Image: Matthew Loffhagen
It’s really, really easy to write dialogue. One person says something, the other person replies, and with an end goal in mind you gently steer them in the right direction. The problem is that it’s really, really hard to write dialogue that other people want to read.
In real life, people can take their time getting to the point. There are things like tone, facial expression, and funny haircuts to distract you if things get boring. But if speech drags on the page, the reader is forced to slog through it, or to skip ahead and risk missing something important.
So what’s the difference between enjoyable dialogue and the kind readers dread? Quite a lot, but it all starts with the realization that…
Real dialogue is awful
Real conversation is no friend to writers. It’s an incredibly complex system of communication that relies on hearing, seeing, and volumes worth of context. There’s simply no way to commit that to paper.Real conversation is no friend to writers when writing dialogue.Click To Tweet
If you’re not convinced, there’s a simple exercise you can try: go sit in a public place, a coffee shop for instance, and transcribe someone’s conversation. You only need to do it for a minute, but try and get it down verbatim. Now put your transcript away and don’t come back to it for three days.
What you’ll find on your return is a string of false starts, hesitation noises, and banal digressions. Those people understood each other, and yet a written account of their conversation barely makes sense to a reader and certainly isn’t interesting (unless you happened across some particularly juicy gossip).
So how does this realization help authors to write engrossing dialogue? By telling us that…
All dialogue is expressionist dialogue
When writing dialogue, the intent is never to recreate realism, but to create the illusion of realism. You’ll never get anywhere trying to ‘write how people talk’. The starting point for great dialogue has to be the emotions it engenders. Imagine how the conversation would really go and write down the important impressions it leaves you with. Apart from the facts contained in the conversation, what does the dialogue tell you? The status relationship of the speakers? Personality traits such as cockiness, intelligence, or flirtatiousness?When writing dialogue, the intent is never to recreate realism, but to create the illusion of realism.Click To Tweet
Write out a list of what the dialogue needs to convey to the reader. This, rather than a recreation of real people talking, is the goal. To make dialogue ‘believable’ you have to communicate these impressions as exactly as possible, but your characters don’t have to talk like real people.
In Bread, Ed McBain writes a brilliant interrogation scene as a detective tries to determine why a suspect travelled to Germany.
“Did Diamondback Development send you there?”
“Did Roger Grimm?”
“I never heard of Roger Grimm.”
“Did you take money to Germany?”
“Money? What do you mean? Of course, I took money.”
“Enough for expenses. In traveller’s checks.”
“I forget. A little more than a thousand, I think.”
“Did you spend it all?”
“No, not all of it.”
“Then you’ve still got traveller’s checks you didn’t cash, is that right?”
“Well… yes, I suppose so. Maybe I did spend all of it.”
“Did you or didn’t you?”
“Yes, I spent all of it.”
When was the last time you heard a real conversation, especially one with so many questions and answers, where the conversation went Speaker A, Speaker B, Speaker A, Speaker B? There are no interruptions, false starts, or self-corrections. The only hesitation, ‘well… yes, I suppose so’, is almost ludicrously well spoken (realistic dialogue would be 70% ‘um’s).
And yet it doesn’t matter. The important elements of the dialogue are the fast pace and the tenacity of the detective. The characters don’t talk over each other because curt questions better communicate to the reader the important impressions of the scene. The suspect says just that little bit more than she needs to, ‘Money? What do you mean? Of course, I took money’, because the detective’s power is shown by his control of the conversation. In an interrogation, verbosity is weakness. This is why the detective just asks about the amount of money taken, and why the suspect answers with an amount, the form of the money taken, and is then forced to expand on the amount. The seemingly unnecessary time spent on this phrase is in fact a blatant representation of the power dynamic in the scene. Everything about this conversation is designed to a) impart factual information to the reader while b) communicating the intended mood of the scene.
This is what is meant by expressionist dialogue: dialogue which is nothing like real speech, but is so tailored to express a deeper truth that it somehow feels more genuine than real speech.
Of course knowing that your goal is accurate mood rather than accurate wording is only half the battle, the rest is down to…
As the goal is not the literal truth of what the characters say but rather the content of their conversation and the impression it leaves the reader with, then it follows that the less dialogue you use the better.
After all, the words aren’t doing much on their own. No, the jackpot lies in selling the impression of the scene, advancing the plot, and then getting out of there before the reader has time to question things.
Of course this doesn’t mean that your dialogue has to be short, only that it should be the minimum length for its purpose. The above scene from Bread goes on for eleven pages, but that’s because the impression McBain wants to give is of a detective slowly unpicking a suspect’s lies. A real police interrogation would fill tens of pages, and yet because eleven pages is a long stretch of dialogue for a book the reader comes away with the impression of a realistic interview. ‘He wore her down’ they might think with satisfaction, not considering for a moment that if the dialogue played out exactly in real life the detective would have ‘worn’ the suspect down in a little under three minutes.Your dialogue should be the minimum length for its purpose.Click To Tweet
Your dialogue can be as long as you want. It can contain tangents galore, but you have to be able to account for their presence. What is their purpose? If your answer doesn’t amount to more than ‘they make it feel like a real conversation’ then that’s not good enough. McBain makes three minutes of dialogue feel like a three hour grilling, and that’s because he focuses on the impression rather than the reality.
Conversely, in Raising SteamTerry Pratchett has the Queen of the Dwarves (whose gender was a secret, and has caused challenges to the throne) address her advisor Albrecht. The Queen is asserting her dominance, assuring Albrecht and the reader that she is in charge.
Albrecht snorted and said, “There should have been more of a reckoning.”
“Oh really?” said the Queen. “I don’t intend to start my new life with a bloodbath. Justice will be done. Everyone knows who the main players are, we always have done. We have names, depositions. It’s a small world for dwarfs, with nowhere else to hide, and, frankly, the work is almost completed. The deep-down grags behind this lost a lot of their best fighters attacking Iron Girder on her peregrination across the landscape. What a voyage that was! And the wonderful discovery of loggy-sticks. The train is the future; bringing people closer together. Think about it. People run to see the train go past. Personally, I very much want the future and I want to see to it that dwarfs are part of that future, if it’s not too late.”
Pratchett usually enjoys an indulgent style, but this is too far. The intended impression is of a forward-thinking ruler rightly assured that hers is the way of the future. So what purpose does ‘Oh really?’ serve? None, apart from to dull the far more effective ‘I don’t intend to start my new life with a bloodbath.’ What do ‘Personally’ and ‘if it’s not too late’ add to ‘I very much want the future and I want to see to it that dwarfs are part of that future’? What does ‘very much’ do, apart from take longer to read?
The passage below is intended as an assurance that the Queen’s enemies will not escape:
Justice will be done. Everyone knows who the main players are, we always have done. We have names, depositions. It’s a small world for dwarfs, with nowhere else to hide, and, frankly, the work is almost completed. The deep-down grags behind this lost a lot of their best fighters attacking Iron Girder on her peregrination across the landscape.
Is the final authoritative speech the place to mention that you have ‘depositions’? ‘Justice will be done’ communicates power and confidence ‘Everyone knows who the main players are, we always have done’ has the same effect, although both together is already more than the author needs. But by the time we reach ‘depositions’ we already understand that the Queen has her enemies in hand, she is a confident and powerful figure, there is no more factual information we need to know, and so the dialogue is just there because the author wants to write it.
Lose what you can’t account for
This is the inconvenient truth of writing dialogue: to make it more than two characters talking you’re going to have to cut passages you love. Every sentence must have a function because when the only purpose of a piece of dialogue is to entertain the reader then the reader cannot avoid being aware of the author. Of course they can’t, because the only new information is ‘I wanted you to enjoy this’.
Again, that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. It just means you need to be able to account for what you include. If you’re being funny then the humor should tell us something about the character’s personality, or their relationship with the other characters. There’s only a very small amount of dialogue that can be held up by the argument that ‘we’re getting to know them’. Try instead to inject these impressions into the necessary dialogue, the way your characters say the things they have to say, enlivening moments that might otherwise be dull rather than creating new moments just for fun.
One great trick to avoiding unnecessary dialogue is to embrace telling. (That’s certainly the way you should be sharing dwarf depositions with your readers.) And don’t forget to embrace the flip-side of only using dialogue when you can justify it, by crafting a strong narrative voice and concentrating all that good stuff in smaller, but much more impactful, packages.
Do you strongly disagree with the above? Do you think enjoyable dialogue is its own justification? Then engage me in dialogue in the comments, and you’ll have basically proven your point already.Learn how to write dialogue with 'Is Your Dialogue Just Characters Talking?'Click To Tweet