Writing Good Dialogue (2)

One of the characters is secretly the villain, and the reader knows it, but the other character is blissfully unaware. The villain is trying to extract a secret from the other character and the other character, not knowing who she is talking to, is about to spill the beans. The reader is practically screaming at the page “No! No! No! Don’t say it!” The dialogue is surely getting the reader’s attention.

It might be a situation when a character is being told a lie, and the reader knows it. Or it could be a situation where speaking the wrong word could get the character killed, and the reader knows it. Or it could be a situation where one of the characters knows a piece of information that might solve the case, and the reader knows it, but is taking forever to get to it. Or it could be a situation where the clock is ticking on an important action that must be taken, and the reader knows it, but the other bitch just won’t shut up long enough to hear about it. Those are dialogues that get the reader’s attention.

This is called “the bomb under the table trick”. The audience can see the ticking time bomb under the table but the characters cannot. It is an instrument for building suspense.

There are other ways to make the dialogue work, but the bottom line is that good dialogue is never just words that come out of a character’s mouth.

I have already said that the internet is full of articles like “10 Easy Ways to Improve Your Dialogue” which tell you things you should know, but only the really basic stuff. That does not mean that we don’t make the mistakes these tips tell us to avoid. Chief among them is that “real” conversation is not “realistic dialogue”. If you record real conversation, and try to write it down, it really sucks as dialogue. Yet we quest for the so called “realistic dialogue”. I will tell you straight out: Never seek realism for realism’s sake. In other words: Don’t write real. Write good.

Real conversation is about communication. You say “I want to buy a dog” and she says “What kind of dog?” You say “Haven’t decided, but I want a big friendly dog” and she says “How about a Labrador?” You say “My neighbor has a Labrador. I want something different” and she says “How about a German Shepard?” This is a conversation. You say “A”, she hears “A”. You say “B” she hears “B”.

THIS is a dialogue:
“I want to buy a dog.”
“Another one of your wants? It’s unhealthy to compensate for your insecurities through new possessions.”
“I’m only saying I want a dog. To keep me company while I write.”
“A dog is a living creature. Not a metal penis substitute you can put between your legs like a new motorcycle. A dog has feelings of its own. It’s cruel to use it to fill a void like any other consumer item.”
“I was thinking, like, throwing a ball, you know, playing go fetch, like, with a German Shepard.”
“You don’t even ride that motorcycle anymore.”
“I broke my leg! I took a break from my bike while I was healing!”
“You’re healed now. You lost interest in it. Like you do in everything.”

In a dialogue, you say “A” she hears “Asshat”. You say “B” she hears “Bullshit”. A dialogue is about miscommunication. He wants to buy a dog. She wants to take the opportunity to take him down a notch, and maybe just a little bit chop off his head and hang it on a spike.

Also, you might see that this scene, although nominally a conversation about a plan to buy a dog, is actually an exposition of a relationship that deteriorated over time. “You lost interest in it. Like you do in everything” gives you an idea of how this couple is treating each other.

What about tags? What about “he said” and “she replied”? I’ve read some authors say, simpler the better. No tags if possible. If there are more than two people talking and there might be some confusion, add “said Tom” and “said Sam” to specify who said what. If at all possible, avoid saying “said Tom angrily” or “yelled Sam”.
What about those longer tags like “said Cidy, wiping away her long auburn hair out of her freckled face.”
Frankly, my opinion on that is you should never do it. It is lazy exposition, it doesn’t serve a purpose, and it slows down the dialogue.
Long tags should follow the “Blofeld Cat Rule”.
James Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Blofeld gently caresses a cat while he orders the execution of an inconvenient politician. His handling of his cat enhances the coldness of his command. He does not “reach for his coffee” as he says “Kill him.”

Applying this rule, the above dialogue would look like this:
“I’m only saying I want a dog. To keep me company while I write.”
“A dog is a living creature. Not a metal penis substitute you can put between your legs like a new motorcycle.” She blew out the bubbles in her manicure, the same pearl pink as her puckered lips.
“A dog has feelings of its own. It’s cruel to use it to fill a void like any other consumer item.”
“I was thinking, like, throwing a ball, you know, playing go fetch, like, with a German Shepard.”

Do you see the effect? Now she looks more evil than before. After this, “You lost interest in it. Like you do in everything” takes on a whole new meaning. In fact, it may not be “he” that lost interest in their relationship. Maybe “she” lost interest and is blaming him for it. Blofeld’s cat turned the table.
You should not insert exposition into a dialogue unless it follows the “Blofeld Cat Rule”.

Another way to enhance dialogue is to insert disagreement. For example, one guy is a racist (“He’s black. He must be guilty.”) , or insensitive (“Racism doesn’t exist anymore.”), and it colors his opinions. The other guy tries to ignore that particular shortcoming and focus on the topic at hand because they are working the same case together.

“He could have reached the office in three minutes.”
“What if the guard stopped him?”
“Why would he stop him?”
“He’s black.”
“I say three minutes.”
“I say ten minutes.”

There are unspoken words in this disagreement and it enhances the tension.
You can use sexism or homophobia or the political divide of liberal versus conservative or just about anything for this device.

In any case, a dialogue is not good dialogue if there is nothing behind the words being spoken. The words coming out of the character’s mouth is not the central ingredient of the dialogue. There are unspoken meanings, misunderstandings, conflicts, and bombs under the table. If that is not granted, the best chosen words in the world will not make good dialogue.

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