Sunday, 7 August 2011

Ten rules for sharpening your dialogue

When I first started writing my dialogue was bland. It sounded okay in my head, but to others it read (and sounded) flat. In truth, it was awful.
    "You really think so?"
    "Yes, I really think so."
So I read a lot about dialogue, paid attention to what people said, and read good dialogue. Now, when my writing gets reviewed, it gets rated as anywhere from 'serviceable' to 'quite good'. So, here are ten rules I use when writing, and particularly when editing.

But first, the strategy: writing and reading is like a dance - the author should be leading the dance, and staying just ahead of the reader. Once the reader can predict what the writer is going to say next, it becomes boring. Why spend time reading something when you know what's going to happen? So, the author, via the characters, is one small step ahead. But not two or three, or else the author is going to lose the reader, because they can't follow. The reader will trip and say "what the..?" and find another dance partner.

So, here are the rules, in no particular order:

1) Interrupt. People do it all the time.

   He waved the gun at her. "Listen carefully. You're going to lie down on the bed. Then I'm going to--"
   "Just pull the trigger, asshole."

2) The snappy reply (see also (1) above). This makes characters interesting. They say things the reader might have said if they'd had more time to think of them (the author does have the time).

   He couldn't believe he'd been set up again. "You bastard,Vince!" Micah threw a punch.
   Vince caught it mid-air, not even flinching. "Pretty rich, Micah, coming from someone who's only just re-discovered his father."

3) The crevice. Seeing deeper into a character, but only for a moment.

   "You know your blondie partner is screwing Micah? Kinda kinky, I had a ringside seat. A bit out of his league, to be honest." She flicked ash onto the interrogation room floor, watching his eyes. No reaction. "They must take stuff out of you, huh? You must lose something, you know, a piece of yourself."
   Vince's eyes intensified and then broke her gaze. "Actually, it's more like they put 'stuff' in."

4) Going too far.

   [backstory: Micah is in love with Antonia, who he thinks is in love with someone else]
   "I saw her this morning in the program. She wasn't in good shape." He watched Antonia's shoulders lock. "The carrion birds are still searching for her." He noticed she was barely breathing. He had to be sure. "To be honest, Antonia, I don't think she's going to last much--"
   "Stop! Stop it! You're hurting me!"

5) Saying something you can't take back (note - this can also be a form of telling lies)

   "Do you still love me, Harry? Can you forgive me?"
   His hands were shaking. His best friend. How could she? But then the shaking stopped, and his anger cooled like metal, forming a blade. He held her wrists, stared into her eyes, and spoke quietly. "I've never loved you, Sarah." He held her startled gaze, waited for her tears to come. "Ever."

6) Telling lies

   He glanced at the sms from Dolores: 'Miss you. When can we meet?' He shoved the phone, switched to silent mode, back in his pocket.
   Sarah came back out of the kitchen, picked up her coat. "Ready?" She opened the front door, then paused. "Your phone, it is switched off, isn't it?"
   He swung his coat over his shoulder, smiling. "Of course it is. Come on, or we'll be late."

7) Non-sequiturs

   [backstory: Jennifer & Dimitri are deep underwater in a small sub searching for a lost ship]
   Jennifer had never seen anything move so fast underwater. She watched Dimitri gazing through the porthole, like an excited scientist who'd just discovered a new species of shark, failing to realize it was on an attack vector. She understood now why the last mission hadn't made it back to the surface. She made her decision and jettisoned the last data-pod - the next mission would be better prepared.
   "Jennifer - why...? There is still so much more to record down here."
   She clutched her locket. "I love you."
   His puzzled gaze moved from her to the creature outside, then back to her. He glanced down to the radar screen tracing the creature's movements. "No, not like this!" He blurred into action...

8) Cutting to the chase

   [they're on a spaceship]
   "We're losing oxygen, Sir. One per cent an hour. I don't know where it's going." Pierre spoke flat, as if reading a newspaper. He handed Blake the data-pad.
   Zack bridled. "This could be a sensor-glitch, Pierre, especially as you can't find the leak. Wouldn't be our first." But he knew Pierre was never wrong about facts and figures.
   Kat broke in. "But we'll be on Eden in a week, and there's a whole planet-full of air there."
   Blake handed the pad back to Pierre. "We'll be dead in two days."

9) Not saying what you should

   Antonia laid a hand on his shoulder. He couldn't remember her ever touching him before. "Micah, can I ask you to do something for me?"
   Micah didn't move. Anything. Everything. "Sure."
   "Will you protect her. watch out for her?"
   He made his head nod, keeping his lips clamped.
   "Micah, would you do something else for me, you don't have to, but ... would you mind just holding me for a moment. I miss her so much."
   And so he held her in his arms, as he'd dreamt of doing a hundred times. But he wished her lover was there instead, because right now he was in hell.

10) Not answering the damned question
    "You can't be serious? They want to recruit me? I'd rather burn in hell. But you, why, for God's sake, why did you join them? You've betrayed everything we stood for!"
   She gazed through the window, the fire outside reflecting in her eyes. "I told them you'd say no."

To see dialogue in my own work, see The Eden Paradox on and, and (free) Stories on my website.

See also:
Dialogue, by Diane Kempton, Writer's Digest Books, 2004
How not to write a novel, by Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark, Penguin, 2008 


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