1/ PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR DIALOGUE
All other principles are refinements of this one. For me, the first step in learning to write good dialogue was deciding that I wanted to write good dialogue. This required me to pay attention to the way that my characters’ spoke, rather than just using dialogue to push the story forward.
I noticed that good dialogue was an attribute of my favourite writers (Garth Ennis, Elmore Leonard, Joe Lansdale, Quentin Tarantino, Cormac McCarthy) and I decided that I, too, would be a ‘dialogue guy’. While I did spend a lot of time looking at what they did, I think the main improvement came from taking the time to look at every line I wrote and asking “Does this sound like a person actually speaking?”
What I’m saying is that good dialogue doesn’t just happen. It takes work.
2/ DIALOGUE IS HOW CHARACTERS COMMUNICATE WITH EACH OTHER
The heading should be self evident, but perhaps the corollary is not:
Dialogue is the means by which characters communicate information to each other–not to the reader.
You see this all the time, especially in television, where slabs of plot need to be communicated quickly within a fixed episode runtime and genre convention combined with the medium itself removes other obvious tools. But it’s still bad writing.
Here are two dialogue clues that the characters are speaking for the benefit of the audience, not each other:
The Exposition Dump: This one usually begins with the phrase “As you already know…” If character A already knows what’s going on, why is character B explaining it to them… and why are they listening? The clock is ticking, people–the bomb is gonna go off, the episode is running out of minutes, the reader is losing patience with your shitty dialogue.
What’s My Motor-vation: “But, don’t you see…?” Uh, yeah. If your killer has to explain why he dunnit in a big speech, after we’ve spent a whole episode/chapter/book/trilogy working out who and why, something is broken.
Readers are smart. They can work out a lot of stuff just from the context of the story. If there really is too much information to get across naturally then find another device to get this across, rather than making your players drop character and vomit it up.
In prose this is easy–just take a moment and deliver information through your narrator. I like to use small chunks of a sentence or two interspersed through action or dialogue, to avoid bogging everything down, but many writers approach the info dump with the relish of a rock guitarist playing a solo. That’s okay, too. If you’re gonna go it, you may as well go for it. I know they teach you ‘show, don’t tell’, but that’s what prose is–exposition. Better you ‘tell’ in prose than in dialogue.
In script there are other ways to deliver exposition. Scrolling titles, like the opening of Star Wars. I’m not a fan of the voice-over, but I’d rather that than endlessly speech-making characters.
Another way to do this is to give the characters an in-story reason for dumping information: a classroom, a lecture, a press conference, a briefing, a wedding speech, a job interview. Just realize that in real life, these kinds of events tend to be boring. Which is fine if you’re a teacher or a manager, (sorry, teachers) but if you’re a writer this is the biggest sin there is. Remember: everybody likes a short speech. So if you have these kinds of scenes, you need to cut them hard. Showing that your characters are bored with the proceedings is not going to make it any more interesting to the reader. So, like the man says: show up late and leave early.
3/ DIALOGUE IS INTERACTIVE
Even if one character is speaking and another listening, don’t forget that the other character is still present. The listener will respond to what is being said in various ways and the speaker will respond to the listener as well as to their own memories and agendas. You need to think about what both characters are doing all the while. Don’t be afraid to let them interrupt each other. Think about what the characters are physically doing while they converse (drinking coffee, playing pachinko, cutting up a body) and think about how that effects the conversation, and vice versa.
4/ AVOID PHONETIC SPELLING
“YOUSE GOIZ IS DA BESTUST GANGSTAS IN THE WOILD.” I’ll grant you that has a certain comic effect, but phonetically spelling everything a character says instantly makes them a caricature.
Look at it this way: how many people do you know who are really good at imitating accents and dialects? I bet the number is a lot smaller than the number of friends you have who THINK they’re good at accents (hint: me). Do you want to be that guy uses the same comical voice for an Irish accent as for an Indian one?
The occasional phonetic spelling will add a bit of colour, but my advice is to keep it down. Careful word ordering and word choice will usually do more to convey an accent than bad spelling.
5/ GOOD DIALOGUE SOUNDS NATURAL, BUT ISN’T
Listen to some conversations between strangers. Go on. Eavesdrop on the train or in a cafe or in the ladies toilet (provided you are, ahem, allowed to be in there in the first place.)
Natural conversation is terrible. People repeat themselves. They stutter, they flub punchlines, they spout cliches, they make weird grammar errors, they talk in circles, they make no sense, they go off on tangents, they fail to deliver their points, they over-explain, they leave out crucial details… Did I mention that they repeat themselves? Oh, I… I did? Do you think that’s irritating? I think it’s really fucking irritating.
Anyway. Nobody wants to read your shitty conversation with your mates unless you are all a bunch of professional standup comedians. Good dialogue sounds natural, but isn’t. It has inflections of accent and dialect and it shows some of the qualities listed above, but like good writing it’s concise and clever and properly paced.
6/ KEEP IT SHORT
Best way to avoid all of these traps is to keep the dialogue short. Punchy.
Here’s a trick that I have used on more than one occasion when a big slab of dialogue just isn’t working:
First, take every line and cut it in half. Literally: try to break every line at half the width of the page.
Then have a different character respond to it on the next line. Even if it’s just a “Go on…” when the prior character peters out. When you break it up like this it’s much easier to spot the clauses that are redundant or awkwardly phrased… and it hurts less to slash them out.
You probably won’t be able to break every line, but try everything you can before you give up. If some of the dialogue is a big paragraph of text, see if you can summarize it in one or two sentences. I think you will be surprised how often you can.
The result may not be elegant, but it will at least keep the conversation moving. Even if you don’t keep this cropped version, it’s likely a better basis for a rewrite than the morass you started with.
7/ SILENCE IS GOLDEN
It doesn’t just sound like a cliche, it is a cliche… but what your characters do not say really is more important than what they do. What they conceal from each other and from the reader, what they refuse to admit, and all of the implications that go along with it. A well placed beat is worth 100 lines of expositing or emoting, and it reads a damn sight better. The punchline that you don’t have to say is the best punchline there is.
8/ THE USUAL DISCLAIMER
The usual disclaimer applies: writing is an art. There are no hard and fast rules. There are writers who produce amazing dialogue that violates every single one of the items I have written above. The key is to think about what you’re doing and to employ or ignore rules like the ones given above purposefully. Know when you’re going against principle and why and your work will be strong. Go against them out of ignorance and it will almost certainly not be.