Without dialogue, fiction would be pretty boring. Dialogue moves a story along. It reveals character, motivation, conflict, mood and tone. A page peppered with dialogue keeps your readers interested. Their eyes move down the page more quickly than when reading a page crammed with dense exposition.
Good dialogue in fiction imitates real dialogue. But what you hear in public is not what you would hear privately. If you are lucky enough to eavesdrop on a heated argument in a public place, get your note-book out and write it all down. In spite of the conflict you will still see that such an exchange is littered with oohs, aahs, ums, slang and expletives. Unless you are using such language to characterise one of your characters, don’t try to write that sort of dialogue in your fiction. You are aiming for mimicry but not exact mimicry.
For example, I recently overheard this:
“Yeah, you alright?”
“Yeah. Cold, innit.”
“Yeah. F…..n freezing.”
“Yeah. Tell me about it.”
“Got a light?”
“Yeah. Fancy a cuppa?”
“Nah. Got a fag?”
“Yeah. F…k it’s cold.”
“Yeah. Dunno about you but I’m freezin.”
This fascinating conversation took place outside a train station in London. It’s the type of exchange you hear a lot on London’s streets. Follow the two characters to their home and you might hear something entirely different and altogether riveting:
“Just got this bill from the gas.”
“It’s freezing in here too.”
“Yeah well, I can’t afford to turn the gas on.”
“How you gonna pay it? Have you found a job yet?”
“Went for three interviews last week. You’d think I was applying for a position with God the way they went on.”
“Mad, innit? I had the same problem when I went for mine.”
“Yeah, I know. When I walked into the interview room there were eight of them lined up with clipboards.”
“They want to know everything, eh? Even the colour of your underwear.”
“I felt like telling them to get f . . . . d, but I need the money.”
“What can you do, mate? If you want to eat you just have to put up with it.”
“I think you should try for something with the council.”
“You must be joking. What do you think I am, stupid?”
“I didn’t mean to offend you, mate – ”
“Yeah, well you’ve known me long enough to know I’d never stoop that low.”
Now it’s getting interesting. It’s so much more than a boring exchange about the weather. The reader can now glean quite a lot about who these characters are. When you introduce a problem it can lead to a conflict of interests, ideas, needs or desires, which can lead to disagreement and in some cases, all-out war. This is a simple example. Imagine your characters are a married couple and the wife has just found out her husband is having an affair with her best friend. They are at home where it’s private and they can more or less say what they like to one another. Behind closed doors in the privacy of a character’s home, people let their guard down. Street conversation is rarely that interesting. But that doesn’t mean that as a writer you don’t need to eavesdrop. You will still learn a lot from listening to other people’s conversations.
But wait! There is still something missing in the above exchange. There is nothing else happening but speech. In real life people move around when they speak, they scratch their nose or their head. Their eyes dart this way and that. They might cough, or blow their nose, or pull a face, laugh, cry, or sniff. In fiction when these actions are seamlessly scattered among dialogue they are called beats. Beats break up the dialogue and give the reader a mental picture of the characters in conversation. Not many people sit or stand completely still when they talk. Body language is important in real life. It is just as important in fiction. It can reveal character by showing nervousness, shyness, fear, hesitance, joy, hatred, love, admiration, disapproval, acceptance, rejection, and hundreds of other emotions. In other words, beats, or small actions, can relieve the monotony of dialogue, for even when dialogue is interesting it can still be tedious if it goes on too long without a beat. Aim for no more than three lines of dialogue, then include a beat.
Your characters have names – use them in dialogue when necessary, but don’t overuse them. And keep those speech tags – he said, she said – invisible. When you start trying to be clever with speech tags they draw attention to themselves and can signal amateur writing: he gasped, she intoned, he whispered, she screeched, he suggested, she spat, he screamed. All these are unnecessary. Let the dialogue tell the reader how the words are delivered. Show the anger your character is feeling by choosing words that convey that anger. If a character squares up to his or her opponent and the dialogue goes like this: “I hate the sight of you. Get out of my house, now!” it’s pretty clear that the person is angry. No need to add, he shouted angrily. Which brings me to adverbs. Angrily is an adverb. Adverbs are often attached to a speech tag: He said testily. She said softly. He said truthfully. She said warmly. Again, let the words convey the mood and emotions of the speaker. Ditch those adverbs! They weaken prose and talk down to the reader. Many writers get away with using lots of speech tags and adverbs, and they are successful authors. But a really good writer, a writer who isn’t lazy, will take the time to find active verbs, accurate adjectives and proper nouns to enliven their dialogue.
Let’s name the two characters in the above exchange, add a few beats and a few active verbs and proper nouns, and see what happens:
“What’s up?” Hal sat down at the kitchen table, which was littered with dirty dishes and moldy mugs. He reached into his duffle coat pocket, pulled out a pack of Marlboros, and lit one. He was about to place the packet on the table, had second thoughts, and returned them to his jacket pocket.
“Just got this bill from British Gas,” said Larry.
“It’s freezing in here.” Hal sucked hard on his cigarette and blew a long stream of smoke at the bare light bulb above the table. It swam around the cobwebs for a moment. Hal thought about offering his friend a cigarette, but knew if he did it would set a precedent and Larry would expect it every time they met.
“Yeah well, I can’t afford to turn the gas on.” Larry shuffled across the room and filled the kettle at the sink. He had to push the pile of dirty dishes to one side to manoeuvre the spout under the tap. They toppled and crashed across the bench. A cup fell on the floor and the handle broke off. He kicked it aside.
Hal raised one eyebrow. “How you gonna pay it?” He watched Larry search for two clean cups. There were none in the cupboard.
Larry returned to the sink and washed two with a filthy sponge. “Have you found a job yet?” he said.
“Went for three interviews last week,” said Hal. “You’d think I was applying for a position with God the way they went on.”
“Yeah, I know.” Larry poured boiling water into the cups and dipped the two tea bags up and down with delicate precision. “When I walked into the interview room at Krunch Kreme Biscuits yesterday there were eight people lined up with clipboards, all waiting to ask me questions.”
“They want to know everything, eh?” Hal sighed. He took another long drag on his cigarette and stubbed it out in a mound of leftover tinned spaghetti. “Even the colour of your underwear.”
“I felt like telling them to get f . . . . d, but I need the money.” Larry slurped his tea and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“What can you do, mate? If you want to eat you just have to put up with it.”
“I think you should try for something with the council,” said Larry.
“You must be joking.” Hal gave his friend a sharp look. “What do you think I am, stupid?”
“I didn’t mean to offend you, mate – ”
“Yeah, well you’ve known me long enough to know I’d never stoop that low.” Hal shrugged one shoulder and sniffed.
I think you’ll agree that by adding a few beats – small actions interspersed among the dialogue – this conversation is now much more revealing and interesting. To make it easier for you, I’ve highlighted the beats in red. We can now see more clearly who these men are. Of course there’s more to them than this, but it’s a start. We know they are unemployed and struggling. They are probably bachelors who have little interest in housework. Their diet is probably poor. Note that the beats include active verbs. There are other active verbs in this exchange, which I have highlighted in blue. Active verbs bring prose to life.
Next time you are talking to someone watch what they do as they speak. Take a note, if you can, of how many small actions they perform. Start a list of beats that you can use in your writing. Use them sparingly, otherwise your character will be jumping all over the place like a jitterbug. If your character is a jittery person, that’s different. Think about the character you wish to convey. Is he a quiet, thoughtful man who moves slowly, or a nervous wreck who can’t sit still? Small actions, or beats, dialogue, facial expressions, thoughts – all these can reveal the sort of person you are writing about. They reveal character and as such are vital to piecing together a mental picture for your reader and showing the motivation behind what they say or do.
A useful exercise you can try for yourself is to write down a piece of dialogue from your favourite novel and leave out the beats. You will quickly see how much is lost and how the dialogue is weakened by the loss of those all-important beats.
Another trick to writing good dialogue is to have your characters give oblique replies to a question or comment. By that I mean, don’t let your character answer a question or comment directly. Get them to say something that is unrelated to the topic of conversation. This can create tension and lead to conflict. This is particularly effective when one person is avoiding an important emotionally-charged issue:
“Where were you last night?” Toby sat up in bed and stared at his wife.
Julia walked across to the window and stood staring out at the fields beyond the front gate.
“The lawn needs mowing,” she said. “Would you do it later, darling?”
“What’s that mark on your neck?” Toby leaned forward and narrowed his eyes.
“You might need to change the blade. Oh, and while you’re at it, can you prune that rose by the back gate?”
These two characters are playing a game of avoidance. The dialogue is oblique. We know that any minute someone is going to blow their top. It might be Toby. He wants to know where his wife has been, and rightly so. Julia wants him to mow the lawn. But is that her real motivation? We already know she doesn’t want to come clean about her whereabouts. Perhaps he’s a lazy type and she’s so fed up that she’s gone off and found someone new. Our interest is heightened because their game of avoidance has created tension. That tension is going to quickly lead to conflict. Conflict in fiction keeps the reader enthralled. They want to find out what happens and who is going to win the battle that is unfolding.
Finally, take a look at some of your favourite books. See if you can work out the percentage of dialogue, roughly, compared to the percentage of exposition. A good rule of thumb for a more commercial novel is to aim for 60 percent dialogue and 40 percent exposition. That creates a good balance and will keep your reader motivated to finish the book. Of course, the dialogue has to be good, it has to sparkle, and it must reveal character and motivation. A word of warning: don’t use dialogue simply to convey information. It can come across as contrived:
“Do you think your marriage will last?” said Rita.
“I don’t know,” replied Harriet. “It’s hard to say, given that we were married five years ago last Monday the 23rd June at a couples resort in Jamaica, and Darren had just been divorced after twenty years of marriage to Marianne, and I’d just broken up with Taylor after living with him in a flat in Brixton for six years.”
“I see. It’s a bit like me and Josh. Married for seven years then next thing you know he is offered a job in Houston and we have to put our house on the market with Foxton’s estate agents and sell all our furniture on Ebay for next-to-nothing.”
Sometimes as a writer you will be tempted to tell the reader everything all at once, and dialogue can seem an easy way to do so. Don’t fall into the trap of verbosity! Less is more. Leave some ‘space’ around the words for the reader to ‘fill in’ with their own imagination. Readers don’t need to know everything. People don’t talk like that in real life or fiction. Focus on what is happening now in the story. If you feel that certain information is important to move the story forward, reveal it in snippets, not all at once, and definitely not all through dialogue, or it will sound like a long, boring list of recollections or facts. That is what exposition and flashbacks are for. But that’s another story, and something I will cover in another post . . .
Meanwhile, put your Dialogue Detective hat on and stop, listen, and look at the people around you. You will start to notice those all-important beats when people are speaking. And you will hear some interesting conversations in public places, but they will rarely be personal. Read work by writers who respect their reader’s intelligence and imagination, authors like the late Raymond Carver who had the courage to delete anything superfluous and give the reader only what mattered to move the story along. You have to be ruthless about this. Don’t be afraid of the delete button. If you think something is unnecessary but you’re not quite sure, cut and paste that segment and save it in a special “maybe file’ for later. When you watch a television drama take note of how little speech there is and how much action, large and small, there is in between. Not many people pontificate for long stretches of time unless they are giving a speech. A verbatim speech in a novel is boring unless it absolutely vital to the plot and to revealing character. For instance, if a novel included a famous speech by someone like Martin Luther King, or Hitler, Stalin, or a famous Hollywood star, it would probably keep the reader’s attention. But not many people have the to ability to capture an audience’s concentration when they give a long speech. You only have to watch the Oscars to see that. A few brief words is enough from each winner and the audience begins to get restless.
Likewise in fiction brevity is the key. Keep the story moving forward with dialogue that tells the reader who that person is and what is motivating them, and do so using as few words as possible, so that the story is lively and captivating.
I try to leave out the parts that people skip. ~Elmore Leonard