Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Writing Dialogue


A book with starchy dialogue would fail. It's got to be real. How to make it real?
Listen to people talk,
and use what you hear.
Thankfully there's a great
variety to the way people talk,
and that gives us
plenty to play with.

I love it when dialogue chemically reacts with action to colour a scene:

By the end of the coughing fit Scott's face had turned pink. Katherine strode into the kitchen, school bag over one shoulder. She pulled out a chair from the table and sat down to pull on her hiking boots. After a minute of pure silence she looked up and said, "What?"

"Nothing," Scott said.

"We're good," I said.

               (The Last of the Independents - Sam Wiebe)

Dialogue brings a character to life. Here's the opening of LaBrava by Elmore Leonard:

"He's been taking pictures three years, look at the work," Maurice said. "Here, this guy. Look at the pose, the expression. Who's he remind you of?"

"He looks like a hustler," the woman said.

"He is a hustler, the guy's a pimp. But that's not what I'm talking about. Here, this one. Exotic dancer backstage. Remind you of anyone?"

Already both Maurice and the woman are solid. To have them be these particular individuals in this place and time, Elmore Leonard messes with the rules, because people are often lax about the correct punctuation in speech.

Not always, though. People speaking English as a second language can be quite formal about it, and sometimes flowery too. Police officers on the stand can be ridiculously formal; as we all know, they proceed everywhere, they don't go. Get them in the pub, of course, and they proceed nowhere. They also swear a lot.

Unfortunately swearing is a big part of every modern police procedural, at least those set in the States and Canada. Without swearing a modern police procedural might turn into an old-fashioned fairy tale.  

As a court reporter, my job is 100% dialogue. I take down everything everyone says. Luckily for me, I enjoy dialogue, and I even enjoy punctuation. One thing I've learned is that most people throw in way too many false starts. I've heard as many as six "the"s before the sentence got going properly -- from a lawyer. However, false starts should be used sparingly in fiction. In that sense, we have to keep it unrealistic.

I could talk all day about dialogue -- how ironic is that? -- but I will end now with a clip from my own work-in-progress. Here's a smart-ass answering my protagonist David Leith on this very topic:

Leith brought out a copy of the statement, put on his reading glasses and quoted from it aloud. "You said here, 'The guy went to call 911 and I was waiting for the ambulance and some people came along and went away again.' See that?"

"I see that. Should be a couple commas in there."

"Yeah, well, this is a police statement. We don't like commas much."

"I'm just pointing it out. I don't talk like that. I put in commas. Sometimes I throw in a semi-colon..."
(Flights & Falls - RM Greenaway)


Alan Orloff said...

"We have to keep it unrealistic." Well put, and so, so true!

Paul D. Marks said...

We don't need no stinkin' commas, to paraphrase Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Must be pretty interesting being a court reporter, RM. I'm sure there's lots of great material there.

Art Taylor said...

Nice post here, and I like the comments about keeping dialogue real but also keeping it unreal--that balance so that it works best on the page. Enjoyed the sample from your own writing too, very much!

Unknown said...

Thanks guys! Am happy to have this blogger schedule to follow - I wouldn't have the discipline otherwise. But what I like most is reading the different responses to the same question :)

Robin Spano said...

I love this. Especially the line about cops always proceeding everywhere!