Writing Good Dialog in Creative Fiction Help
Writing Good Dialog in Creative Fiction Writing
In real life, spoken language together with body language carries mountains of information and, like many if not most writers, you may find it difficult to convey the richness of this in prose. But you have already started writing dialog by doing writers Adrienne Harun's and Midge Raymond's exercises on character development. In Harun's exercise, a secondary character tells an anecdote of which she is reminded by her current situation vis-á-vis the main characters. In doing Midge Raymond's exercise, you have two characters speaking behind the back of a third character.
Now that you've written some dialog, it's time to consider what makes dialog really good. Writing good dialog means remembering that, in real life, people don't always say what they mean, don't always give the information they are asked for, or answer questions and/or react in a direct manner. ("I'm pregnant," the teen said to her grandmother. "Oh, my dear, I've just made you some snickerdoodles.") Writing good dialog means understanding that dialog is not for telling things to the reader that the author is afraid readers will miss or that the author just wants to get in there out of sense of her own mission.
In The Art and Craft of Storytelling: A Comprehensive Guide to Classic Writing Techniques, Nancy Lamb uses this example to show what happens when a writer puts a lesson in a character's mouth: Two people are discussing a third who smokes a lot of dope. One says she doesn't know why he does and the other answers, "I just read a study that says smoking dope changes your chromosomes—not to mention the fact that heavy use impairs your memory." The purpose of dialog is to reveal character, not the author's message, "I'm really worried about him, too."
Dialog creates mood, and it has to be right for the story and the people in it. Characters must sound like themselves, not like the book's narrator or the author or like one another. A believable character is not going to say, "I am asking for this reservation because I want to impress my girlfriend." Depending on his nature, he might say, "Do you have a table for two at 7? How about a table for one knockout beauty queen and the guy who gets to take her to your restaurant?" Or, "Come on; you've gotta have one table free."
When you start listening to people as a writer, you'll find many bright sparks of dialog among the mundane and repetitive words we utter all day long. Listen to how people hide behind their words, knowingly and unknowingly reveal themselves, and say many things without thinking. When you do hear interesting phrasing, make note of it. Some writers keep notebooks of overheard or imagined dialog that strikes them, thinking they might use it in a story. As writers, we usually take out "umms" and "ers," "likes" and "you knows." We don't have characters talk unless they need to—which means only the significant passages of what they say are included. And we are careful that the dialog we write doesn't simplify people and make them sound dull by spelling everything out. "Oh, yes, we will be there by seven on the dot because I am always punctual," is dry and expository, showing the hand of the writer announcing, "I want to be sure my character is noted for such and such." It is our job as writers to make our characters sound like people anyone might have heard, though some of their language is more entertaining or gripping than the words heard around us everyday.
In Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger reminds us that good dialog has a subtext, which indirectly shows what is at stake emotionally for a speaker. When people are together they say a lot of things that reveal the level of their self-esteem and perceived rank vis-á-vis others. They say things they think will be perceived as cool when they feel awkward and anything but cool. As we've practiced, they keep secrets. They may try to be polite when hostility is threatening to leak through at any moment or calm when they are worried. The grandmother doesn't say, "Oh, my, I need time to process this," or "Oh, I must stay calm," or "Oh, this is too surprising for me," but offers snickerdoodles, an action that may allow her time to gather her thoughts and reactions.
When you write dialog, think about who is talking and how what they say reveals their occupation, rank, region of origin, ethnicity, educational level, attitudes, thinking style (logical, impulsive), desires, obsessions, and concerns. Also remember, that in addition to using external dialog—words a character says to others—we can do some of our job using internal dialog—words the character thinks.
Novelist David Reich was inspired by two particular authors in his study of dialog:
The late George V. Higgins was celebrated for capturing the speech of local Boston hoods. The main way he learned it, he told me when I interviewed him in 1985, was by reading transcripts of wiretaps while he was a prosecutor, and also by noting what people said (and how they said it) on the witness stand, especially when they were nervous and/or lying. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Digger's Game, and Cogan's Trade deal with criminals, and in all three much of the story is told in dialogue—past action is revealed in detailed conversations between the characters, essentially one character telling a story to another and the second character interjecting comments. It's a technique that Higgins more or less invented and made good use of throughout his career.
In addition to Higgins, I've looked closely at the Flannery O'Connor short story "The Displaced Person," which features a variety of dialects, including southern black farm worker, southern white farm worker (and even gradations within this group, from less to more respectable yeoman), southern landowner, Catholic priest (apparently Irish in origin but living in the South), and finally eastern-European immigrant.
In studying dialog, I very much enjoy James Baldwin's use of outer and inner dialog in the short story "Sonny's Blues," where Baldwin portrays a main character's sadness and anxiety. In the story, a teacher, who is the older brother of an incarcerated man, has a surprise visit from his brother's ne'er-do-well childhood friend. The main character speaks first here, not really wanting to have this exchange with the visitor:
"Look. I haven't seen Sonny for over a year, I'm not sure I'm going to do anything. Anyway, what the hell can I do?"
"That's right," he said quickly, "ain't nothing you can do. Can't much help old Sonny no more, I guess."
It was what I was thinking and so it seemed to me he had no right to say it.
"I'm surprised at Sonny, though," he went on—he had a funny way of talking, he looked straight ahead as though he were talking to himself—"I thought Sonny was a smart boy, I thought he was too smart to get hung."
"I guess he thought so too," I said sharply, "and that's how he got hung. And how about you? You're pretty goddamn smart, I bet."
Then he looked directly at me, just for a minute. "I ain't smart," he said. "If I was smart, I'd have reached for a pistol a long time ago."
"Look. Don't tell me your sad story, if it was up to me, I'd give you one." Then I felt guilty—guilty, probably, for never having supposed that the poor bastard had a story of his own, much less a sad one, and I asked, quickly, "What's going to happen to him now?"
He didn't answer this. He was off by himself some place.
"Funny thing," he said, and from his tone we might have been discussing the quickest way to get to Brooklyn, "when I saw the papers this morning, the first thing I asked myself was if I had anything to do with it. I felt sort of responsible."
I began to listen more carefully.
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