“Now, class, since we have been perusing and discussing dialogue lately, due to the Male/Female Dialogue experiment, we thought today would be a good day to discuss—”
“Dialogue?” Someone shouted.
“Indeed. Now, if I may continue? …We have talked about dialogue before, in terms of editing, but of course there are numerous other facets to the creation and formation of dialogue.” She turned to the dry-erase board, marker at the ready.
“More like numerous other facets to my ass,” someone mumbled from near the back row. Jack, of course.
She turned and threw the eraser at Jack’s head.
The best way to write good dialogue? Read good dialogue.
Yes, you can tell your boss/mother/lover we said so, when they catch you reading under the desk/dinner table/bedsheets.
(Not that we’re saying the above is particularly good dialogue.)
Actually, this isn’t facetious. Written dialogue is different from written narration, but is also different from simply hearing someone talk. Still, you often don’t understand the problems with your dialogue until you hear someone read it aloud. Writing dialogue is, in some ways, an oxymoron. It’s silent speech. It has a whole different set of conventions from both actual speech and written narration, and the only—ONLY—way to internalize them is to read dialogue that uses those conventions properly. After all, people can’t say “…”, and someone will never indicate quotation marks unless they’re being sarcastic.
But there are many other things to learn besides punctuation. What are other key dialogue points?
Here’s one: make sure your characters are not chuckling and giggling and grinning every other sentence.
As authors it’s okay to want the story and our characters to be funny, but a character’s active “participation” in the funny is something that rarely happens in real life. Even in a scene that makes a reader laugh out loud, characters are more likely to be rolling their eyes or spilling their beer.
For instance, take this Stephanie Plum scene, from Eleven on Top by Janet Evanovich:
…Valerie put five green beans on her big empty plate and angrily stabbed them with her fork. Thunk, thunk, thunk.
“What’s with you?” Grandma said to Valerie.
“I’m on a diet. All I get to eat are these beans. Five boring hideous beans.” The grip on her fork was white-knuckled, her lips were pressed tightly together, and her eyes glittered feverishly as she took in Joe’s plate directly across from her. Joe had a mountain of creamy mashed potatoes and four thick slabs of meatloaf, all drenched in gravy.
“Maybe this isn’t a good time to be on a diet, what with all the stress over the wedding and all,” Grandma said.
“It’s because of the wedding I have to diet,” Valerie said, teeth clenched.
Mary Alice forked up a piece of meatloaf. “Mommy’s a blimp.”
Valerie made a growling sound that had me worrying her head was going to start doing full rotations on her neck.
“Maybe I should check on Albert,” Morelli said to me.
I narrowed my eyes and looked at him sideways. “You’re going to sneak out, aren’t you?”
Not a single smile was cracked within the scene.
But bookending character dialogue with guffaws and grins is something that is incredibly easy to do. We did it in a previous article, and just barely caught it before the article was posted. It’s insidious. Look over your scenes—just because you want a humorous scene, doesn’t mean the characters will find it humorous. People just don’t laugh like that in real life… unless they’re on an awkward first date, maybe.
In contrast, read this:
“What do you think of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” Zach asked in a joking tone, flashing the cover with a chuckle.
Marian grinned. “Well, it certainly brings back memories.”
“Like when you tried to eat a whole pepperoni pizza in one sitting?” Joey laughed, and wandered over to his movie cabinet. Smiling, he slapped Zach on the back. “Watch out for this one, she uses pizza for health.”
Mark giggled so hard he snorted soda out his nose. The whole room burst into gales of laughter.
Not only does it sound not-quite-right, it just seems like it’s… trying too hard. Like it’s on the previously-mentioned awkward first date.
And you don’t want your story to be like a first date… nobody likes first dates.
What other dialogue blunders have you noticed authors making? Let us know, and we’ll add them to the continuation of the list.
In the meantime… just scowl.