December 21, 2012By Mary Hutchings ReedIf you’re a lawyer, you’ve honed the skill of interviewing clients and deposing witnesses. You know how to ask the same question a dozen different ways to clarify an answer, and you know how to ask a leading question, even if the objection will be sustained. But do you know how to make a character talk?

Good dialogue in a novel draws the reader further into the characters and their stories. How a character expresses himself or herself tells us, as readers, a lot about that character. From the characters’ voices, we understand something about their ethnicity, where they’re from, their age, their gender identification, their educational level, their attitude, their world view and their personality. Readers love to listen in on a character’s conversation; they can experience the story as the character does.

The difference between a rock-solid deposition and a good piece of dialogue is the difference between legal victory and literary success.

Lawyers might be tempted to think that because they’ve read hundreds of transcripts, they know how people talk, and all they need to do to write convincing dialogue is to try to play such a tape back in their heads. Beginning novelists are always advised to eavesdrop — on trains, at bus stops, in grocery lines, at coffee shops and these days, with a cellphone in every hand, you are almost forced to eavesdrop everywhere. It is, of course, necessary practice to hear how real people express themselves in real conversations, but the art of dialogue is in paring real conversations down to the essential few lines. As Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “Drama is life with the dull parts left out.”

How many lines of a transcript are, ultimately, truly useful? How many lines of the recent presidential debates can you remember? We’re not necessarily talking sound bites here, but we are talking about cutting out all the throat clearing, hemming and hawing, niceties or ordinary exchange of pleasantries that can be “presumed”— the reader “hears” them automatically. On the page, they are clutter.

On the page, dialogue needs to be far crisper and to the point than most of us manage, even in the most polished of oral argument. It needs to be short and to the point.

Dialogue also needs to advance the story without merely offering information or argument. It needs to be emotional, revealing a character’s desire and motivation; it often will reveal a power struggle or conflict between the speakers. In the best of novels, dialogue has subtext — what’s said is only part of what is meant, or isn’t what is meant at all.

A good exercise for a lawyer might be to look at a transcript of an interview, deposition or cross-examination. There is some conflict inherent in many of those formalized conversations. Edit a portion of the transcript to its essentials. Then edit it further to how the person might talk in a less formal setting. Then edit again to reveal emotion, either by changing the rhythm of the words (when we’re excited, we talk in words and phrases, blurting them out) or by adding the gestures that accompany them or the thoughts that contradict what the character is saying.

By the way, it’s almost always “said” or “asked.” Trying to be literary with words like “exclaimed,” “commanded” “pontificated,” “opined,” “declared” and “queried” are considered amateur at best and clunky at worst. Once in a great while you can get away with a good tonal word like “bellowed,” but it better be something worth bellowing.

Movies and plays can illustrate how much drama can be shown in dialogue, but I don’t think they are the best models for dialogue in a novel. For one thing, you have to do a lot more work to write good dialogue in a novel. You have to suggest to the reader how to hear it — through gesture, pacing and a suggestion of sound or cadence. You can’t leave it up to the actor’s or director’s interpretation.

An even better exercise in writing dialogue is reading the dialogue of our best novelists in every genre. Writers such as Jeffrey Eugenides, John Steinbeck, Toni Morrison, Elmore Leonard and Barbara Kingsolver are considered great writers of dialogue. Take one of their passages and re-imagine it will all the “dull parts” — things that probably would be said in a “real” conversation — put back in. You’ll be surprised, I bet, by how efficient and natural-sounding their conversations seem on the page, with all those natural but dull parts left out.

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3 Responses
  1. Writing dialogue takes skill, but it’s not difficult to improve poor dialogue and use good dialogue to quicken the pace of a story, create tension, deepen characterization, and move the plot forward. If dialogue does not accomplish all this, it has no place in the story.