Writing Good Dialog

Creative Schizophrenia: A Lesson In Dialog

copyright 1999, Karen A. Hertzberg

When it comes to writing good dialog, I'm of a mind that some writers are just born with a gift for hearing and writing realistic conversations. If you're one of those people, good for you! Believable dialog is a powerful storytelling tool. Nothing moves a story along like people talking. But if you're struggling with stilted dialog, listen up. The tips I'm about to share will have you conversing in no time.

Do Some Creative Eavesdropping

The next time you're in a mall, restaurant, or any other public area--eavesdrop. Listen in on some conversations. Listen to how real people talk, and what they talk about. This doesn't mean you're going to translate conversations you overhear into your writing word for word. For one, that could earn you a libel suit, but mostly, writing conversations EXACTLY as they sound would bore the socks off your readers. We fill our conversations with a lot of nonsensical verbal flotsam--all those ers and ums and ya knows.

So, if our conversations are generally dull, why listen to them? Because at some point you'll start rewriting them. Once you've been eavesdropping for a while, you'll develop a talent for rewriting conversations in your head to make them more vibrant and interesting. That's a valuable skill! You'll also become more aware of the ways
real people talk. We don't always speak in complete sentences, for instance, and not all of us use flawless grammar.

Make A Movie

Who doesn't remember some famous lines from movies? We all have our favorites. Sure, action-driven movies have their place, but the ones we remember usually involve a lot of stirring dialog between characters. And even action movies have memorable dialog. Who doesn't remember Arnold Schwarzenegger droning, "I'll be back?"

When I write, I envision a movie. As the reel plays in my head and the characters interact, I write down what they're saying. When you start playing stenographer to the characters in your head--hungrily jotting down their words--you'll stop forcing them to talk and start

Read Your Dialog Out Loud

This step seems so obvious, but its one many beginning writers skip…at their peril! We mistakenly believe that dialog is READ simply because it's printed on a page. While that's technically correct, there's another aspect we often overlook. Dialog is HEARD. Your reader is interpreting--hearing--the music of tones and inflections in her head. You've got to hear that dialog, too. The best way to hear it objectively is to read it out loud. If your dialog sounds phoney or flat when you read it to yourself, imagine how it sounds to your reader's delicate ear?

"Do You Use Funky Attributes?" she queried

The world's safest attributes are "said" and "asked." If a character's stating something, he says it. If he's posing a question, he asks. It's pretty simple, and practically invisible. Readers aren't jarred when they read "said" and "asked." They tend to skim over the words as if they aren't there.

So why include attributes at all? For clarity, as necessary. You don't always have to follow up a line of dialog with he said/she said. More often than not, the reader knows who's speaking without an attribute. But when there's any doubt who's doing the talking, clear things up with "said" or "asked."

Can you use other attributes? Sure. But unusual attributes are like tobasco sauce--a little goes a long way. There's no rule that says you can't spice up your dialog when you find a verb that really fits, especially if it helps your reader "hear" the line more clearly. Compare these lines of dialog:

"Give me a break," she grumbled.
"Give me a break," she pleaded.
"Give me a break," she giggled.

Each one means something different, and makes your reader "hear" something different in her head. When the attribute changes the meaning of your line of dialog, or gives it more impact, go ahead and use it. Just don't make it too weird.