Thursday, October 28, 2021

Speaking of Dialogue… by James W. Ziskin

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

1.) Don’t make dialogue “realistic.” Rather, make it “seem realistic.” People do not speak in complete sentences. They often express themselves in an incoherent manner. They correct themselves, start over, get frustrated, and give up. Or they run on and on, talking as if they’re being paid by the word. Find a happy medium between Shakespeare’s dialogue (one speaker at a time, reeling off wonderfully constructed, logical sentences), and the drunken guy at the end of the bar trying explain his bowling technique.

2.) Keep the speakers clear in the reader’s mind. There are several ways to do this.

a.) You can use attribution tags such as “he said,” “she asked,” and “I ejaculated.” (Better not use the last one unless you’re writing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, as I did in “The Twenty-Five-Year Engagement.”) 

b.) Adjacent description. Tell the reader that Hildebrand snorted in derision, then quote him without attribution. 

c.) Design your dialogue with a logical back and forth—like a tennis rally—from one speaker to the next. You can always tell which player has hit the ball; do the same in your dialogue.

3.) Give your characters personality. Maybe one speaks in a precious way, while another is a person of few words. Your characters shouldn’t all sound alike. I remember a sitcom that aired a few years ago, New Girl, with Zooey Deschanel. The show was funny, but I I felt every character had the same sense of humor and timing of their delivery. They all sounded the same.

And now for some controversial advice:

4.) Use exclamation points when your characters shout. 


“Look out. He’s got a gun.” vs. “Look out! He’s got a gun!”

“Help.” vs. “Help!” Even the Beatles used an exclamation point.

5.) If you use foreign dialogue, use it sparingly. Try to make it understandable without a translation. Sometimes a translation is necessary, of course. And don’t have a foreign character say “oui” or “sì” when they’re speaking English. “Yes” is the first word everyone learns! (Yes, exclamation point.)

6.) Be careful with patois and/or ethnic speech. Be very careful. That goes for Southern, Irish, African-American, Caribbean, Hispanic, Indian, French, Native American, LGBTQ+, and everything in between. Better to have your characters speak neutrally than to be a cliché.

7.) Avoid obvious information dumps disguised as dialogue. The characters know what they’re talking about and shouldn’t over-explain to each other in what is an obvious attempt to inform the reader.

“Well, my dear wife Marge, as you know my youngest and favorite sister, Betty—who is very fragile emotionally and suffers from acute social anxiety caused by low self-esteem and a fear of abandonment—is the same age as you. Do you remember that she told you several times that she didn’t want me to marry you and that she resented you because you beat her out for first violin in the seventh grade orchestra on the same day she got braces and her boyfriend broke up with her? And don’t forget that in the third grade you told Billy Pendergast—the boy both of you had a secret crush on—that she had cooties? And you felt sorry afterwards but were never able to express your regrets to Betty about the incident, despite your repeated attempts, because she wouldn’t listen.”

In the interests of not over-explaining, I’ll stop here.


Susan C Shea said...

You are so right, mon ami. (Whoops!)

Colin Conway said...

Great article, James!

Another point I've recently tried to pay attention to is narrative breaks in the middle of dialogue. Like when character #1 says something important then the author intrudes with a couple paragraphs of exposition. Which means character #2's response of "I agree" is floating helplessly alone. Those types of moments often force me to skim back through the paragraphs to find character #1's earlier statement. "Oh," I think. "That's what she agreed to."

Wendall Thomas said...

Great article, as ever, Jim. Pretty much all of it pertains to screenwriting as well.

Terry said...

Part of the problem with ethnic speech is that your editor will try to correct it. I don't use it often, but sometimes I have a character who begs to speak "Texas talk." Editors do not love it.