Friday, June 10, 2016

They Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Wine

How do you make your characters’ dialogue sound realistic?

by Paul D. Marks

If you listen to two (or more) people talking you’ll hear that their conversation rambles all over the place. It bounces from one subject to another, there are pauses and ums and all kinds of distractions. This is conversation, not dialogue. Dialogue is not everyday conversation, but it needs to have the illusion that it is.

Your characters need to talk like real people, but at the same time their dialogue—your dialogue—needs to convey information, move the plot forward, possibly get out some exposition and either story or character background…….without being too obvious about it.

So how do you do this?

Listen to people around you. Their cadences. Intonation. Do they talk differently in a bar than a bookstore? On the East Coast than the West? And even if on the East Coast, don’t people from Maine talk differently from people in NYC or South Carolina? When we think of the East Coast, a lot of people think of New England, but the coast goes from Maine to the Florida Keys. How many different accents, ways of turning a phrase, slang, etc., do you think there are in just the states that border the Atlantic Ocean?

Even within a city there are different ways of talking. New York City has five boroughs. Is the accent and slang the same in each borough? Is it the same in Harlem and the East Side? Los Angeles is spread out over 503 square miles. Do you think the people from South Central talk the same as the people from the Valley—remember Valley Girls?

Make sure the way each character speaks is right for that character. Don’t have all your characters talk the same way. If all your characters speak with snappy lines and quick comebacks, how can you distinguish them from one another? I can understand having a couple characters that are smart and witty, but when every one of your characters is cracking one-liners, a reader might start to wonder if there’s something in the drinking water…  In other words, keep dialogue in line with character, don’t have a wallflower start talking like a sailor or a blowhard start speaking like Emily Post.

Don’t use too much jargon, maybe just enough to get the point across that the character works in a particular biz or is from a particular area or background. And don’t get carried away writing dialect. It’s hard to read. Focus on the way people phrase things. If the character’s from the South and has a drawl, don’t write everything out like it sounds, except sparingly to get an idea of the accent. Pop it in here or there, but mostly just say they talk with a drawl.

I once had a producer tell me to write dialogue in “ten word telegrams.” In screenplays most speeches should be short, not long soliloquys. Though ten words is a little too short much of the time (see the long speech from Sideways below). But you have more freedom in a novel, still you don’t want one speech running a page long.

Another thing that will help your dialogue stand out is to enrich it with subtext. For example, if you have two characters that are in a romantic relationship and they’re unhappy and thinking of breaking up, maybe a conversation about what restaurant to eat in can reveal more than just eating preferences. I particularly like this subtext/dialogue from the novel/movie Sideways. In that movie (which I highly recommend), Miles is a wine aficionado and frustrated writer—and very sensitive and prickly, as opposed to his wild and crazy-guy pal, Jack. Miles and Jack take a trip up to Santa Barbara wine country and Miles has some private time with Maya, a waitress he’s friendly with up there. They have a conversation about wine, but is that what it’s really about?

Maya (Virginia Madsen): You know, can I ask you a personal question, Miles?

Miles (Paul Giamatti): Sure.

Maya: Why are you so into Pinot? I mean, it's like a thing with you.

Miles: Uh, I don't know, I don't know. Um, it's a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It's uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.*

And though this example is from a movie it applies to novels as well.

Then, when you’re done read it out loud, preferably in front of or with another person. You really do hear things that you don’t see when you read in your head.

Finally, be true to yourself, because everyone has an opinion and opinions are a dime a dozen:  I once optioned a screenplay to a producer. He read it and loved it, especially the dialogue. He gave it to a director to read it. She hated the dialogue. Magically and overnight, he hated the dialogue too. Go figure. So, unless you’re getting paid, write it your way.


I want to congratulate all the Shamus Nominees! Especially Bob Levinson, whose story Dead Detective was published in Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea, edited by Andrew McAleer and… We’re very happy for Bob and Down & Out Books and also that the first Coast to Coast volume has been recognized. Volume 2, Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is in process.


*Directed by Alexander Payne. Screenplay by: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, based on a novel by Rex Pickett.

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GBPool said...

Excellent breakdown of dialogue. I call dialogue the workhorse of the story. And reading bone's work out lout really does help the writer.

Dj Adamson said...

Good reminders for both the novice and pro writer. I have placed several conversations I randomly overheard in my stories. Listening is a skill that needs practice, and I have begun teaching it in my classes.

Susan C Shea said...

Lots of good advice in your post today. One thing I (and a million others) have noticed in the past 20 years is the diminishing of regional dialects. As a New Yorker, I can tell you that my grandparents could identify which borough a speaker was from in the first few words that person spoke - unfailingly. My parents were both in broadcasting and I grew up with no New York accent because they had none. But I love hearing regional speech and lament its decline.

Stephen Buehler said...

Dialogue is my favorite part of the story to write. I find on my first draft a lot of the dialogue is "on the nose." It takes a 2nd & 3rd try to give it subtext and sound real. I will sometimes have dialogue say what I want it to say or need it to say instead of having the characters say it as they really would. It's work but one that I love.
Thanks for the blog
- Stephen

Unknown said...

Thanks for giving me much to think about here. Also thank you for the movie recommendation - am adding to my list.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Gayle. I agree with you about dialogue being the workhorse and reading out loud.

Paul D. Marks said...

D.J., I think that’s great to teach listening. If people would get off their cell phones and watch and participate in the world they’d have a lot more to write about and it would be more realistic.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Susan. I think you’re right about regional dialects not being as prevelant. Probably because of TV. But it’s still there and fun to suss out where someone’s from by it.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Stephen. I go pretty much the same route as you and just hone it as I go along. Some of my early drafts are almost all dialogue.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, RM. Hope you like the movie. Let me know what you think.

D. P. Lyle, MD said...

Excellent advice, Paul. Well said.
And for subtext all should watch the first season of True Detective--not the second which completely sucked---the dialog was never on the nose and always filled with many layers of subtext.

DP Lyle

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, D.P. And I'll have to go back to the first season of TD and look out for the dialogue, specifically.

Christopher J. Lynch said...

Great post Paul. Spot on. Dialogue seems to be the easiest thing - and the funnest for me to write, especially when it's tense dialogue.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Chris. And I love your dialogue.

Sally Carpenter said...

Tom Hanks (as Walt Disney) has a wonderful monologue near the end of the film "Saving Mr. Banks" in which he makes a last-ditch effort for P.L. Travers to give him the rights to "Mary Poppins." It's a long speech but beautiful. It works because it's the only long piece in the movie and of course Hanks delivers it well.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Sally. Good point and good movie!