The Tao of Dialogue


One of the most challenging skills a novelist needs to develop is writing great dialogue. For the purposes of fiction (or narrative nonfiction, including memoirs), the author has to do far more than depicting "real conversation," which (if you really listen) is most often halting, repetitive, and mundane enough to put anyone attempting to read it to sleep.

So let's agree that dialogue has to do far more, and far better, than simply sounding real. In general, writers do best to remember the following.

1. Keep it pithy. Assume you're writing the "Best of" whatever comes out of that character's mouth. So you want only the cleverest, the most conflict-rich, and the most character-revealing. And for heaven's sake, avoid the temptation to allow characters to speak in long monologues. Nobody likes a blowhard. Especially in print.

2. Keep it pertinent. All, or very nearly all, dialogue must move the plot forward, heighten the tension of the story question, or raise new questions. There's no room for "How are you, I am fine" drivel, not unless it's loaded with irony or subtext. (You can use narrative to reveal this, for example, characters engaging in trite conversation as bombs or bullets fly around them. Or try showing body language which contradicts the spoken word.)

3. Keep it peculiar. By that, I mean peculiar to the individual who says it. Ideally, each character in your story should be so richly realized (or at least hinted at) that his/her lines could not have been uttered by any other character. To check to see if you're succeeding, try stripping your scene of everything except dialogue, and then see if you can still tell who's talking in the conversation. Though this isn't always going to be possible (anyone can shout "No," for example), it's a very worthy goal.

For a howlingly-funny (and obscenity-laced, I warn you) example of pithy, pertinent, peculiar dialogue, check out the Twitter page of a guy who identifies himself as Justin, whose bio says: "I'm 28. I live with my 73-year-old dad. He is awesome. I just write down shit that he says." Justin proves he has a great ear for dialogue on his popular Shitmydadsays page.

Best grumpy old man material ever...

Today's question: Which authors do you particularly admire for writing great dialogue? Also, do you have any helpful dialogue tips to add?

P.S.- The adorable pups are from Loldogs. Check 'em out (if you have a taste for saccharine, anyhow.)

Comments

Suzan Harden said…
ROFLMAO - That kid's dad is Archie Bunker reincarnated without the @&#@(@) network censors!
Glad you enjoyed the link. That guy's a riot.
Joni Rodgers said…
Oh dear. That old man is Gary in a few years. And the mom's name is JONI! I see my future...and I'm afraid.
I'm laughing because I told my husband it was like a crystal ball to his future. He loved it.
TJ Bennett said…
Yes, I read the kid got a book deal already. I see a sitcom in his future. He's already got over 200k followers on Twitter, and he's only been around a couple of months, it looks like. Even Levar Burton follows him.

Why can't stuff like that happen to me, she whined? Ha!

TJB
Wow, TJ. I didn't know he got a book deal. Wonder what his dad had to say about *that*? (Now you can g-d well paying f*ing rent, can't you, Mr. Wiseacre?) LOL!

Good for him!
Anonymous said…
That is the PERFECT link to emphasize your points. Plus as I read over the Dad-speak, I laughed rather loudly and scared my cats, which is a bonus.

Hugs,
Diane
Glad you enjoyed it, Diane! Thanks!
Anonymous said…
thanks so much four your insights on dialog, Colleen. My favorite part--and sounds as if I'm not alone--is that old man. GREAT stuff! Talk about consistency!

Jane (Myers Perrine)
Thanks for stopping by, Jane. I'm so glad you got a kick out of that, too.
Linda Warren said…
Colleen,
Grumpy-foul-mouth-dad is the funniest tweets I've read. It's hilarious and I can see this as a sit-com. (kind of reminds me of the Seinfeld show with George and his dad)
Thanks for the laugh.
Linda
Hi, Linda. Glad you popped by. And you're right, he does remind me of George Costanza's dad!

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