Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Putting words in their mouths

“Dialogue is often hard to do right,” he said. Give us your tips for writing killer dialogue.

by Dietrich

I love writing dialogue, something that really brings the characters to life, revealing personality, and making them believable. Good dialogue can make a reader laugh or cry. Bad dialogue can too, but for different reasons.

I like to read aloud the exchanges between characters. Their words can be quippy, evasive, insinuating, funny, or even blatant lies. The only thing dialogue can’t be is boring. 

To put words in their mouths, I need to know each of the characters first, so I need to build their back stories in detail — a lot more than I’ll ever include in the story. I think it’s knowing them to the core that lets me to get their speech sounding distinct, natural and believable. 

When I go places, I listen to the way people speak to each other — yeah, that’s right, eavesdropping. And I steal lines whenever I hear something I can’t resist for one of my characters. 

I don’t want the dialogue to sound exactly the way people speak to each other. Have you really listened to the way most people speak? There’s too much rambling and repetition, meandering, umming and awing, and a lot of unnecessary blabber. Good dialogue needs to have some of this to seem real, but it also needs to be economical — to cut to the chase and lead somewhere. 

I avoid including a lot of backstory or details in their speech. I’m not stuffing a holiday bird. If I do, the characters’ words lose their authenticity, and their speech becomes narrative.

It’s best to keep it short and sweet. The great thing is there can be so much more behind their actual words. So much is revealed behind what their not saying.

Writing dialogue is my chance to chuck everything I ever learned about proper grammar out the window. This isn’t the place for fancy words, much less a place for proper grammar. And political correctness — forget about it. A character would never say, “I will need a pistol to properly rob the bank, and Jimmy, who’s been my accomplice for two years now, would like a Thompson gun with the drum magazine, please.”

When I’m dealing with characters of limited scruples, I have to avoid getting on my soapbox, interjecting my own sensibilities on the poor sap. To tell the truth, I find some of them quite offensive, but the thing of it, they need to speak their own words, not mirror my own feelings. 

When I’m just following along and typing out their words, feeling like I’m listening to a conversation, then I know I’ve got it right.

There are many authors who are masters at writing dialogue, and I’ve learned a lot from reading Elmore Leonard, George V. Higgins, James Lee Burke, Walter Mosley, Nick Hornby, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy, to name just a few.


Brenda Chapman said...

Love how you put this: I'm not stuffing a holiday bird". You've nailed the image! Also, what characters don't say is often more telling than what they say. great post, Dietrich.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thank you, Brenda.

Susan C Shea said...

I've had that great feeling too, when I feel I'm just listening to my characters talking and trying to write it down quickly. Sometimes, it's "What? She said that?" You do an excellent job of describing how to prep your subconscious to get into the game!

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks, Susan.

Ken MacQueen said...

A case in point, Dietrich’s latest, Under an Outlaw Moon. Killer dialogue, nicely capturing the distinctive quirks of each character, and the pace and flavour of Depression era dust-bowl America. I scored an ARC and I’m about to craft a review. Spoiler alert: it’s a winner.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Thanks for the kind words, Ken. I'm so glad you liked the book. All the best.