Writing Good Dialogue

Writing good dialogue is a second draft problem. If every dialogue in your first draft sounds like the same person talking to himself, that is to be expected. You can refine it when you re-write it.

Good advice on writing is hard to find. Good advice on writing dialogue is even harder to find. That is because, up until quite recently, most successful writers wrote “naturally” without analyzing what they were doing. Analyzing dialogue is still a relatively new development.

If you Google “How to write dialogue” you will find a dozen or so lists that will help you, such as “How To Write Good Dialogue: Ten Tips” and “The 7 Tools of Dialogue” and “10 Easy Ways to Improve Your Dialogue“. Generally, they will tell you things like “Watch your tags”, “Say your dialogue out loud”, “Beware of accents”, “Realistic doesn’t mean real”. I could post my list of “10 ways to improve your dialogue” but I think I’ll pass. Most of these things are way too obvious and utterly unhelpful. You either know them already or you can learn more by reading actual novels with good dialogue.

What is good dialogue? Or more specifically, why does my dialogue suck? The short answer is: “Your dialogues suck when your characters are not saying anything.” The long answer is, what I will try to explain below.

Writers tend to get caught up in the use of clever words when it comes to dialogue.
“What are you looking at, nerd?”
“I thought I was looking at my mother’s old douche-bag, but that’s in Ohio.”
That’s a clever line. (And it added the word “douche bag” to the American lexicon.) But it’s not exactly a great dialogue.

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind is known for a lot of eyebrow raising straight talk like, “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” In fact, the book is so full of abrasive truisms that there are websites dedicated to posting them. You will find gems like “Until you’ve lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is” or “Death, taxes, and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them.”
But the key element in the dialogue between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara is what they are NOT admitting to each other. Their talk is all about concealing their own feelings while taking the meat cleaver to the other person’s psyche.

Good talk is all about what is NOT being said. The reader knows what should be said, or what is being meant, but the characters are only verbalizing the tip of the iceberg, or perversely saying the opposite of what they should be saying.
Writing good dialogue is like writing good arguments. Each character has things on their mind that is not directly related to the words they are saying. This back story is usually retro-fitted in the second draft.

Sometimes, it is not what is NOT BEING SAID, but about what is NOT BEING DONE. The classic example of this is the conversation between Major Strasser and Rick in the bar scene in the movie Casablanca. It is the scene in which Rick is introduced to Strasser for the first time. (Watch the movie if you don’t know it already.) Major Strasser, the suave, refined, gentlemanly Nazi officer, is doing what good Nazi villains always do; he is trying to threaten Rick and scare him shitless without actually pulling out his gun. Rick is trying to evade the questions and insult the Nazi as much as possible without getting himself killed. The suspense comes from the fact that one guy is a Nazi officer pretending to be nice because he has bigger fish to catch and the other guy is a former member of the Resistance who is pretending to be a selfish businessman who doesn’t give a shit. The whole conversation is like a well choreographed fight scene. Every line is a lunge and parry. These guys are doing with words, what they should be doing with knives.

When dialogue is good, more is being said than is verbally spoken. When Rhett Butler is running diagnostics on Scarlett’s self-centered character, what he really should be saying is that he loves her and cannot get her out of his mind. When Major Strasser is commenting on Rick’s “interesting cafe”, what he really wants to say is that he has the goods on Rick and will tear him apart if he gets in the way of capturing Victor Laszlo.

Lists of 10 easy ways to improve your dialogue is useful to a certain extent, but your dialogue will still suck if your characters are not saying anything beyond the words that are coming out of their mouths.

When Breaking Bad begins, Walter White had already made a train wreck out of what might have been a brilliant career through pride, denial, and stubbornness even before he gets lung cancer. Making and selling drugs is not just his way of providing for his family before his impending death, but his last and only shot at regaining the self respect he lost along the way. That is why the writer could come up with a great line like, “I am not in danger. I am the danger.”

Great lines are the tip of the back story iceberg. And they will flow out of you naturally if you have your story right. Or, conversely, if you have a great line that came to you out of nowhere, that is a great chance to dig deeper. What is the back story that made your character say that line? Back story generally does not make it into the final draft except in brief hints, but you should dig it up and know about it, because your next dialogue will depend on it.

 

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