There is no story without dialogue, and no good story without good dialogue. Sometimes good dialogue can rescue a mediocre story, but poor dialogue will ruin even the best of stories.

What is dialogue for?

1. Advance the plot or action
2. Build character
3. Furnish information, or even exposition.

Please not that number 3 is a very distant third. The less exposition you have in your dialogue, the better. Aim for none at all. “Hello, Rita, my Spanish son-in-law’s sister from San Francisco! Are you here to complete your studies in zoology at Berkeley, or are you on vacation from your job as a waitress on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills?” Dialogue like this permanently kills a story by making it obnoxious.

The following are some points to remember for improving your dialogue. They can all be found in good books about writing fiction, too:

1. Practice writing dialogue. Read it aloud to evaluate it. Ask your literarily qualified friends (no unqualified readers, please) to evaluate your dialogue. Even when you’re not writing, practice creating dialogue sometimes – as you drive, as you walk, as you ride a train or bus, as you wait for business appointments, when you have insomnia. This practice may seem weird at first, but most good writers do some of it.

2. Don’t worry if your characters sound pretty much the same. One of my writer friends always complains about this, but his complaint is invalid. People do in fact sound pretty much the same, unless you feature people from different parts of the country or different countries, or children, or sick people. Otherwise, concentrate on making them sound like realistic, living people with something to say – not on making them all sound “different”, because nobody but pedants care or even notice.

3. Develop your ear. Listen carefully to actual people talking, not characters on TV, in movies, or on the radio – the latter kind of dialogue is always artificial, unrealistic, and unconvincing on the written page. No one actually talks like “The Sopranos” or “Friends” or “ER” or “Masterpiece Theater”. Sorry. Don’t mimic stage dialogue either.

4. Study the way people talk in short stories and novels, and find good models to emulate. Writers come in all levels of dialogue expertise. A few you can admire are Larry McMurtry, Graham Greene, and Saul Bellow. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett write wonderful dialogue, but they’re too far above the average writer – choose someone less gifted to get started, and you won’t be discouraged.

5. Literary fiction usually has much better dialogue than genre writing, although genre writers dispute this assertion, obviously. Compare some novels to decide for yourself. Compare the dialogue of Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, and Louis L’Amour with that of Salman Rushdie, Iris Murdoch, and Pat Conroy. See which one you’d rather emulate.

6. Use dialect, patois, idioms, and slang sparingly, if at all.

7. Avoid the use of adverbs, which are almost always weak. Some editors like L. Rust Hills suggest eliminating them entirely. At least notice how seldom good writers use them.

8. Never stop studying Shakespeare and seeing his plays. Don’t try to emulate him, but soak up his eternally preeminent genius. No one else even comes close in any language.

9. Be aware of what writers are dated or even out of style, including their dialogue. D.H. Lawrence, Dickens, Dostoevski, Tolstoy, Crane, James, Mann, Woolf, Conrad, Ford, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and their few peers are classics and absolute masters, but you can’t afford to model your dialogue on theirs.

10. Stick with “he said/she said/they said/Frank said/Diane said” until you develop plenty of experience. When you write “he roared/she screamed/he sighed”, you’re getting onto dangerous ground. If you write “He questioned/she pontificated/he denounced”, you’re on a minefield. You want to be smooth and unobtrusive, not amateurish and awkward.

11. Once you have some experience, cautiously experiment with constructions such as “he said, as if he were drowning” or “they said, as if they were late for a train”, or “he said, sure he was right” or “she said, as her hands trembled”. Be careful.

12. To repeat, please, don’t ever use dialogue to convey exposition, as in Rita the waitress, above. Nothing is more conspicuously bad.

13. Keep your speeches reasonably short, maybe about two sentences maximum. This is a modern convention that earlier writers didn’t follow. But in 2001, long speeches usually sound fake and artificial. If you have to use one every now and then, OK. But avoid Doctorowization – D. L. Doctorow writes neat little speeches and paragraphs of perfect, uniform, short length, always about 3 lines, as if they’re stamped out with a cookie cutter. The result is fiction that reads like a news magazine or Reader’s Digest.

14. Don’t use too much dialogue, or your readers will feel cheated, as if you’re foisting off an imperfect play on them. Don’t overload your dialogue with feeling, passion, or other elements that usually should be expressed in the prose.

How will you know when your dialogue is improving? It will become so convincing and powerful that you’ll hardly notice it – it will be like listening to real human beings, where you notice the content of what they say, not how they say it. Your reader will concentrate on your story, not on the people talking and the way they talk.

When’s the time to start practicing? Right now, if not on paper, in your imagination.

Good dialogue is within your grasp. It may be the easiest element of fiction to master, perhaps because we all talk anyway, and try hard to communicate well.

Copyright Paul Saevig 2001

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