Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Plumping Up Dialogue

In celebration of multiple signs from the universe that I need to tighten up my pacing and set some better hooks at end of my chapters, I'm studying. Today I'm sharing what I've gathered about convincing dialogue.

My favorite dialogue movies are very revealing about what I value: wit. "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?," and "Clue," "Real Genius," and "Napoleon Dynamite". TV shows would be "Seinfeld", of course, "The Simpsons", "Burn Notice," and "Castle."

It's a wonder my characters ever have anything serious to say.

As with all writing, the first rule is to revise. As far as I know all good dialogue must be revised no less than twenty times. Maybe that number varies, but good dialogue doesn't just happen. It takes a lot of work.

Here're my current dialogue guidelines. Please add anything in the comments that has helped you.

  1. Don't have the characters say anything they both know. "Look, he's dead." That kind of thing. Never say "As you know, Jim, my pet zebra escaped last week..." Have you tried to use this in real conversation? People get annoyed really fast. It's kind of fun.
  2. Don't go on and on. Or even just on. It might be one of your character's quirks to be longwinded, but be aware that the reader will likely skim! "But Tom Clancy still got published!" you protest. I know. He did, so did Ayn Rand and tons of other writers. I skim those books. A lot.
  3. Use dialogue to reveal character. Sure, sometimes dialogue will be necessary to move the plot, but that's not its main purpose. Dialogue is for the reader to get to know the characters. The beats and action are to move the plot.
  4. Have characters at odds with each other as much as possible. Not necessarily fighting, but they can't want exactly the same thing. Otherwise, what are they talking for? They could be doing whatever it is that they are in perfect agreement upon. Thus...
  5. A major purpose of communication is to persuade people to do what we want. 
  6. Other purposes of communication are information sharing. I'd suggest keeping this type of dialogue to a minimum in a novel. It's great for real life, though.
  7. Another purpose is establishing levels of intimacy. Word choice and levels of playfulness are mutaully agreed upon in the art of conversation, and that can be fun to read, especially when the characters are uncertain about the other person's goals or they have conflicting expectations. Think every romance novel ever written. It doesn't have to be romantic intimacy, though. All relationships have a level of intimacy.
  8. Listen, listen, listen, but don't write the way people talk. You want to distill normal conversation into a more compact, clever, and conflicted version of real life. I might talk to a friend for an hour in real life, but if it takes more than fifteen seconds to read that dialogue, we'd better have saved the planet! 
  9. Never have your character trying to accomplish the exact same thing with a second line. Have their goals change with the conversation, in reaction to the other person's responses. People usually escalate when they're blocked. Or they try another angle. Or they...you get it. Don't let them bore the reader. The reader wants to see what they'll try next, not what they just tried. "Story" by Robert McKee has a great chapter on this. It's a screenwriting book, but well worth reading.
That's what I've got. I'm also reviewing my copy of "Longman's Guide to Intermediate and Advanced Fiction Writing", and it's very good, also. (Both of these books I previewed at the library before buying, so I don't recommend them lightly.)

What dialogue moves you? Where do you go when you want to be amazed by dialogue? Books can have some good dialogue, too! lol "The Queen's Thief" series by Megan Whalen Turner has very clever dialogue. And Kathryn Magendie has great regional dialogue, especially if you want to look at a Southern twist. She goes way beyond throwing a ya'll in. Her blog is lots of fun, so check her out. When I first met her online, I commented on how much I enjoyed her dialogue, and she said that it had not been easy and seemed delighted. So, there's hope for all of us. Work hard, revise and rerevise, and you can have sharp, believeable dialogue that brings your characters to life.

I hope you enjoy the links; I'm trying to be less lazy in my blogging.
Finally, here's one of my favorite moments from Clue. Enjoy!

I have to go back to making Play-Doh snakes and eating salty blue spaghetti with the kiddoes now. Happy Writing!


  1. Amazing tips! I need to bookmark this page for future reference actually. So thanks!

  2. Great tips, Kelly! I loved what Lisa Mannetti suggested once suggested about dialogue and that was to read it out loud and act it out. It's really a super way to see if the dialogue is working.

    By the way, the best movie in the world for dialogue is Dangerous Liaisons, BUT you might find it a bit, um, intense?

    And that is a great tip to study books on how to write screenplays. The dialogue has to carry a movie, so they usually have the best tips.

  3. Thanks Colene. I'm glad to be able to help. There's so much information out there, it gets kind of overwhelming.

    And Teresa- thanks for the re-post on FB and for the tip. Reading dialogue out loud is very ear-opening.

    Dangerous Liasions is beyond my comfort zone, but there are the occasional dramas with good writing;) I just remember movies that make me laugh more.

  4. Elmore Leonard is, IMO, the master of dialogue. He can just about write a whole novel in nothing but dialogue, and without attribution, because he's so good at making it clear who's speaking by what they say and how they say it. If you really want to see dialogue used as the primary tool, check out any of his books.

  5. Alex- thanks for the recommendation. I'll check him out. Headed to library web site right now...

  6. LOVE Clue!

    Great ideas! I definitely am the worst with dialogue so thats something I need to work at.

  7. Great tips, Kelly. Natural-sounding dialogue that's also witty and engaging is definitely one of the toughest things to write.

    CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS (the movie, not the picture book, since I've never read it) has some fantastic dialogue. Even when the writers use dialogue to communicate information (like how that crazy machine worked), the characters still do so in a way that builds their character at the same time.

  8. Abby- Yay! No one else I know loves Clue the way I do. Except maybe my sisters.

    Thanks Krista- I've never seen CWACOM. We have the book, though, and it's cute. I'll check that out with the kiddoes. I didn't mean to imply that characterization is the ONLY thing to use dialogue for, but I do think that too often writers will use dialogue to advance plot and totally forget about building character. thanks for stopping by!

  9. Thanks for visiting my blog. Nice ta meet ya Kelly!

  10. Thanks for the visit Matt. Nice to meet you, too!