Let’s talk about dialogue.
You know who your characters are; you know what you need them to do to get to that ending you have mapped out for the paragraph/chapter/novel/glass of wine you’re determined to finish before you have a bath.
You know their back-stories. You’ve possibly detailed those back stories already in chapter one (mistake). They’re all distinct, different people in your mind. One might be, I don’t know, an alcoholic police detective (also a mistake); another could be that detective’s grumpy, disbelieving boss who has marital troubles (honestly, don’t). Yet another may well be the innocent newbie who’s acting as the reader’s way in to this decadent world - could be a fresh-faced police officer or a witness to a heinous crime (just, you know, don’t!). You may also have your villain sorted by this stage. He might be a criminal mastermind who is using his previous history as the alcoholic detective’s ex-partner/mentor (please, please don’t) to taunt your heroes. You’ve probably written a first person scene with him already, where he does a murder or something.
Eventually though, these people are going to have to speak to one another, and they’re going to have to do more than spout blatant exposition when they do.
Problem is, the blatant exposition still has to be in there. Yes, you can cover some of it by ‘telling’ the reader, but we all know what kind of critiques that gets us (shudder).
I mainly write comedy, which tends to be dialogue rich and exposition light, as a rule. Why the hell did I start this article with a clichéd crime novel set up then, you may be asking yourself. Frankly, I’m asking myself the same question. It’s a mystery. How have I managed to get 300 words into an article about dialogue without using any quote marks, you may also be asking yourself. That too is a mystery, and one which will almost certainly be edited out by the time you read this.
So, first rule of dialogue - make sure the things your characters say are things people would actually say in the given situation:
‘Jake Amos, you’re a goddamn disgrace to that badge you carry. That thing used to shine, do you remember that, eh? Or has the whiskey you pour into yourself turned that black, too?’
Now, there’s nothing drastically wrong with that as a line of dialogue. It tells you what you need to know - Jake’s boss thinks he’s a drunkard and no good at his job because of him being a drunkard. It could easily be followed by a line like, oh -
‘This is your last chance, Amos. You let this girl die, you’re out of here, y’hear?’
And Jake might say something along the lines of -
Or possibly, ‘Fuck you, boss. See you in the morning.’ Depending on how recalcitrant you’ve decided to make him.
Nothing wrong with any of that, you might think. And you’d be right. Apart from one little thing. That thing being - IT’S RUBBISH!
Why is it rubbish? Let’s think about it.
This is reality, there’s your first point of reference. Any middle manager who has an employee with an obvious alcohol problem isn’t going to hand over an important piece of work to that person, certainly not one where lives may be at risk. No, a decent, conscientious manager would advise that employee to seek treatment in the hope that they might one day return to active duty as a useful member of the team, after whatever therapy was required. So, the dialogue might more realistically go something like:
‘Jake Amos! How you doing? Listen, Jake, I need to take you off the team for a while. You need help, bud. If you’re stupid enough not to realise that for yourself then I guess I’ll have to realise it for you, y’hear?’
Or possibly, ‘Fuck you, boss. See you in the morning.’ Depending on how recalcitrant etc. Either way, Jake’s going to hospital before he finds out a thing about the missing girl/child/racehorse. Of course this might cause you a few issues with the story you have in mind, but that’s your problem not mine.
Second rule of dialogue - don’t use it to tell the reader things the characters already know. Nothing sets off alarm bells in a reader’s mind like this common mistake does.
‘Jake, I know you’ve got a drink problem, I see it every day, for God’s sake! You have to forgive yourself for not getting to that little boy in time eight years ago. It wasn’t your fault that his junkie mother sold him for three grams of heroine and a fish supper to the local pimp, who went on to abuse the boy by ignoring child labour laws and forcing him to work as a window cleaner. Yes, if you’d made it to the flats five minutes earlier you might have been able to grab him before he fell, but how could you have known that at the time? How, Jake? Tell me how!’
Do you see the problem? You might want the reader to know about Jake’s run in with the child on the dodgy ladder to give an insight into his scarred psyche, but having another character repeat his history, to him, is not the way to go about it. Real people just don’t do that.
Third rule of dialogue - actual human beings’ speech is rarely grammatically correct. News flash - even posh people use contractions!
‘I am coming with you, Jake; you do not have to face this alone. I will start the car while you are gathering your arsenal of firearms and squeezy cloths.’
‘You have got to be kidding. Fuck off please, boss. I will see you tomorrow morning.’
See what I’m saying? It’s not only okay to mess around with the rules of ‘proper’ grammar when writing dialogue, it’s practically compulsory.
Fourth rule of dialogue - real people rarely use one another’s names when chatting.
You can just about get away with this once at the beginning of a conversation, just to let the reader know who’s talking to whom, but once that’s established you don’t have to keep reminding us. Most humans who can read are relatively smart, they’ll figure it out.
‘Jake, put that chamois down, you’re going nowhere.’
‘But Felix, I have to go. I can’t let another child hit that pavement. Not again, Felix. Not again.’
‘I know, Jake. I know you can’t. We’ll do it together, Jake.’
‘No problem, Jake.’
It’s not right, is it?
Fifth rule of dialogue - go easy on the dialect/accent.
‘Away tae feck, ya bugger. Ah’ll dae whit the hell ah waant tae. Ah’m no’ kidding aboot wae this scunner any maer. Huv ye no’ seen how high they flats ur?’
Phonetically and colloquially correct it may be, but easy reading it is not. Rule of thumb here is to check the name on your birth certificate. Unless it says Irvine Welsh, think seriously about how far you go.
Biggest rule of dialogue - copy (okay, learn from) other people who are better at it than you are.
Personally I think there’s more to be learned from talented screenwriters than novelists in this area. For truly superb dialogue watch the films of Tarantino, Kevin Smith or Judd Apatow to name but a few. George Lucas, not so much.
The best people to stea—I mean learn from are even closer to hand than Netflix. They’re everywhere you go, in fact. Pay attention to the people you meet and interact with every day. Listen to the rhythm of their speech. Watch out for any quirks that help immediately identify that person - missing pronouns, stupid adjectives etc. Notice how friends develop their own shorthand when chatting.
Whoever your characters may be - detectives, vampires, poets, lovers, misery merchants, alien sex marauders or underage window cleaners - you’ll be able to find a real life analogue somewhere in your life whose speech patterns you can borrow for that character. And no, I’m not suggesting you find an actual vampire or child window cleaner to copy, that would be far too time consuming. Just look for someone around you who speaks in a way that would suit the character you have in your head. Or, failing that, make all the baddies speak like your parents/teachers/priest and all the goodies sound like yourself. That ought to work.
Finally, a few words about dialogue tags - where possible, don’t.
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