Literary Ventriloquism

so what’s your take on how to write good, engaging, and realistic dialogue? i’ve heard some writers say that you should never use “he saids” and “she saids”. other writers say you HAVE to identify who’s talking at least every sixth line. some say you shouldn’t even use quotation marks, because they just get in the way. still others say to avoid things like “he exclaimed” . . . what do you think? how can i learn to write effective dialogue?

Thanks for the setup; I was going to do a post about this anyway. Today, I’m referring mainly to novel dialogue, but a lot of my inspiration for it comes from the screenwriting world.

The first thing to understand about dialogue is that the words are secondary to the subtext they’re wrapped in. A symptom of amateur writing is that everyone says exactly what they mean, usually in the same voice as the author.

“I’m really sorry I can’t be more emotionally available. My daddy used to beat me.”
“I’d often wondered why you recoil from my affections.”
“Now that you know, I’m afraid you won’t trust me anymore.”
“I will always trust you, and I promise to make him pay for his transgressions.”

Anyone else want to throw up? This is the same reason George Lucas shouldn’t be writing his own scripts. . . . So, we certainly know how the characters feel in that scene, it’s just that dialogue is usually the wrong device to convey strong emotions. In fact, speech is usually my last resort.

Peep this exchange:

“Where’d you go last night?”
“Like the night before?”
“I was looking for you.”

Simple, sure, but not necessarily unrealistic. Probably an actor’s wet dream if it were in play form. But I have no idea how to read that, and there’s no one to interpret it for me but you, writer. Even if your character is not the deceptive type, their body language and tone tells us far more than the stuff between the quotes does. Imagine a verbally-convincing phone-sex operator filing her nails while the client does his business on the other end of the line. The priest in the confessional going over his appointment book while the sinner bares his soul. Extreme examples, but both are proof you can’t rely on speech alone to convey meaning. It’s how what we say compares to what we do that defines a large part of our character.

Let’s try it again with subtext:

“Where’d you go last night?” Dick begins as casual as possible, ill-prepared to spar before breakfast.
“Nowhere,” Jane says, eyes now to the floor. She feins cold, pulling her sleeve down over the hand stamped with the telltale scrub-proof nightclub tattoo.
Confidence gaining, his fingers to her dry bath towel. “Like the night before?”
She exhales the last of her Marlboro and stubs it out. “Yeah.” The word hangs in the stale air.
“I was . . .” he scrolls through her cell’s incoming call list, “looking for you.”
“Really?” She brightens in what could almost be mistaken for a smile.

Now that’s a bit too much description, but you get the idea. We know that she’s evasive and guilt-ridden, and he’s passive but untrusting, but their words reveal little of that. Once you set the characters’ “business” and general demeanor for the scene, you can usually just let the dialogue run on its own, clarifying only when there’s a significant change. It’s a cleaner, faster read that breaks up the page nicely, as do short descriptive passages, so use them to salvage your readers’ eyes and attention span.

Emphasis is critical. Take the sentence: I never said she did it. Each individual word, once stressed, completely changes its meaning, from a denial of blame to a clarification to a question of morals. Use italics for these words when confusion may otherwise result. But not to excess.

Attribution, he said. Some of my favorite scribes will occasionally write a scene where they leave this out almost completely, and you’re utterly confused who’s saying what, yet it cleverly happens to add to the dramatic impact, because it could literally work either way. Unless you have a complete mastery of this, I wouldn’t recommend it. Whenever you break the one-paragraph-per-person verbal volleying tradition, such as an extra paragraph in the middle for some description, re-establish who is speaking. I prefer to keep the characters’ actions in the same paragraph as their dialogue for this reason, unless I need a “beat” for pacing reasons. Even if you just have a steady stream of back-and-forths on the page, I do think it’s wise to re-establish attribution every fifth or sixth line. Of course you always know who’s speaking, but think of your reader. Why confuse them?

The verbs we use for attribution. Seventy percent of the time, “said” is your best choice. I personally grow bored with this, but there aren’t many alternatives that don’t sound ham-fisted, so if you can get away with one, use it. You should know well enough when this is. If you think it sounds awkward, you’re probably right. Here are some bad ones:

“You have no idea,” she retorted.
“Jane,” he declared wryly, “that’s why I stay with you.”
“Darnit!” she shouted.
“Come again?” he ejaculated.

These next few sound appropriate, and they save you some description:

“Piss off,” he snaps.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she lies.
“This,” he snorts, “is why we fight.”
“Dick,” she chokes in her morning rasp, “I told you not to call this early.”

Also notice the last couple, where the attribution/action goes in the middle of the sentence, like an appositive, to imply a natural pause.

I believe that you do need quotation marks. You can certainly get used to not seeing them, but then you need excessive attribution to pull it off, otherwise you often can’t tell whether they are thoughts or are spoken. I like to combine the two sometimes, which does not work with that technique:

I don’t really know, I say. Just because I’m sleeping with her best friend doesn’t mean I would care, either.

I’m also a fan of combining actual quoted dialogue with the abbreviated, descriptive kind:

“Sorry I’m late,” she slides into the booth, catching her breath.
I ask about her day before pouring the wine.
“Let’s just say that rush hour was the bright spot.”
Well she’s here now, and I order us “anything they say might be an aphrodisiac.”

Okay, so those are some basic devices. Now for some general dialogue writing tips. First, it’s a clichĂ©, but study conversations. In coffee shops, bars, supermarkets. With parents, coworkers, lovers, siblings, subordinates. We change our tone and our guard when the balance of authority shifts, and certain venues tend to have their own pre-formatted outlines for convo. Once you understand these conventions is of course when you can begin to break from them. Still, working within them is just as effective sometimes, and can even be unexpected, depending on the character. Ghost World does a great job of toying with both.

People don’t often speak in monologues. Their counterparts interject. In a conversation, you should have lots of dashes where people get cut off, ellipses where they trail, etc. Like in film, cut to a reaction shot sometimes to break up any lengthier sections.

Don’t give us the entire conversation. This isn’t reality; your job is to heighten drama. As with everything else, begin the scene at its latest possible moment when we’re right in the thick of things, and get out before the characters do.

This reminds me, avoid using dialogue for exposition. It can be done in small amounts, just not as a cheat.

Record a few of your phone calls and transcribe them word-for-imperfect word. Use sentence fragments. Like this. Drop some of the final letters on words, like chillin’. Unless it’s a period piece, I’d avoid slang that is of the moment, or you’ll date the work. Realistically, most people use uhs and ums to excess, but limit these in your writing. Again, not reality, so it’s essential to cut out the boring bits unless those lulls have dramatic motivation or develop character.

Give each person a distinct speaking pattern, which will further reduce your need for attribution. Certain words or phrases they repeat. Big words versus small. Length of sentences. Contractions or not. Misuse. Impediments.

Dialogue is one way that people inflate themselves to appear cooler than they are. Conversely, sometimes what comes out of our mouths is not indicative of the intelligence within. In the film world, it’s very common for guys like Tarantino and Kevin Smith to get jobs as “script doctors” to punch up the dialogue.

Good talk, kids.

About Gordon

Gordon Highland is a video producer/director in the Kansas City area who also makes music and writes fiction.
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