“Miss McCready?” Poole pulled his shirt cuffs from underneath his suit coat, smoothed them against his wrists. His voice was light and almost musical.
“Look, I – “
“Where’s the money?” The lighter and more melodious the singsong got, the more threatening Poole seemed.
“I was stoned, okay? We left the motel; two seconds later every cop in New Hampshire is running through the parking lot…Amanda was crying, so they must have thought we were just a family who’d been on the road.”
“Amanda was there with you?” Beatrice said. “Helene!”
“What,” Helene said, “I was going to leave her in the car?”
This slightly spindled and mutilated excerpt, pulled from Dennis Lehane’s “Gone Baby, Gone” shows everything great dialogue can accomplish. In just a few sentences, the reader has learned some key plot points, has found out a little about the characters: not only with how they relate to each other but (at least in Helene’s case) what they think of themselves.
This is what dialogue does, and what makes it so important to your story. You can write the most beautiful, descriptive prose in history, but without dialogue, you may find your characters are flat, soulless statues in a beautiful garden of words. And while few people write dialogue as wonderfully as Mr. Lehane today, I’ve found a few simple tricks that, at a minimum, keep me from embarrassing myself. I hope they work for you.
Listen When I ride the bus home from work, I listen into conversations all around me. Creepy? Maybe a little, and I’ve probably learned more about how to beat court ordered drug testing then I’ll ever need to know, but you can develop a very good ear for dialogue just by listening to people talk. You hear their cadence, their voice. People do not speechify. They rarely speak in highly formal language. Conversation is messy. People interrupt each other; they talk over each other. They use slang and shortcuts or trail off before finishing their thoughts. Your characters should do they same.
But not too much. So of course, my second bit of advice is going to contradict the first. As I said, conversation is messy, and often boring. Most people when they speak use a lot of filler words like um and uh and like. It’s OK to put a smattering of these, especially if it’s a defining aspect of the character, but be careful. They can easily bog down your story.
In the same vein, you want your dialogue to help move along your story or help define your characters, so small talk is almost always unnecessary. Having your characters exchange “hellos” or talk about the weather (again, unless it’s important to the story) will usually make your readers’ eyes glaze. And watch dialect. Writing in dialect (ie “shucks, why we’re gladder then a pig in a poke that y’all are here”) can be distracting – and frankly sometimes insulting – so use it sparingly.
Watch the tags. Tags are the part of the dialogue where you ascribe who spoke, and while the most common way to do so is to say “He said”, it’s usually not the best way. Notice in the example above, Mr. Lehane uses the phrase “said” only twice out of six conversational exchanges. Instead, he substitutes actions and description. Using “he said” becomes repetitive and is often redundant. After all, we know the character is speaking, those quotation marks tell us that already. In many cases Mr. Lehane doesn’t even use a tag at all, you know which character is speaking because he…
Give your character “voice” If you invest enough in your character, you reader will often know who is speaking, simply by the words he speaks and the way he delivers them. Your characters are individuals, make sure they behave that way when they speak.
Read it out This is good advice for your entire story, but it’s absolutely vital for good dialogue. Read your passages aloud. Look for areas where you stumble or the conversation seems forced or rough and smooth them out. Make sure that your characters are speaking with their distinct voices. If you don’t feel confident being able to hear two different voices in your head, find someone you feel comfortable with and have them read with you- like a script. It might seem a little goofy, but the best way to make sure that dialogue flows is often to actually hear it out loud.
So that’s this week’s words of wisdom from Mr. 0 for 26 himself. Keep writing! And if this helps you, please let me know in the comments.