I’ll get around to it and neither do I, but if you needed this, there’s actually a lot of homework built into this concept, so get started!