Sunday, April 01, 2007

10 Tips for Writing Great Dialog (part II)

read part I first

part II

6. Vary your cadence and pacing

Different people think differently. Different people present differently. Make it so when different characters are speaking.

John Abel stood at the threshold of the kitchen, glancing down at the old woman's body. He shook his head, gave a sigh, and whistled as if he were summoning Lassie.

In a moment, officer Mieser strode through the front door behind him. "'s'up, Sarge?"

"You see anything strange about this body? Or is it just me?"

Mieser made a cartoonish popping sound with his lips as he looked down at the woman, considering the question. "Um. Beyond the dead part?"

"Yeah. That's what would be helpful to me. Looking beyond the dead part."

More popping then, and a furrowed brow, before a shrug. "Stumped me."

"Look at the back of Ms. Cromwell's legs."

Squinting now, then a mumbled "Hmm. Pooled blood under the skin. Like she crapped out somewhere--"

"Like she died somewhere else and was moved here?"

Mieser grinned as if he'd just solved a riddle in the Sunday Mini Page. "You got eyes, Sarge."

7. Make your women and men sound different

This is a corollary to the preceding tip.

As much as I'm sure it disappoints the psychiatric and sociological crowd weened on the 60's, men and women are fundamentally, irretrievably, god-blessedly different. And that should show up in your dialog.

In the following, you'd be hard pressed to divine, without the help of clear names, that you were listening to a man and a woman.

"Could you please pull off at the next rest stop? My bladder is screaming for mercy. All that Diet Coke did me in."

Character-B nodded and gave an understanding smile. "My teeth are floating, too. Why didn't you say something earlier?"

"I really didn't want to slow this train any. I know how excited you are to see Graceland."

"Don't be silly. When nature calls, you've got no choice but to heed the summons."

Here's a take that actually has the sex of the speakers baked in.

"Could you please pull off at the next rest stop? My bladder is screaming for mercy. All that Diet Coke did me in."

Character-B nodded and gave a resigned shrug. "I'm tasting piss, too. Was hoping to ignore it to death."

"Well, you let me know where that adventure takes you. As for me, I'd like to make use of the rest stop."

Another shrug from Character-B before, "I guess Elvis'll still be dead after I've drained the snake."

I'm not saying, or even implying, that men have to be crude and women genteel. Rather, I am saying that your men and women should talk in distinctly different ways.

8. Give the dialog breathing room

Depending on where you are in the drama of a conversation, you may need to back off with some fitting description, not so much for what the description, itself, means, but to allow tension to build, to allow the dialog to have a meaningful rhythm.

In a shameless lift from the novel I'm currently working on, two late-teen brothers, Aidan and Luke, are riding in the back of a pickup driven by their father.

“You know the woman who showed up at the house yesterday?”

“Not carnally, no. But I’m aware of her. Why?”

“Dad’s having an affair with her.”

When Luke said nothing in response, Aidan allowed the silence to hang there.
He studied his brother’s face, trying to gauge what form his anger would take, trying to divine how the shock would manifest itself, what his next words would be.

Eventually, Luke began to shake his head. And then he began to laugh. It was a mirthless, bitter sound. “That’s the shocking revelation? Dad’s porking yet another stupid broad?”

9. Don't engage in mundane pleasantries

"Hello, Harold," Gertrude said.

"Morning, Gert. Enjoying this fine weather we're having?"

"Indeed. It's a change I find I quite like."

Harold took a slow breath of the fresh, damp spring air. "I'm beginning to believe that I even sleep better for it."

Please, before I brain myself with a nose-inserted ice-pick, get on with the story. These kind of pleasantries matter in real life. In a story, let the characters be polite enough to dispose of this stuff off-screen.

10. Forget reality

Writers, when faced with some level of criticism, love to fall back on "But that's how it really happened," imagining this to be their trump card. It's not. I only care how it really happened to the extent that it's dramatic.

Real life is free, books aren't. And real life, mostly, is a yawn-fest.

Character talk is smarter, stupider, pithier, funnier, more ridiculous than real-life talk. Don't be fooled by some half-baked allegiance to verisimilitude.

The reality defense has two different permutations. In the first case--not really related to dialog, but interesting anyway--the writer uses it to defend a horribly improbable event coming with equally improbable timing. But the meteor really did bonk Ernest on the head and restore his site on the very same spot he lost his vision to lightning 34 years before. No. No. No. If the meteor has come to save the day, you may not pass Go.

The dialog-related sin has to do with a slavish attempt to replicate real human speech.

Karl muscled his way up to the bar and sat beside Phillis with a pained grunt. "Holly cow. Good Jesus. It's hot. Hot, hot, hot!"

She looked at him and seemed to lean away from his sweating mass.

"Hottest day of the year, easy. Gotta be 105, 106. Fire season come early." He motioned toward the TV hung on the wall. "How long you imagine 'til some God Damn firebug gets his business plastered all over the TV up there? Hot as it is?"

She shrugged without enthusiasm. "I have no idea, Karl. Can't think of it. Real soon, I'd guess. You're're right about the hot part."

"How's your momma doin' in all this heat? Airconditionin' keepin' up for her?"

"Ah, I guess. As far as I know. She hasn't called to complain. It is hot over to her place, I'll have to admit."

"You want me to come over'n have a look at her air conditioner? Maybe see if a little Karl TLC will help keep the old gal cool? Wouldn't want her gettin' into trouble in this heat."

"That would be real nice, Karl. I'm sure she'd appreciate the help."

"Okay then. It's a deal. A woman like that shouldn't be left to her own devices in this kinda heat."

Yeah. Okay. We get it already. It's hot. Karl is, unfortunately, more interesting than most characters engaged in this kind of droning inanity.

Additionally, the stuttering and the false starts have got to go.

Dialog needs to move with more precision than this. It needs to be more concise. This is particularly true if the topic of the dialog--in this case the heat--isn't central to the story you're telling.


Praney Deb said...

hey there.. great article.. just what i needed.. wish you luck unless you are already world famous and have abandoned this post.. cheers

Trevor Hambric said...

Thanks, Praney, for the kind words. Really glad to know if anything I've written was helpful.

I haven't exactly abandoned, but have certainly neglected, this post. I'll be reviving it in some form , somewhere soon.

Dark Angel said...

Great post. Very informative. I'll add a link to it on my blog. :-)

Trevor Hambric said...

Thanks, Dark Angel. I appreciate the link. I'll check out your blog soon. Happy (and fruitful) writing.