September 03, 2012

What makes great dialogue?

A couple of weeks ago I published something on Amazon's 'So you'd like to ... ' function. This is an opportunity for anyone to make out they're an expert on anything under the sun and then tell others what to do. Never one to pass up that kind of chance, I thought I'd put something together on dialogue, which is a feature of writing and reading that I spend a lot of time thinking about. Here's the piece - it's a bit long for a blog post, so settle down and get a cup of tea or coffee first ...

What makes great dialogue?

We all know what dialogue is – it’s the writing between the quotation marks. It represents what characters are saying to each other, or sometimes to themselves.

So what differentiates ordinary, run-of-the-mill dialogue from great dialogue? Dialogue that makes us laugh, reflect, get excited or get involved?

Let’s look at some examples. First:

"Yeah, I know. Anyway, it doesn't look like I'll be doing much more of that for a while," he grunted. "Matter of fact, it doesn't look like I'll be doing much of anything for a while." That drew a smile. It was good to see her smile.   
"Fine. You're supposed to conserve your energy. Maybe this'll teach you a lesson -- and don't tell me about all those strange hotel beds going to waste." She squeezed his hand. Her smile turned impish. "We'll probably work something out in a few weeks. How do I look?"   
 "Like hell." Jack laughed quietly. "I take it the doc was a somebody?"   
He saw his wife relax a little. "You might say that. Sir Charles Scott is one of the best orthopods in the world. He trained Professor Knowles --he did a super job on you. You're lucky to have an arm at all, you know --my God!"   
 "Easy, babe. I'm going to live, remember?"   
"I know, I know."   
"It's going to hurt, isn't it?"   
Another smile. "Just a bit. Well. I've got to put Sally down. I'll be back tomorrow."

Here a husband and wife talk just after the husband has narrowly escaped death and almost lost an arm.  However, the dialogue remains at a superficial level: Jack tells his wife things she already knows – that he’ll be out of operation for a while – while she responds by telling him about the surgeon and expressing her wifely shock at how close he came to losing a limb.

Moreover, they give each cues that continue the dialogue: “How do I look?”, “I take it the doc was a somebody?”, “I’m going to live, remember?” and “It’s going to hurt, isn’t it?”. This is a simple way of forcing the dialogue to continue. Question and answer. It sounds natural enough but is fundamentally weak as a tactic. The dialogue becomes a game of tennis – serve and return – and reveals nothing about character or plot progression.

Let’s compare it with this:

Helen hooked her thumbs in her coat pockets. She lifted her chin. Cashin saw the tendons in her throat. He could feel his heartbeat.
‘Hungry?’ she said.
‘Your eyes,’ said Cashin. ‘Did you inherit that?’
‘My grandmother had different coloured eyes.’ She half-turned from him. ‘You were a person of interest at school. I like that term. Person of interest.’
‘That’s a lie. You never noticed me.’
‘You looked so hostile. Glowering. You still glower. Something sexy about a glower.
‘How do you glower?’
‘Don’t question your gift.’ Helen crossed the space and took his head in her hands, kissed him, drew back. ‘Not too responsive,’ she said. ‘Are cops intimate on the first date?’
Cashin put his hands inside her coat, held her, inhaled her smell, felt her ribs. She was thinner than he expected. He shivered. ‘Cops generally don’t have second dates.’

Here the couple are flirting – there’s more unspoken than is actually in the dialogue. So when Cashin says, ‘Your eyes [...] Did you inherit that?’ and the woman says ‘Something sexy about a glower’, they’re not being direct with each other, not saying: ‘I like your eyes’ and ‘I think you’re sexy’. They’re being oblique and indirect. This adds to the tension because we can guess at what’s going on beneath the surface without being told in so many words.

And that’s one of the differences between good and great dialogue – great dialogue makes you do part of the work. It doesn’t lay out everything for you so that there’s nothing to think about. It offers mystery and contradiction and sometimes even dissembles – saying one thing but actually meaning another.

The use of conflict 


 I couldn’t see his eyes behind his shades, but when he turned his head toward me, I knew he had caught the sharpness in my voice. “The feds are working those homicides in Jeff Davis Parish. Or at least they say they are. They’re talking about a serial killer. But I don’t buy it.”
“Let it go, Clete.”
“My bail skip was twenty-one years old. She’d had tracks on her arms since she was thirteen. She deserved something more out of life than being left in a rain ditch with all her bones broken.”
When I didn’t reply, he took off his shades and stared at me. The skin around his eyes looked unnaturally white. “Say it.”
“I’ve got nothing to say,” I replied.
“Rumdum PI’s don’t get involved in official investigations?”
“I went over to Mississippi and interviewed a brother of one of the victims. I also talked to Herman Stanga.”
“I came up with nothing that could be called helpful.”
“So you’re dropping it?”
“It’s out of my jurisdiction.”
“Meaning it’s automatically out of mine?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you thought it.”
“Only three of the seven dead girls and women are certifiable homicides, Clete. There’s no telling how the others died. Drug overdoses, hit-and-run accidents, suicide, God only knows.”
“Only three, huh?”
“You know what I meant.”
“Right,” he said. He put his shades back on and got in his Caddy, twisting the key hard in the ignition.
“Don’t leave like this.”
“Go back inside and fight with your family, Streak. Sometimes you really put me in the dumps.”

In this example, Clete is Dave Robicheaux’s best friend and sometime partner, and yet they still argue and fall out. There’s conflict in the scene that concludes when Clete gets in his car and drives away. And notice that when questions are asked here, they’re not automatically answered:

“Rumdum PI’s don’t get involved in official investigations?”
“I went over to Mississippi and interviewed a brother of one of the victims. I also talked to Herman Stanga.”

The ‘call and response’ of the first example doesn’t appear here – each character has their own train of thought and pursues it. If a question is asked that they can answer and still be true to their thought-process, then they will. But usually they’ll continue saying what was on their mind without apparently hearing the question.

Note also how this passage of dialogue furthers the plot: Clete is able to tell us about the bail-skip that he was tracking down, and about the seven dead women. It also shows us the different attitudes towards these dead women – Clete is personally offended by the attitude of law-enforcement, while Robicheaux understands the legalities surrounding the case: “It’s out of my jurisdiction.”

Writing Great Dialogue

Having examined some examples of what great dialogue looks like, how do you write it?

Perhaps there are a few rules to begin with:

1. When constructing your scenes, try to discover what conflict there would be between your characters. It’s not enough for one person to be giving another some information. What’s each character’s attitude towards that information? Perhaps the teller is thinking ‘I told you so’ or ‘Don’t argue with me, I know better’. And perhaps the person who’s listening is thinking, ‘I don’t like your tone of voice’ or ‘I don’t believe any of this, so I’m going to dismiss it’ or perhaps ‘Hurry up and get it out, this is boring’.

So write your scenes being aware of the submerged conflict that is probably going on beneath the surface. It doesn’t mean that every scene must be a shouting match, but that the differences of opinion that undoubtedly lurk between your characters can be allowed to surface occasionally. It may emerge as sarcasm, or as ignoring something the other person says, or being blunt with them. But to have two or more characters being perfectly agreeable with each other is tedious to read and, frankly, just as boring to write.

2. Allied to this is the fact that characters should never tell each other information that they both would know – in other words, saying it just for the reader’s benefit. This is ‘CSI Syndrome’, where the experts tell each other about the properties of certain chemicals so that we can follow their train of thought. This kind of thinking out loud is banal and unsubtle. If done too often, readers will cotton on to the fact that they’re being spoon-fed information and stop paying attention. If necessary, find a way of using your own authorial voice to transmit the information, or use reported speech to summarise what your characters are saying.

3. Avoid ‘call and response’ dialogue. It’s easy to write and seems as if the conversation is flowing ... but actually it’s uninteresting and tells us nothing about the characters or their thought processes. Again, they’re acting as stooges so that the author can get into the open the information that she or he wants you to know.

4. In fact, as far as possible, have your characters avoid answering direct questions. This is admittedly difficult when people are being interviewed or interrogated, but normal conversation between people is full of occasions where one person answers the question that the other person didn’t ask. Or indeed answers the next question. Instead of:

                “Have you seen James?”
                “No, why?”
                “I thought he was going to be here today.”

                Perhaps this:

                “Have you seen James?”
                “If he comes today it’ll be a miracle.”

This is far punchier and moves the story along more quickly than the call and response approach.

5. Omit introductions and politeness unless you really need them to demonstrate character. Instead of:

                “Hello, I’m James,” he said.
                She replied, “Pleased to meet you. I’m Patsy.”


                He introduced himself to her.
                “James?” she said. “I had an uncle called James.”
                “I doubt we’re related.”
                “He used to say, ‘Patsy, never give a sucker an even break.’”
                “And do you live by that?”
                “In spades. Have you met my personal trainer ... ?”

This is indeed longer, but contains more character information than the four lines of the first example – and readers are interested in interesting characters.

6. Don’t get tied up using interesting verbs and qualifiers to describe the dialogue: he mused, he yelled, he whispered, he hesitated, he stammered. Or: she said defiantly, she answered brilliantly, she replied craftily.

More often than not, ‘said’ and ‘asked’ are sufficient. The point about quotation marks around the dialogue is that they separate what’s said from how it’s said, and the reader focuses on those words as though they’re actually spoken by real people – they become really real in the reader’s head. When you use interesting or complex qualifiers, the reader is jolted away from the reality of the spoken words and becomes, briefly, aware of the ‘fictional’ nature of what she or he is reading. It breaks the spell. ‘Said’ and ‘asked’ are neutral and the reader’s eye glides over them without taking in their meaning. The reader isn’t asked to think about somebody ‘whispering’ or ‘musing’ or ‘suggesting’ – he or she just hears the words in the dialogue. In effect, dialogue tags are only there to identify who is speaking and to break up the dialogue to give it rhythm. Identifying how something was said is more information than is necessary – the dialogue itself should indicate to us the mood or feelings of the speaker.


Writing great dialogue is hard ... but it’s easy at the same time. It’s hard because you really have to know your characters, their thought processes, and what’s important to them. You have to have your antennae switched on all the time for the false note, for the call and response, for the line that’s just transferring information between characters.

On the other hand, it’s easy because it can be fun. Once you understand the techniques – look for the conflict, make your characters refuse to answer questions and speak in a way that characterises them – then writing dialogue is not a chore and it’s not a cheap way to fill up the pages: it’s an entertaining and creative process that makes you glad that you’re a writer – someone who makes things up.

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