You Don't Say
(A Dialogue Primer)

When I look back on my earliest attempts at short stories, I'm faced with an embarrassing truth -- all of my characters were English majors like me. They all spoke with clean, proper sentence structure and had the vocabulary of an amateur linguist. The sad part is this -- stories that could have been entertaining and interesting were poisoned by one of the most heinous plagues to infect beginning writers. Flat dialogue.

Put bluntly, my dialogue sucked like a an upright Hoover. (And believe me, those beauties can suck up dust and dirt and carpeting like nobody's business.)

Thankfully, I discovered that writing dialogue isn't much a skill of writing words but of listening to them instead. I learned that if you let them, your characters will speak for you, that their idioms, their word choices, their sentence structure with come through you instead of from you.

Decoding Dialogue

Let's take a look at some of the guidelines for giving characters a unique voice. What are the fundamental principles that govern good dialogue? What separates unique, well-crafted written speech from the obviously stilted, poorly conceived variety?

GOOD DIALOGUE REVEALS CHARACTER. Imagine a woman who uses big words when little ones would normally be used. Or how about a man whose speech consists mostly of phrases and idiom, with few complete sentences. Or the woman who says little but "speaks" instead with her gestures (or to a writer, beats). What do those word/sentence choices reveal about the characters? Would you expect the first woman to be a little arrogant or just well-educated? The man to be shallow or perhaps hip? Or the second woman to be shy or perhaps cautious and secretly deep? Even the cadence of speech should reveal bits of characterization. A character who speaks with a sing-song quality of rhythm or "poetic" sounds would have a vastly different personality than one who speaks with direct, choppy sentences with concrete nouns and verbs and few descriptive words.

GOOD DIALOGUE CONTAINS EMOTIONAL IMPACT. Physical and emotional descriptions are a good start for helping readers to view your characters, but they become truly loved or hated or pitied or supported when they step onto the stage and speak. Effective dialogue helps clue in readers as to how they should feel about your characters. A strong lead who speaks little won't typically hold a reader's attention. Likewise, a supporting character who can't shut up may be distracting your reader from the person or people you're actually writing about. On the other hand, if your main character is a chatterbox whom you want readers to view with a little disgust, constant prattling and interrupting will help reinforce the emotional impact you're trying to establish.

GOOD DIALOGUE DRIVES THE STORY. If what your characters say has nothing to do with the theme, tone, or plot of your story, then you need to take a hard look at the dialogue you've written. (Don't go any further until you read that again. It's that important.) This, however, does not mean that your characters should explain the plot like a bad Bond villain. But your characters shouldn't chatter inanely about stuff that has no bearing to what you're trying to accomplish with the story. Even if you let the story shape itself as you write, at some point you must stop and determine which target you've sighted to hit with your story. Having said that, sometimes what the characters choose not to say can be a more effective way of conveying tone and theme and plot than what they choose to say. People tend to talk around things more than talk about them. Just listen to a couple on the verge of a break up if you need proof. They'll talk about anything to avoid addressing the downhill turn in their relationship. (Go read "Hills Like White Elephants" by Hemingway or "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" by Raymond Carver for classic examples of talking around the real subject.)

GOOD DIALOGUE FLOWS. Often silence can say as much as words. A good dialogue writer realizes that what the characters don't say is sometimes more powerful than what they do say. Also, as in real life, sometimes gestures (or beats) can convey intricacies of communication better than speech. It takes each piece - speech, silence, and gestures - to put into print the illusion of communication between fictional characters. Effective writers listen and watch for the dance of words, silence, and beats. A caveat, however... don't feel the urge to switch to writing poetry at this point, but do learn to listen for the sounds and the cadence of the words and phrases you use. They carry baggage and impact, even on a subconscious level. A sequence of short words with lots of vowels has an entirely different feel than a sequence of mixed-length words with hard consonants. Try rewriting a paragraph from one of your stories three times and changing the word choices and sentence lengths for each. Listen for the different rhythms and "feels." (Cool, huh?)  

GOOD DIALOGUE FOOLS THE READER INTO BELIEVING IT SOUNDS NATURAL. It's a common mistake of beginning writers to transcribe dialogue just like it sounds in real life. But the fact is that real life speech is - let's face it - boring. We pause, "uhm," backtrack, miss the point, and correct ourselves more often that we actually "say" anything. Can you imagine line after line of that? Instead, good dialogue gives the illusion of real speech. It's what we might say if we were able to really think and self-edit as quickly as we speak. It accurately portrays the idioms and idiosyncrasies of real speech, but without the verbal speed bumps that would make readers feed your story page by page into the shredder along with Aunt Louise's fruitcake recipe.

GOOD DIALOGUE HIDES ITS OWN MECHANICS. Or let's put that another way. A good dialogue writer gets out of the way and let's the story do its work. An easy way to identify beginning writers is to look for flowery alternatives for said and asked. Do your characters intone, retort, exclaim, jest, remark, or declare more often than they say or ask? Then chances are you're slowing down your readers with words that draw attention to the writing rather than the story. As with any craftsman, the goal is to show off a finished piece, not the nails and screws that went into creating the piece.

GOOD DIALOGUE IS A KEY TOOL FOR EFFECTIVE DESCRIPTION. You've probably heard the adage "Show, don't tell." It's often touted as the Holy Grail for writers. Good dialogue is a powerful tool in your "show, don't tell" toolkit. What better way is there to show readers what a scoundrel or saint or everyman or loser a character is than well-chosen, specific dialogue?

Meet Greg, the Sequel

Remember Greg, our super tough guy with a fragile ego from the first Cyber Age Adventures tutorial? Well, he's back and ready to help us tackle dialogue now that he's finally managed to escape the burning tanker and get home to find his adoptive brother, Andrew, waiting for him in his apartment. Let's listen in to Greg and Andrew and then run their dialogue through the guidelines above.

Greg opened the door and found Andrew waiting inside, seated on his second-hand couch. "What are you doing here?" he asked disgustedly.

"Well, when you didn't show up, I figured I should just come over here and wait," Andrew responded. "As usual."

Greg closed the door a little harder than he should and made his way to the couch. "Great. Well, I'm glad you're here anyway."

Andrew stood up and spread his arms to embrace his adoptive brother.

Greg took one hand and shook it but evaded the hug. "I thought we could go to the club. My treat this time."

"Sounds like a plan to me, bro."

Okay. So it's not the worst writing I've ever seen, but it's not ready to be published yet either. Not even close. So let's run this through the basics to clean it up.

REVEALS CHARACTER: Very little of either Andrew or Greg's personality comes through in this snippet of dialogue. If Greg feels emotionally threatened by his brother, then his words would probably be a bit more evasive, or maybe snide, or maybe just subtle, verbal stabs. And we don't get a feel for Andrew either. Is he genuine or does he intentionally make Greg feel second-rate? The dialogue doesn't give us a clue.

EMOTIONAL IMPACT: Did you "feel" anything other than flat as you read the snippet? Try reading it again, aloud this time, and listen for the emotional rises and falls as you read. You won't find many.

DRIVES THE STORY: Do you get a sense of the tension from the section above? I don't, even thought the words comes right out and say it. Would it be more effective to see Greg "acting" civil when he is really jealous and angry? And would it help to see Andrew be polite and courteous, all the while inadvertently demeaning his adoptive brother?

FLOWS: This snippet has no dance at all. It's jangly and disjointed. The individual lines and beats compete instead of coordinate. They provide no single fluid feel to the story. Instead they come off as harsh breaks and contain way too many verbal stops.

FOOLS THE READER INTO BELIEVING IT SOUNDS NATURAL: As written this snippet avoids sounding like dictation. But it doesn't sound authentic yet either. There's a staleness to it that keeps the reader at arm's length, that doesn't invite the reader to feel the story, only observe it.

HIDES ITS OWN MECHANICS: Phrases such as ". . . he asked disgustedly. . ." and ". . . Andrew responded. . ." immediately draw attention to themselves and pull the reader away from the story, making him or her focus on the writing instead. One solution is to have Greg's words convey his disgust. And then drop the verb "responded" for a simple "said."

EFFECTIVE DESCRIPTION: None of the dialogue above clues me into to the emotional or psychological descriptions of either Greg or Andrew. And because of that, I can't really form any mental pictures of them.

Take Two

Let's take another shot at it, bearing in mind our guidelines for effective dialogue.

Greg shoved open the door, catching it before it hit the inside wall. One glance confirmed his guess. Andrew had beat him to the apartment. Again. "I said I'd come pick you up." He watched as Andrew's crossed leg bounced up and down. Like a girl or one of those guys who is conceited enough not to mind crossing his legs in public. "So I was a little late?"

"It's no problem, bro." Andrew smiled, the same upturned grin that had always worked wonders for him, from football to law school. "I figured you were busy again and couldn't make it. I didn't mind. I had plenty for the cab anyway. "

"Great." Greg slammed the door harder than he'd intended. "Well, let's get started."

"Always ready to go, huh?" Andrew stood up and spread his arms wide.

"You know me," he said as he evaded the hug and reached down to shake Andrew's hand instead. "I thought we could hit the Hive 25 tonight. It's ladies' night, so the place will be filled with cute girls. Even you could score."

Andrew let go of his brother's hand and plopped back onto the couch. "Sounds like a plan to me, bro." He reached for the remote. "When do we leave?"

Now that's still nowhere near perfect, but at least you can feel a little of the tension between them. Now what kind of person do you think Greg is? What about Andrew? And without a single line of physical description, you probably already have a picture of how you imagine one or both to look. Also, do you sense how the words themselves carry the emotion and don't need the extra tags like "disgustedly"?

Also consider Greg's dialogue in the first few graphs. It's short and gruff. Only after he evades the hug (i.e. wins), just he begin to speak in a more conversational style (when he mentions "the Hive 25"). And what about Andrew's repetitive use of the word "bro"? Who do you think he's trying to reassure -- himself or his adoptive brother?

And can you feel the "flow" between speech and beats. For example, in the following sentence:

"Great." Greg slammed the door harder than he'd intended. "Well, let's get started."

Separating "Great" from the rest of Greg's dialogue and punctuating it with a strong verb like "slammed" makes it clear that in this case, "Great" means something other than "really good." Hopefully, the rest of the beats work as well, accentuating the conversation with bits of action that further deepen the meaning of the spoken words. (If I had to pick a fave, I'd have to choose "He reached for the remote" since it shows clearly that Andrew doesn't expect Greg to be ready any time soon, despite his words "let's get started.")

Parting Shot

Now it's your turn. Re-craft your masterpieces with award-winning dialogue and then send 'em our way. We'll keep the submission door open.