Writing great dialog–Part 5: dialog basics
It’s been over a year since I wrote Part 4 of this series. You can see and read parts 1-4 simply by clicking on DIALOG in the categories on the left of the blog.
In this installment, I want to offer some tips on the basics of writing good dialog. Some writers struggle with dialog, while to others it comes naturally.
Why is dialog important in stories? Done well, it can be one of the best way to “show, don’t tell” because it can show the personalities of the characters, make them individuals, and help the reader to get to know them. Now, for that to happen, dialog has to step beyond the trivial and not be mundane. It’s okay for characters to greet each other, but the lines should consist of more than “Hi, Steve” or “What’s up, Martin?”
I’ve probably said it in previous blogs, but I can’t say this enough. Dialog needs to perform one of two functions: advance the story or tell us something about the speaker. The best dialog frequently does both.
I know I’ve used this passage before from the opening of my novel “More Than Magick,” but since it’s the opening of the novel, I spent a lot of time crafting to into the best dialog I could. Every line of the dialog informs the reader by advancing the story or saying something about the characters. Accompanying the dialog are bits of internal thoughts and exposition. I’ve annotated each line.
Jake hadn’t expected the phone call from Bryce Duncan.
“Hiya, Jake.” [CHARACTERIZES BRYCE]
He recognized the slight Australian accent. “Bryce?” [SHOWS JAKE RECOGNIZES THE VOICE]
“Your one and only grad school roommate.” [TELL WHO BRYCE IS AND FURTHER ADDS PERSONALITY]
“It’s good to hear from you. What’ve you been up to?” [NATURAL, CASUAL CONVERSATION ACTS AS TRANSITION BUT SETS UP WHAT’S COMING]
“Still digging up the past, except I have a small problem that requires your kind of genius. Can you hop a flight tomorrow morning to scenic Upstate New York?” [ANSWERS PREVIOUS LINE AND ADVANCES THE STORY]
Granted, Jake hadn’t seen him in over two years because they’d both been busy, but this was a bit too impulsive, even for capricious Bryce. Still, a short vacation from this hot, humid Illinois summer sounded good. But…
“Can’t do it. I’m in the middle of a project. How about next weekend?” [TELLS US MORE ABOUT JAKE]
“That’ll be too late.” [ADDS TENSION]
Jake heard a nervous edge in Bryce’s voice. “Bryce, what’s this about?” [CONCERN SHOWS THEIR RELATIONSHIP]]
“I can’t discuss it over the phone. Bring old clothes. Your ticket’s waiting for you at the airport.” [ADVANCES STORY]
“Are you in some kind of trouble?” [ADVANCES STORY; ADDS TENSION]
“No, not yet. I’m relying on you to keep me out of it. I know you’re never out of bed before ten, but a 6:30 a.m. flight was the best I could arrange. You’ll have to switch planes a couple of times, and there’re no in-flight meals. Best I could do. Sorry. I’ll meet you at the Plattsburgh airport late tomorrow afternoon.” [DESPITE SEEMING LIKE PURE INFORMATION, THIS TELLS US ABOUT BOTH CHARACTERS AND SETS UP FURTHER MYSTERY.]
A close examination of the passage should tell you that there are really no wasted or throwaway lines in it. I’m not saying that every piece of dialog I craft is perfect. As I said, I spent hours on this passage because it had to be as perfect as possible as the story opener. We know who these two characters are, a bit of their history, and that they’re close friends who would do anything for one another. On top of that, we get a strong hint of mystery.
Now look at the following passage from Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore and see how accomplishes the same things. I used this example in the series on Openings, but it serves well here for dialog. Nothing is wasted here. The dialog is tights and builds the story while also showing a bit of the characters and their personalities. Note how each line builds the story. It’s almost exposition, but being dialog it carries the story better than pure exposition because it shows character reactions rather than telling.
The angel was cleaning out his closet when the call came. Halos and moonbeams were sorted into piles according to brightness, satchels of wrath and scabbards of lightning hung on hooks waiting to be dusted. A wineskin of glory had leaked in the corner and the angel blotted it with a wad of fabric. Each time he turned the cloth a muted chorus rang from the closet, as if he’d clamped the lid down on a pickle jar full of Hallelujah Chorus.
“Raziel, what in heaven’s name are you doing?”
The archangel Stephan was standing over him, brandishing a scroll like a rolled-up magazine over a piddling puppy.
“Orders?” the angel asked.
“I was just there.”
“Two millennia ago.”
“Really?” Raziel checked his watch, then tapped the crystal. “Are you sure?”
“What do you think?” Stephan held out the scroll so Raziel could see the Burning Bush seal.
“When do I leave? I was almost finished here.”
“Now. Pack the gift of tongues and some minor miracles. No weapons, it’s not a wrath job. You’ll be undercover. Very low profile, but important. It’s all in the orders.” Stephan handed him the scroll.
“I asked that too.”
“I was reminded why angels are cast out.”
“Whoa! That big?”
Stephan coughed, clearly an affectation, since angels didn’t breathe. “I’m not sure I’m supposed to know, but the rumor is that it’s a new book.”
“You’re kidding. A sequel? Revelations 2, just when you thought it was safe to sin?”
“It’s a Gospel.”
“A Gospel, after all this time? Who?
“Levi who is called Biff.”
Raziel dropped his rag and stood. “This has to be a mistake.”
“It comes directly from the Son.”
“There’s a reason Biff isn’t mentioned in the other books, you know? He’s a total–”
“Don’t say it.”
“But he’s such an asshole.”
You’re probably asking if you’re allowed to have a few throwaway lines in dialog. The answer is “no.” Every line must serve a function. Some may be transition lines, but those should be rare. If the line isn’t telling us something about the characters or serving to advance the story, it should be eliminated or revised.
Here’s one last example, again from something I’m working on. The dialog section is surrounded by exposition and character thoughts, which set the scene and tells us who the characters are. The dialog, however, shows the characters’ personalities even before the final paragraph tells us more about them. The dialog is nothing spectacular, but its simplicity lets us see and meet these two girls and adds a bit of intrigue. Hopefully the dialog makes the reader want to know more. If so, then the dialog has done the job.
Chloe Tozier did her best not to yell at her sister. Grandma had given them the simple job of wiping off the glass-topped display cases in their private museum before the Girl Scouts arrived for their ten o’clock tour. Not a big deal, an hour of work at most.
So what did her darling sister Zoe do? She sprayed glass cleaner on the top of a display case, wiped it off, then did her tap, tap… tap, tap… tap, tap, on the wood panels behind each case.
“You’re not going to find any more,” Chloe told her.
“How do you know?”
“I just know.”
“Well, I know I’m going to find more. I feel it in my bones.”
“Only Grandma feels things in her bones.”
And with that Zoe continued her routine.
Chloe finished with her side of the second floor east hallway well ahead of her sister. While she waited for Zoe to catch up, she looked down at the two-story lobby from the balcony. Chloe loved living here—What twelve-year-old wouldn’t?—especially when her twin sister wasn’t being so annoying.
Study these passages, then look at your own dialog. Does each line accomplish a specific purpose? Or are some of the lines empty? Dialog should NOT be expository (or minimally so). That’s what exposition is for. When the dialog exists solely to impart information to the reader–especially when the characters’ personalities are absent from the dialog–we call it “talking heads.”
Dialog should SHOW the characters and ADVANCE the story, not tell the story directly to the reader (except in special cases of dialog-only stories). Make your dialog feel natural, and make the characters talk to one another, not to the reader. And if the characters already know the information, don’t use dialog to deliver information to the reader. Use exposition or thoughts instead.
Some final advice is that dialog should not read like a transcript of a conversation. In real life we say a lot of boring things. In fiction, you must edit out the boring parts and retain only the key lines that tell the story. In addition, avoid too many long passages of pure dialog unless they serve a real purpose. While exceptions exist, it’s generally best to mix things up.