Monday, March 26, 2007

10 Tips for Writing Great Dialog (part I)

  1. Don't always speak directly to the problem

    Stackhouse stared at Monique through those inscrutable wraparound sunglasses, a face-splitting grin on his face. "I'll be getting that money back now, Nique. You can bet your bootylicious ass on that."

    For her part, Monique was shaking visibly, tied naked to the chair as she was. "I don't know what you're talking about."

    With a shake of the head--he'd known this absurdity was coming--Stackhouse strode across the room and kicked the chair out from under his star. "I know you been working with Lansky. So cut the crap."

    The direct approach works well enough, as far as it goes. But if it's the only approach you take in your storytelling, you miss many opportunities to surprise your reader. They will know pretty well ahead of time exactly how the scene's going to play.

    Instead, at least occasionally, try the oblique approach.

    Stackhouse stared at Monique through those inscrutable wraparound sunglasses, a face-splitting grin on his face. "How's everything goin', Nique? You look kinda uncomfy in that chair."

    For her part, Monique was shaking visibly, tied naked to the chair as she was. "I don't don't even know why they brought me..."

    With a shake of the head--he'd known this absurdity was coming--Stackhouse strode across the room and kicked the chair out from under his star. "That better?" He took his shades off and folded them at his side. "Did you know I fed Lansky's balls to my dog last night?"

    "What?" She looked terribly uncomfortable now. "What?"


    "You got something you want to tell me, Monique?"



  2. Don't put tags too late in the dialog

    It's easy, and common, to put the tag too late in the sentence for it to have its intended affect--and late enough to make the sentence awkward.

    "I'm not talking about the fishing boat, for crying out loud. I'm talking about the three dead guys who got tossed off it. I'm talking about corpses floating in the Pacific," Inspector Swann said.

    If there's a chance that we readers actually need a tag to guide us, this one comes too late. We've been confused about the dialog, or may have attributed it to the wrong character, for too long.

    Try:

    "I'm not talking about the fishing boat, for crying out loud," Inspector Swann said. "I'm talking about the three dead guys who got tossed off it. I'm talking about corpses floating in the Pacific."

    Or, perhaps better still...

    Inspector Swann dropped his cigarrette and ground it into the gravel. "I'm not talking about the fishing boat, for crying out loud. I'm talking about the three dead guys who got tossed off it. I'm talking about corpses floating in the Pacific."

  3. Eliminate stupid tags

    Don't have your characters expostulate, ejaculate, enthuse (please, please, please--it's not even a word), or proclaim.

    Use 'he said,' 'she asked,' and eliminate the rest of it.

    "Won't you please fly down there, Harold?" Gertrude exhorted. "I think our children's lives may depend upon it."

    Instead, do this...

    "Won't you please fly down there, Harold?" Gertrude asked. "I think our children's lives may depend upon it."

    Or this...

    "Won't you please fly down there, Harold?" Gertrude glanced out the window at the rain, closed her eyes briefly before continuing. "I think our children's lives may depend upon it."

  4. Go tagless when you can make it work

    Straight tags--meaning 'he said/she said'--have a thankless job. All they're good for is attribution. So why not, when it's possible, eliminate the wastage altogether?

    "Did you see that little dog, the Jack Russell?" Layla asked.

    "Yes," Paul said. "Appeared to be humping Father McGreggor's leg."

    "Very uncomfortable," she said.


    "Quite," he said.

    In some cases, eliminating the straight tag will require an action tag.

    Layla froze mid-sentence, her mouth hanging open. "Did you see that little dog, the Jack Russell?"

    "Yes. Appeared to be humping Father McGreggor's leg."

    After blinking twice, she remembered to close her mouth. "Very uncomfortable."

    Paul gave a faint grin. "Quite."

    In others, when the rhythm just works, you can skip tags altogether.

    Layla froze mid-sentence, her mouth hanging open. "Did you see that little dog, the Jack Russell?"

    "Yes. Appeared to be humping Father McGreggor's leg."

    "Very uncomfortable."

    "Quite."

  5. Don't let characters teach each other things they already know

    For example, follow the exploits of two brainy zoologists investigating an apparent burglary at the zoo.

    "As you know, Chase, for a monkey-flung turd to reach window-breaking velocity, the primate must have developed an arm strength equivalent to Nolan Ryan squared times 1.115 per second/per second."

    "Of course." Chase nodded sagely. "Of course."

    If they both know this stuff, why in God's name are they saying it to each other?

    Instead, get clever.

    The two men examined the broken glass a moment before Chase whistled with a wary sort of respect. "How many monkeys do you know who can hurl a turd twice as fast as Nolan Ryan?"

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