Dialogue isn’t conversation. It’s an illusion, a language foreign to that which the writer has grown up hearing and using. Filtered of the fillers that dilute the spoken tongue, dialogue is made to appear more credible than live conversation. As works of fiction distort reality to illuminate a larger truth, dialogue distills the verbal exchange to reveal characters and move them towards a dramatic conclusion.
WORDS PORTRAY CHARACTER
Listen to how your friends talk—their peculiar phraseology, the false starts, verbal shortcuts, interruptions, use of slang, and misdirections. Really listen. Human beings speak differently from each other, not just in terms of dialect, but also in their rhythms, sophistication, verbal expressions, and word choice.
How characters talk is an important part of who they are.
The way a character speaks says a lot about his personality, education, and emotion. As the writer, your job is to get a feel for the ebb and flow, the rhythm and the counterpoint of speech, and use this for your own purposes.
The words we have at our disposal arise from our environment—our history, our education, our culture, even our weather, which is why the Inuit have a surfeit of words for snow.
A clear example of this is found in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a remarkable novel comprising six interlocking stories that span 300 years (and genre jumps from historical fiction to mystery/ thriller to sci-fi dystopia).
Pacific Islands 1849: From the journal of Adam Ewing, an American lawyer from San Francisco.
The morning watch smote four bells & my porthole betrayed a rainy dawn. I had slept a little, but my prayers that the dawn would dissolve the Moriori were unheeded. I bade him to playact he had only just revealed himself & make no mention of our night’s conversation. He signaled comprehension, but I feared the worst: an Indian’s wit was no match.
Cambridge 1931: English composer Robert Frobisher tells his story in letters to Sixsmith.
Woke in my Imperial Western suite, Tam Brewer’s collectors nearly knocking my door down and much commotion from corridor. Hadn’t even waited until I’d shaved—breathtaking vulgarity of these ruffians. Had no choice but to exit swiftly via the bathroom window before the brouhaha summoned the manager to discover that the young gentleman in Room 237 had no means of settling his now-hefty balance. Escape was not hitchless, sorry to report. Drainpipe ripped free of its mounting with the noise of a brutalized violin, and down, down, down tumbled your old chum. Right buttock one hellish bruise. Minor miracle I didn’t shatter my spine or impale myself on railings. Learn from this, Sixsmith. When insolvent, pack minimally, with a valise tough enough to be thrown onto a London pavement from a first-or second-floor window. Insist on hotel rooms no higher. Hid in a tearoom tucked into a sooty nook of Victoria Station, trying to transcribe the music from the china shop of dreams—couldn’t get beyond a measly two bars. Would have walked into Tam Brewer’s arms just to have that music back again. Miserable spirits. Laboring types surrounded me with bad teeth, parrot voices, and unfounded optimism. Sobering to think how one accursed night of baccarat can alter a man’s social standing so irreversibly. Those shopworkers, cabbies, and tradesmen had more half crowns and threepenny bits squirreled away in their sour Stepney mattresses than I, Son of an Ecclesiastical Somebody, can claim.
San Francisco 1973: Journalist Louisa Rey receives Frobisher’s letters to Sixsmith.
"An ex-Berserkeley Beatnik boyfriend named it. After Jerry Garcia, y’ know, the Grateful Dead man. He abandoned it at my dorm when its engine sent a gasket through the back around the time he dumped me for a cheerleader. Cheesy, but true.”
“And you didn’t take a blowtorch to it?”
“It’s not Garcia’s fault his ex-owner was a swindling sperm gun.”
“The guy must have been mad.” Sachs didn’t plan to say so, but he’s not ashamed he did. Luisa Rey nods in gracious acknowledgment.
“Anyway, Garcia suits the car. Never stays tuned, prone to flashes of speed, falling to bits, its trunk won’t lock, it leaks oil, but never seems to give up the ghost.”
London 1983: 65-year-old publisher Timothy Cavendish reads a manuscript based on Luisa Rey’s story and eventually writes a screenplay entitled The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.
As an experienced editor, I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory. I make no apology, however, for (re)starting my own narrative with my version of that shocking affair. You see, it paved my first good intention on the road to Hull, or rather Hull’s hinterland, where my ghastly ordeal is fated to unfold. My fortune took the glorious turn I had foreseen after Felix Finch’s Final Fling. On the wings of sweet, free publicity, my Knuckle Sandwich turkey soared up the bestseller charts, where it roosted until poor Dermot was sentenced to fifteen of the best in Wormwood Scrubs. The trial made the Nine O’Clock News at every turn. In death Sir Felix changed from a smug-scented pomposity with a Stalinist grip on Arts Council money into, oh, Britain’s best-loved arts guru since the last one.
2144: Neo Seoul, Android Sunmi sees the banned movie The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, which introduces her to the concepts of rebellion and liberation.
You wish me to describe the xperience? It mirrored Yoona939’s, I now recognize. Firstly, a voice spoke in my head. It alarmed me greatly, until I learned that no one else could hear this voice, known to purebloods as “sentience.” Secondly, my language evolved: for xample, if I meant to say good, my mouth substituted a finer-tuned word such as favorable, pleasing, or correct. In a climate when purebloods thruout the Twelve Cities were reporting fabricant deviations at the rate of thousands a week, this was a dangerous development, and I sought to curtail it. Thirdly, my curiosity about all things grew acute: the “hunger” Yoona939 had spoken of. I eavesdropped diners’ sonys, AdV, Boardmen’s speeches, anything, to learn. I, too, yearned to see where the elevator led. Nor did the fact that two fabricants, working side by side on the same teller in the same dinery, both xperienced these radical mental changes evade me. Lastly, my sense of alienation grew. Amongst my sisters I alone understood our xistence’s futility and drudgery. I even woke during curfew, but never entered the secret room, or even dared move until yellow-up. Yoona’s doubts about Papa Song haunted me. Ah, I envied my uncritical, unthinking sisters. But most of all, I was afraid.
Big Isle, 106 winters after The Fall: Zachry lives in a primitive society where tribesmen speak a pidgin form of English and worship Sonmi.
Right ’bove my head someun whisped, Name y’self, boy, is it Zachry the Brave or Zachry the Cowardy? Up I looked an’ sure ‘nuff there was Old Georgie cross-leggin’ on a rottin’ ironwood tree, a slywise grinnin’ in his hungry eyes.
“I ain’t’fraid o’ you!” I telled him, tho’ tell-it-true my voice was jus’ a duck fart in a hurrycane. Quakin’ inside I was when Old Georgie jumped off his branch an’ then what happened? He dis’peared in a blurry flurryin’, yay, b’hind me. Nothin’ there … ’cept for a plump lardbird snufflyin’ for grubs, jus’ askin’ for a pluckin’n’a spit! Well, I reck’ned Zachry the Brave’d faced down Old Georgie, yay, he’d gone off huntin’ cowardier vic’tries’n me. I wanted to tell Pa’n’Adam ’bout my eerie adventurin’, but a yarnin’ is more delish with broke-de-mouth grinds, so hushly-hushly up I hoicked my leggin’s an’ I crept up on that meatsome feathery buggah … an’ I dived.
As you see, each character’s discourse reveals scads of information about who he or she is and the world in which the character lives.
Since no two people have identical experiences, no two characters should view the world the same way. What they say to others and how they say it illuminates their values and shows readers who they are. Every line of dialogue is a writer’s opportunity to unveil personality. Once you know your characters’ likes and dislikes, fears and hopes, their dialogue will become distinctive.
Pick a trait or attitude, and translate it into dialogue. If your character is frugal, for example, you might show this trait with him nagging his wife about her spending or asking a waiter for separate checks.
Give a character a catchphrase habit, such as I’m just saying, Let me tell you, Want to hear something? It will differentiate him from other characters. And be vigilant for your own catchphrases so they don’t slip into your writing and make your characters sound like you.
Write natural sounding dialogue. Weed out chunky polysyllabic words unless they characterize one of your players. Have you considered the ramifications? sounds like something a writer wrote, while Have you thought about what might happen? sounds like something a character would say. Don’t script your characters to conclude, surrender, and retrieve. Choose everyday words. Have them think, give up, and get. Along the same lines, avoid awkward, formal phrasing unless deliberate. And watch out for how long you let your characters speak—humans typically don’t let others get in more than a clause or two before interrupting.
“I don’t know what you were thinking about, going into a place like that. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, I really am.”
In life, questions aren’t always clear, nor are answers complete and forthcoming.
“What did you think you were doing, going into a place like that?”
“I’m all right. Really.”
In the second version, misdirection gives the dialogue a more natural feel. Every now and then, have your character address the unspoken question rather than the one put to them. Have them hedge, talk at cross-purposes, misunderstand each another. Disagree. Lie. It will make them sound human.
Notice the way Armand ignores the questions Richie asks in this passage from Elmore Leonard’s Killshot:
“Armand,” Richie said, “you’re not married, are you?”
“No way.” “You ever live with a woman? I mean outside your family?”
“What’s the point?”
“Armand, lemme tell you something. You’re always telling me something, now it’s my turn. Okay, Armand.” If he kept saying the name it would get easier. “You might have shot a woman or two in your line or work…Have you?”
“Go on what you’re gonna tell me.”
“Let’s say you have. But shooting a woman and understanding a woman are two entirely different things, man.”
Had Armand simply answered Richie’s question or told Richie to shut up, the dialogue wouldn’t have the tension and sense of authenticity it does.
Good dialogue comes from knowing your characters so well that you know what they will say and how they will say it when faced with specific people, situations or events.
In Good Will Hunting, the hero (played by Matt Damon) accompanies his boyhood friends to a bar near Harvard. Chuckie (Ben Affleck’s character) spots a group of women and decides to hit on them. The Harvard girls see through his Ivy League façade and play along until a letterman type exposes Chuckie’s lack of book-smarts. Just as Chuckie’s about to show the guy what really smarts, Will steps in with a dissertation that puts the undergrad in his place. Will then ends the dialogue with a telling sentence— “If you want to take this outside.”
Here, we see that Damon and Affleck knew their characters. Who is Will Hunting? A polymath… a Southie. He was also an abused child. Although the audience doesn’t know Will’s history at the time, the authors know and it guides Will’s reaction. The line he gives is the only line that could follow. And that’s what good dialogue is, when a character says the only thing he could say in a particular setting at a particular time.
In contrast, a dialogue faux pas is giving a character lines that disagree with who he is. I often see this in protagonists who are valedictorians or Cambridge scholars. A scholar need not be socially intelligent (just read Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder to traipse through the Amazon after Dr. Marina Singh, a scholar-ditz who’s partially stuck in adolescence). Readers, though, should hear the character’s intelligence in his speech. If you make your protagonist a scholar, be sure you can channel a scholar. A good rule of thumb is to assign your starring role to someone whose language you can speak.