Dialogue’s probably the hardest thing for a writer to do, other than publish a book and kill Man Bear Pig.
It’s hard to say why dialogue is so hard; it shouldn’t be harder than plotting an entire book, breathing life into fictional characters, or describing things that exist only in your imagination. Once you have those things down, allowing your characters to chill at the local Starbucks and talk about that hot guy standing by the biscotti rack should be fairly easy.
But it’s not. A lot of writers fear and/or hate writing dialogue. H.P. Lovecraft avoided it at all costs. The rare occasions he did not are cringe-worthy.
Dialogue is daunting; how many times have you read or watched TV and thought that there’s no way anyone, under any circumstances, would talk like that? Bad dialogue rubs you the wrong way. Good dialogue you never notice.
I read a lot of books on how to write dialogue; a few of them suggested eavesdropping on conversations at coffee houses or restaurants, any place where people would go to relax. Have you ever listened to someone, never mind yourself, talk? It’s mind-numbing.
“Uh, yeah, so I was thinking, that place at the lake? Um, can I, oh wait, here’s my phone, I’m like such a spaz it’s been in that pocket of my purse since we left the, since we left the mall, anyway that place at the lake?”
Oh. My. God.
This was actual dialogue, by the way. Direct from the Starbucks in Barnes & Noble, Beaumont, Texas, to all of you in the blogosphere. Most of us don’t notice how stupid we sound, because we’re listening to someone who sounds equally stupid. We’re busy sipping our cinnamon spice lattes. Or we’re watching the other person’s hands flap around her purse and thinking that is a really nice ring, why the hell can’t we have a ring like that? Or we’re wondering what the hot guy standing by the biscotti rack is like in the sack.
In short, we’re doing everything but paying attention to the dialogue as it flows around us. But when it’s on the page, we, as readers, don’t have that luxury of not paying attention but getting the gist anyway. Our eyeballs chew every sentence, every adverb, every fragment. And when it’s bad, our eyeballs throw up.
Wait. Did I just write about chewing, regurgitating eyeballs? Holy crap, that was a weird metaphor. That really made no sense. Ignore those last two sentences.
Um . . . so, dialogue is really hard. If you want to read good dialogue, pick up Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Actually, anything by McMurtry. Some writers have an ear for dialogue; he most definitely does. Also, pay attention to your favorite TV shows, to the different characters. Listen to how the writers set up the words.
Also, lose the adverbs. Don’t write, “Drop the gun,” she said tensely.
There’s nothing wrong with just adding she said and being done with it. This sentence is obviously part of a tense scene; if you’ve set up the scene well, you don’t need that wiggling little adverb. Squish that sucker. Most readers don’t notice the saids anyway, and cramming something onto the end of them may screw the flow of your story.
If you tire of typing said over and over, dump it. Let your characters exchange words. I’d do this only when you have two characters, though.
I’d also refrain from writing stuff like, “I reckon I’m ah old-fashioned country boy,” he drawled.
If you have ah in that sentence, which by the way I do not recommend, you don’t need drawled. Set up early that the guy speaks with a drawl. Have your main character mention it to him- or herself. Your reader will remember it; trust them.
Anonymous blog person: So, know-it-all, how’s your dialogue? Let’s have an example.
Me: Oh, um, sure. Not a problem. I think my dialogue writing is okay; it’s not perfect, but I try to watch my adverbs and stay away from a lot of slang; I do use the word “cool”, but that’s because it’s been around for a while. Same with groovy–
Anonymous blog person: You’re stalling. Your dialogue sucks, I knew it. How dare you trash Lovecraft!
Me: Hey, I didn’t trash him! All hail Cthulu!
Me: Okay, here’s some stuff from my book.
Anonymous blog person: Oh god, not again.
He dropped some money on the table, shook his head when David reached for his wallet. “I got this, troubadour,” Jimmy said.
Jimmy nodded. I tossed two quarters on the table for my coffee, added a dollar for a tip.
He frowned. “What’re you doing?”
I pursed my lips. “James, in this country, one is expected to pay for goods and services.”
“I think I can afford a buck-fifty, Liz.”
I opened my mouth to tell him not to call me Liz, but what came out instead was a low rumble. A growl.
The guys stared at me.
I put a hand in front of my mouth. “Umm, excuse me.”
Jimmy narrowed his eyes. “Did you just growl at me?”
David laughed. “What was that?”
Jimmy tucked the money under his plate. “That sounded like a growl.”
“It wasn’t a growl,” I said. “It was a belch. The coffee gave me indigestion.”
“That wasn’t no belch I ever heard,” Jimmy said.
“You should pull my finger sometime,” I said.
Anonymous blog person: Oh, goody. A fart joke.