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How to write dialogue

I’m sitting at my computer early in the morning and my wife walks in.

“Good morning,” she says. “Is there any more coffee?”

I nod. “Do you want some?” I answer.

“I’ll get it,” she says. “What are you working on?”

“A blog post on dialogue,” I reply sleepily.

“Good luck,” she laughs, heading for the kitchen.

That’s pretty bad dialogue. It has no apparent purpose and too many words: adverbs like sleepily, redundant dialogue tags like answer, reply, and laughs, and nothing that really advances a plot or develops a character. It’s too much like real conversation.

Guides for writing dialogue often advise you to study real conversations and then make your dialogue like that, but without the boring parts. However you still have to decide which parts to leave in, what to omit, and how to tag your dialogue. I enjoy coffee shops as much as anyone, but I have another approach for dialogue: dissecting the ways in which good writers put words in their characters’ mouths.

Here is John Straley starting a conversation between Miles McCahon and an Alaskan state trooper in Cold Storage, Alaska:

“McCahon!” Brown barked, as if giving Miles permission to have the name. He jutted out his hand. “How are ya?”

“I’m doing well thanks,” Miles began. He was about to mention the fine weather for flying and maybe add something about going fishing if there was time.

“Two things,” Brown lumbered on…

We immediately get a sense of trooper Brown’s brusquenesshe barks, he juts, and he lumbers on, clipping words and sentences. Miles McCahon is more formal and polite: he says doing well rather than doing good and is inclined to chat (though the dialogue would surely drag if Straley had actually had the pair talk about the weather and fishing).

Here is Lisa Sandlin in The Do-Right establishing the relationship between her characters, the private detective Tom Phelan, and his new secretary Delpha Wade, just released from prison:

“Why don’t you call me Tom?”

Miss Wade sat down in the secretary chair and scooted up to the desk…

Sandlin goes on to describe the tension in Wade’s face and posture and her reply:

“First names maybe doesn’t look so good for your clients,” she said, indicating the door, as if clients were piled up on the stairs, clutching little paper numbers in their fists.

The dialogue contrasts Phelan’s attempted friendliness with Wade’s wariness. Sandlin omits dialogue tags like she said when it’s clear who is speaking. But here she includes one as a means to connect the dialogue to Wade’s action of looking at the door: good dialogue lets us see characters as well as hear them.

Two more examples. In Laura Rider’s Masterpiece, Jane Hamilton depicts a conversation early in the novel when the title character tells her husband about her sexual fatigue, using the analogy of a horse that can no longer jump:

“No more jumping?” He said. “Not ever?”

“I can’t,” Laura said. “I love you, but I can’t.”

“What if we take down a few of the fences on the course? Lower the bars? Shorten the moat by the boxwoods? How—how about trying a–?”

“I’m sorry,” Laura said, and in the moment she did feel a little rueful. “Charlie, I am sorry, but can’t you see? I’m out to pasture.”

The metaphor of horse-jumping is not really natural intimate conversation, but it works here as a literary rendition and clues readers to the oddness of the marriage. The repetition of said (and its absence in the sentence that Laura interrupts) creates a pace that allows the dialogue to speak for itself, without the author being too present.

And finally, in Victor Lodato’s Mathilda Savitch, two young girls are discussing a boy:

“What do you think of Kevin Ryder?” I said.

“Guukh,” Anna said. “Horrible.”

“Why?” I said.

She looked at me like I was off my rocker. “The clothes,” she said. “The hair.”

“Who does he think he is?” She said. “The devil?”

“He’s pretty nice,” I said.

A plot point (Kevin) is revealed and Anna and Mathilda’s characters come to life in their difference of opinion. The dialogue here is natural, down to the choked out guukh, the fragments, and the emphatic hair. There is a dash of sound, but not so much as to over-season the dialogue.

If you want to learn dialogue, take some apart. You get a feel for how good dialogue can draw the reader into the action of a story and into the characters, without distracting too much. That way you can enjoy your coffee in peace.

Featured image credit: “Conversation” by Thomas Szynkiewicz. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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