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January, 2002 Column
Say What?
Writing Effective Dialog

We talk every day. We hold conversations wherever we go--at work, out shopping, or at home with our families. You could say we're all experts at casual chatter. Why, then, do many writers find dialog so difficult to write?

I may not be The World's Finest Fiction Writer, but I've always been a whiz at making characters converse. Still, when I received a number of requests from Toolbox readers asking for a column on dialog, I was stumped. How should I explain something that comes naturally? It wasn't as if I ever had to learn it--I just do it. So I started thinking about how I write dialog, trying to bring forth some of the techniques I subconsciously use, and rules I instinctively follow. This is what I came up with.


Today's movie audiences don't buy into hokey dialog. The characters on the screen must speak in a way that rings true, or moviegoers will turn away. So, it only stands to reason that a great source for learning dialog would be the cinema. 

My brother and I play this little game where we repeat lines of dialog from movies we've both seen, and then try to guess the movie title. (Drives the rest of our family nuts.) We remember dialog because we pay attention. Start listening at movies and during TV time. If you're a visual person, instead of watching, close your eyes to help yourself listen. Remember the tone and style of the characters' conversations. Emulate that real-sounding style when you write.


Pretend you're an actor rehearsing a script. When you're revising lines of dialog, read them aloud. Try to sound just as your character would--using vocal tones and inflections to convey meaning. Do you sound ridiculous? If you do, you need to rewrite your dialog to make it more conversational and realistic.


From the age of about 14 or so, I've been a Stephen King fan. And whether you love or loathe him, King writes incredible dialog. As a teenage writer, I wanted to write like Stephen King. I'm sure the Master of the Macabre is partly responsible for my ability to create vivid conversations between my characters. If you read writers who have a knack for dialog (and you'll know who they are when you read their books), you'll most likely pick up some ability by osmosis.


I know, I know--you're saying, "What dialog rules? I never got any dialog rules!" They're not exactly handed out on the first day of Creative Writing 101, but they do exist as a sort of unwritten law. Here they are:

- Never use attributes other than "said" or "asked." (Like all rules, this one may be broken from time to time--just be careful to break it only when the alternative truly adds something to your story.) Often, if it's clear who's talking, you don't need an attribute at all.

- Don't try to write in dialect unless you're a real pro (in which case you probably wouldn't be reading this article). It's awkward, and you have to use some creative spelling and punctuation. Telling us Velvet Johnson spoke like a southern belle is preferable to making us read (and decipher) lines of dialog like: "Whah, I ain't nevah seen nothin' like that in mah life!"

- Do throw in regional expressions and slang to make dialog seem real. Just don't pepper your manuscript so full of them that it's no longer palatable.

- Experiment with giving your character a vocal tick--some oft-repeated word or phrase that becomes his trademark. Remember Joe Pesci's character, Leo Getz, in the Lethal Weapon movies? Aside from a constant stream of fast-talking chatter, Leo's vocal trademark was: "Okayokayokay...." 

- Don't have your characters make small talk. In real life, we may chat about the weather and the stock market. In fiction, unless those things happen to be important to the story--say, for instance, you're writing a book like The Perfect Storm, or a screenplay like Wall Street--leave them out and cut to the chase. Small talk is dull in real life. It's even more boring in fiction. 

- Break up dialog with action. People don't simply stand face to face and talk. We make facial expressions and gestures. We move around and do things as we're talking. The physical action in your story shouldn't grind to a halt when your characters speak any more than it would in real life. Here's the rub, though--when you're including action in your dialog sequences, make certain what you've included helps your story. It should show character, set the scene, or move the plot forward in some small (or not so small) way.

Making your characters chatter shouldn't be a scary thing--it's fun! And we all enjoy reading good dialog, because suddenly people are talking and things are getting interesting. If you have trouble with dialog, practice it. Try writing a story with nothing but dialog, and try making it so that a reader would be able to learn something about the characters through the dialog and distinguish them, one from the other, by their speech. You might even practice conversations in your head. It's not weird or schizophrenic--I do it all the time. 

Well, then again, maybe it is weird--but we're writers, for Heaven's sake!

2002, Karen Hertzberg

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