04 February 2017

For Dialogue Lovers Only

All writers have things that we enjoy most (and least) about the process of creating fiction. Some of these preferences, I think, are related to our backgrounds--former journalists/nonfiction-writers seem to be especially good at descriptions and exposition, psychology folks seem to focus on emotions and relationships, teachers like style and editing, engineers seem more comfortable with plotting and structure, etc. Then again, some say our prior and non-writing experiences don't matter a whit; we just like what we like.

I can speak only for myself. My two favorite tasks in writing a story are, for whatever reasons, (1) outlining the plot and (2) writing dialogue. Since we've had a great many columns at this blog about the pros and cons of outlining, I thought I'd focus on my second preference.

Talking points

I love to write dialogue. Probably because I love to read dialogue. When I pick up a magazine or anthology or collection of short stories, I almost always find myself flipping through it and looking for "white space." When I find stories that have a lot of that--which of course means short sentences, which means dialogue--I usually read those stories first. Why? Because dialogue means something's happening. I'm cruising along through the tale listening to people talk (and sometimes scream and shout and argue), and not plodding through all that thick, margin-to-margin writing.

Does that searching-for-white-space approach always work? No. Stories with a lot of dialogue, if they're not done well, can be more tiring and tedious than pure narrative, and, since there's no magic formula for all this, stories written either way can be either wonderful or terrible. I've always said dialogue is like playing the guitar: it's hard to do well and easy to do badly.

But I should point out that the amount of dialogue in a piece of fiction depends on the piece. Three of my recent published stories had almost no dialogue, and one of them had none at all. In fact, of the five widely accepted "elements" of fiction (plot, characterization, POV, dialogue, and setting), dialogue is the only one that's not absolutely necessary. Well, okay, I realize that some stories don't have to have plots either, but most good stories do. Another point: I'm convinced that dialogue is a marketing advantage. If you write two stories of equal quality and one has a lot of dialogue and one has very little, I think the one with more dialogue is easier to sell.

Masters of the craft

My fondness for dialogue is probably one of the reasons I've so enjoyed the books of the late Robert B. Parker. His series novels, whether they're about Spenser or Jesse Stone or Sunny Randall or Virgil Cole, contain a LOT of conversations between characters. And it's snappy, believable dialogue that either moves the plot forward or tells us something about the people in the story. Sometimes it does both. Other writers well-known for the quality of their dialogue are George V. Higgins, Dick Francis, Elmore Leonard, James M. Cain, Carl Hiaasen, Toni Morrison, Harlan Coben, John Steinbeck, Janet Evanovich, Joe Lansdale, James Scott Bell, etc. Advice to fellow writers: Read these authors, then go ye and do likewise.

Contrast that kind of fiction with the work of, say, James Michener or Tom Clancy, whose novels usually contain very little dialogue. Don't get me wrong--I liked their books, and I have all of them right here on the packed and groaning shelves of my home office. But I also maintain that those novels were not as much fun to read as (and certainly took longer to read than) those of Parker, Leonard, Coben, and company.

According to Sol

I think all this goes beyond the "easy-read" aspect. I like dialogue because of the rhythm and sound and feel of the sentences, and the way it can immediately create a reversal or plot twist when needed. In his book Stein on Writing, Sol Stein called this "oblique" dialogue, which allows the writer to introduce the unexpected. Here are some examples, from that book:

SHE: How are you?
HE: I suppose I'm okay.
SHE: Why, what's the matter?
HE: I guess you haven't heard.

SHE: How are you? I said how are you?
HE: I heard you the first time.
SHE: I only wanted to know how you were.
HE: How the hell do you think I am?

HE: It's beginning to rain.
SHE: What do you suggest?

In all of these, the responses aren't direct, as they often are in real life. They're indirect and surprising, and serve to turn the story in a different direction. It's a great way to advance the plot and keep the reader interested.

The voices in my own head

Something else dialogue can do, as was mentioned earlier, is help with characterization. In a Western mystery story I just finished writing, a man named Wade Carson is knocked unconscious while trying to rob a bank and wakes up lying with his wrists tied in a room that turns out to be a temporary jail cell. Sitting in a chair beside one of the windows is a young woman in men's clothing and boots, with a five-pointed star pinned to her shirt and a Winchester rifle across her lap.

"Where am I?" he asked her.
"In an extra room, behind the sheriff's house. He was planning to rent it out."
"I don't see any bars. What's keeping me in?"
"I am." She lifted the rifle off her lap, then lowered it again.
"And who might you be?"
"I might be Deputy Morton."
"You a real deputy?"
"This month I am." She tapped her star. "This is my uncle's badge--he's home with a broken leg."
He sighed. "An interim jail and an interim deputy."

Later, still under guard, he tells her he'd been on his way to San Francisco, to see a friend.

"Girlfriend?" she asked.
He broke out a grin. "I think you sound jealous."
"That's probably because of your head injury. What kind of friend?"
"An old partner. Wants me to go into business with him."
"What kind of business?"
Carson hesitated. "You'll think it's funny."
"No I won't."
"Banking. My friend owns a bank. And I'm good with figures."
"You're right," she said. "That is funny."
"You won't think so, when I do it. California's a booming place, these days."
"I've never been there."
He smiled again. "Want to go?"

And so on. I'm not saying these exchanges are great writing, but I am saying they're great fun to write. And I'm always pleased at how they allow a reader to be told, in very few words, a lot about the characters who are speaking.

Real vs. realistic

The main thing about dialogue is, you have to make it sound right. Here's another quote, from Stein on Writing. "If you need proof that dialogue and spoken words are not the same, go to a supermarket. Eavesdrop. Much of what you hear in the aisles sounds like idiot talk. People won't buy your novel to hear idiot talk. They get that free from relatives, friends, and the supermarket." Stein adds, on that same subject, "Elmore Leonard's dialogue is invented. It is a semblance of speech that has the effect of actual speech, which is what his readers prize." To sum all this up, dialogue doesn't have to sound like what we really say or hear. It has to sound better.

Do any of you writers share my obsession with dialogue? Do you find it harder, or easier, to create than other things in the writing process? Are your stories/novels usually heavy on dialogue, or not?

A final note. Having finished the eighth installment in Robert Parker's Appaloosa series (since his death those books have been written by Robert Knott, who does a good job of imitating Parker's "style" and frequent use of dialogue), I've just pre-ordered the ninth novel, Revelation. It's due out next week, and will continue the adventures of Old West lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch.

I can't wait to hear them talking to each other.


  1. Lots of good stuff here, John. And dialogue can certainly make things move faster, but, as you say, it also has to accomplish several purposes, including moving the plot forward, defining characters, etc., while, at the same time giving the illusion of everyday language even though it isn't.

  2. A good point that dialogue doesn't have to be naturalistic. Some of the classic writers like Austen and Dickens had marvelous but mannered dialogue

  3. Great post here, as always--great points. I'm one of those margin-to-margin writers (sorry!) rather than a white-space, dialogue-heavy writer, but agree with everything here, and I've tried to pass some of these same tips along to my own creative writing students! Wish I could sit in on your classes. Must be a blast!

  4. Outlinging plot and dialogue. That's you all right. I'm setting and dialogue. I think.

  5. John, I love dialogue, and I agree with your list of writers who use it well. May I add Robert Crais and Jennifer Crusie? Crais was originally a TV screenwriter, which may help.

    Too much clunky talk is one of the things that will make me put down a book.

    You've made an important point here that the amount of dialogue will vary with the needs of the story, but it also depends upon the characters. I know that a lot of my late revision is dialogue, probably because I've learned to know the characters more deeply by then.

    Excellent post, as always.

  6. Thanks, Paul. I once heard that if dialogue doesn't do one of those two things (reveal something about a character or advance the plot), it shouldn't be in the scene at all. Another thing I've often been told is that editors/publishers/agents sometimes look for the first exchange of dialogue, read that, and--if it works--go back to the beginning and read the story/novel. And if it doesn't work, they don't read anything more. I'm not sure how true that is, but it's a good indicator of the importance of dialogue.

    Janice, I agree. Dialogue has changed over the years, but the old-time authors certainly knew how to use it well. I have tried to make it a priority, lately, to read more of the classics.

    Art, I wish I could have you as a guest speaker! Once again, the story--and, as Steve says in his comment, the characters--determine how much dialogue goes into a piece of fiction. Looking back at all my stories, I don't always use dialogue a lot--but I do find that I enjoy the writing process more when I do.

    O'Neil, I bet one reason you use and like setting so much is because New Orleans is such a great "character" in itself. And I have learned a lot, by the way, from your dialogue.

    Yes, Steve, of course those two writers, and many others, should be included in any such list. I hesitated even to name anyone, because there are so many who deserve to be mentioned. The fact is, if a writer is successful these days, he or she almost has to have a good handle on dialogue. As for your point about revision, I too wind up adding/rewriting a lot of dialogue late in the game.

  7. Wonderful post, John. I'm like you--working out the plot and writing dialogue are my favorite parts of the writing process. I have to force myself to write description, it takes me forever, and I'm usually not very happy with the result. Dialogue seems to flow (and sometimes suggests ways to reshape the plot). I agree about good dialogue being different from real speech, too. Transcripts of actual conversations--from the Watergate tapes, for example--show how flat, chaotic, and repetitious real-life speech often is.

  8. John, I too am a dialogue junky. I teach workshops on dialogue. My background is writing comedy and standup, and that, of course, is mainly dialogue on a small stage. You are spot on about dialogue being different from conversation. I have a blog coming up on that, smile.

  9. Hey, Bonnie--thanks for the thoughts. Yep, description is harder for me too, so (since it also is necessary) I have to work harder to try to do it right. As for "real" vs. "realistic" dialogue, I agree that reading transcripts is a good way to see the differences. Written dialogue can't, and shouldn't, include all the pauses, repetitions, missteps, etc., that are always present in real conversations.

    I read someplace that Elmore Leonard used to sit in bars in Detroit and just listen to the conversations around him, trying to learn more about the way we really talk. One thing I've found helpful is to go back through my already-written dialogue and take out words--especially words at the beginning of sentences--to make it sound more like the way we actually speak. "Do you want to see a movie tonight?" might become "You want to see a movie tonight?" Or, even better, "Want to see a movie tonight?"

  10. Melodie, I'd be willing to bet your experience with standup also gives you a great sense of timing, which is SO important in writing dialogue. I've seen a lot of badly written dialogue that could've been so much better which some strategically placed pauses at the right spots--you know what I mean.

    Looking forward to your post on the subject!!

  11. A man after my own heart. I also LOVE to write dialogue and Robert B. Parker, James Lee Burke, and Elmore Leonard are probably my top three authors. And Sol Stein is in my writer's library. Gee whiz, John. Now I know why I like to follow you. Best wishes for continued success with your writing because I love to read it. Marilyn Johnston (aka "cj")

  12. PS: John. I have a 92-year-old friend who used to work with Elmore Leonard, and he tells me stories about him all the time. Mr. Leonard was as good a character with as varied a background as any character in his books. Marilyn

  13. "Like, I mean, I get your point, I think," Michael said. "But, um, I have to tell you, it ain't, like, what you say, it's, um, how you say it. Right?"

  14. A man after my own heart. I also LOVE to write dialogue and Robert B. Parker, James Lee Burke, and Elmore Leonard are probably my top three authors. And Sol Stein is in my writer's library. Gee whiz, John. Now I know why I like to follow you. Best wishes for continued success with your writing because I love to read it. Marilyn Johnston (aka "cj")

  15. Marilyn, thanks so much for stopping in, here! Yep, I should of course have mentioned James Lee Burke too (and so many others). The thing is, Burke is great at alternating description and dialogue to make the pacing just right--so he's good at many things. Obviously.

    I once met Elmore Leonard at a signing at Lemuria Books here in Jackson (his, not mine, hoho), and he was an interesting guy, to say the least. I like just about everything he wrote, novels and shorts too. And his Westerns as well.

  16. "Michael," John said, "whatchoo talkin bout, man??"

  17. John, I'm a dialogue man myself. One big advantage of dialogue is that you do not have to be grammatically correct! Any mistakes can be passed off to the character, who doesn't know any better. And it makes the writing a little more realistic. For example, in narrative it would be necessary to state that someone is "taller than I." A little stilted in my view, but I use it when writing narrative. In dialogue I can go with the more relaxed, "taller than me." Voila! Interestingly many well known writers use the second example in narrative and get away with it.

  18. You're right, Herschel. (Ever the grammarian--I'm proud of you!) Some things, though correct, just don't sound right in dialogue, unless maybe the character's an English professor. In one of my recent stories, a farmer said, "Well, I be damn." "I'll be damned" just wouldn't have worked. Often this is the kind of thing I notice and correct during rewriting, when I'm trying hard to streamline and relax the dialogue a bit. I've heard one thing that helps, here, is to read your dialogue aloud. If/when you do, you'll spot those kinds of errors right away.

    Thanks for the comment!!

  19. Lots of great points, as noted. I especially liked the bit about an indirect response. I keep a post-it above my computer that says, "No tennis matches!" Conversation isn't a ball being carefully batted back and forth--it's full of changed subjects, emotional responses, all kinds of disjointed talk that the over-tidy would call "out"!

  20. Victoria, I think writers AND readers enjoy those oblique, indirect replies during dialogue. You see a lot of that anytime you read good novels/stories or watch good movies--as mentioned, it allows the narrative to change direction and provide surprises to the reader (or viewer). I like the tennis comparison!

    Thanks so much for the comment!

  21. "I once heard that if dialogue doesn't do one of those two things (reveal something about a character or advance the plot),"

    Agreed. Every phrase should reveal something, deepen the character, raise the tension, anchor the reader in the setting.

    Also applies to writing description; if it's only doing one thing, it's not doing its job.

  22. Well said, Jayne. I've even heard that each scene should ideally be a mini-story, with its own problem, complication, and resolution, which in turn sets the stage for the next scene.

    I wish all this was as easy as it sounds . . .

    Thanks for stopping in!!

  23. Me too, me too, me too! Wonderful post!
    (Sorry I'm so late with this, John, but I spent the weekend at the pen, because I know how to party...)

  24. Hey Eve--many thanks!! I know you're a lover of dialogue from the many stories I've read, of yours.

    Glad they let you out!!!


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