Tuesday, October 26, 2021

What Did You Say?


Terry Shames here, with my tips for writing good dialogue. Every writer has aspects of craft that come naturally, and some they struggle with. Some writers make settings come alive with lyric prose. Others have an ability to get to the heart of their characters, through back story or narrative and still others do killer plots (pun intended). Dialogue can help with all of those. It helps the reader understand characters, further the plot, and even bring the setting to life. 

 For me, dialogue has always come naturally. I think it’s partly because I grew up in a household with parents who, when someone said something, often seemed to hear something different from what I heard. This was especially true with relatives. My aunt would say to my mother, “You got a haircut. It’s different.” My mother would hear, “Your hair looks awful.” Conversations overheard in restaurants or standing in line would invariably be repeated with interpretations I didn’t hear. I learned early on to sift language for nuance and contradiction. I don’t recommend it for good mental health, but for learning to write dialogue, it was a good lesson. 

 So my first tip is to use dialogue to have people reveal who they are by putting nuance into their mouths. Here’s an example: Jerry’s shady friend, Louis, comes over while Jerry’s wife Sue is out. Sue hates Louis and has said she doesn’t want him in the house. As soon as Sue comes home, she sniffs the air and says, “Did Louis come over?” Jerry is caught, so he could say, “What makes you say that?” We know he’s stalling. Or he could say, “Of course not. It’s your imagination.” Sue says, “I can smell him.” At that point Jerry can come clean and say, “Yes, Louis dropped by,” or, depending on what kind of guy Jerry really is. He might even say, “I can have my friends over if I want to. It’s my house!” Their conversation can tell you a lot about them. 

 The next tip is about conflict. Plot consists of a series of escalating conflicts. The preceding example has plenty of potential for conflict. If Jerry says, “No, Louis wasn’t here, it’s your imagination,” Sue could say, “Oh, okay. I’m going to put the groceries away,” the conflict is between the reader and Jerry. We know he’s lying, and somewhere down the line, the lie will be revealed. But there’s all kind of potential for conflict on the page: If Sue calls him on his lie, they can get into a row. If Jerry feels guilty, he could pick a fight. The tip: Let dialogue lead you to conflict. 

Over many years, I’ve read a lot of manuscripts with what I think of as “wooden” dialogue. Invariably, it’s because writers try to write exactly the way people talk. I learned how not to do this in an odd way. One summer I worked at a secretarial service. One of my assignments was to transcribe conversations between a teacher and her students. She taped them and wanted transcripts.. When someone sat down to talk to the teacher, she’d say, “Hi, how are you?” The reply was usually, “Fine, how are you?” or maybe, “I’ve had a rough day, how about you?” There was an exchange of what I think of as “settling in” talk. Sometimes it could take several exchanges for them to get to the point. 

In real life, that’s the way we judge each other’s moods and attitudes. It’s a way of feeling out the atmosphere. On the page, it’s deadly dull. Writing down what people really say helped me to understand how dull most conversation would be if it was written down exactly as spoken. 

 I've read many works in progress in which the dialogue on the page goes something like this: Sam walked into the room. He looked as if he’d slept in his clothes. “Hello, Jim,” he said. Jim looked up from this work. “Hello.” “What’s new?” “Nothing much. You?” “What are you working on?” “I’ve got papers to grade. You look a little messed up. What’s going on?” “I got into a fight with Maggie last night and she threw me out of the house.” 

 Cut to the chase! Sam walked into the room looking as if he’d slept in his clothes. Jim looked up from his work. “Good grief! You look awful. What happened?” “I got into a fight with Maggie this morning and she threw me out of the house.” 

 And finally, use dialogue to illustrate setting: 1) Sue walked into the house. “This place is a pigsty. Can’t you ever clean up after yourself?” She sniffed the air. “Was Louis here?” 2) Sam walked into the office he shared with Jim. “Can we open a window in here? It’s stuffy.” 

 The point of dialogue is simple. It’s to: 1) Tell the reader something about the characters and setting. 2) To move the plot along. Writers need to remember this when they edit, and learn to be merciless in slashing dialogue that doesn’t do either (or preferably both) of these thing. 

 Next time you read a book you think is well written, study the dialogue for how it contributes to the story or character development—and how adept authors dispense with cheap talk.


Dietrich Kalteis said...

This is some great advice, Terry. I love this: My aunt would say to my mother, “You got a haircut. It’s different.” My mother would hear, “Your hair looks awful.”

Susan C Shea said...

I'm not liking Louis. I mean, if a man is so stinky he leaves an aroma behind after he's left, he's pretty smelly!

Terry said...

Thanks Dietrich! "Different" was the word my family used for, "I don't like it.'

Susan, I knew someone like that who left an "aroma" behind.