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Writing Snazzy Dialogue, Part One


Many writers, myself included, worry about writing dialogue. Does it flow? Does it sound natural? Is it interesting? I obsess over it in my own writing. If I’m concerned about word count, the first thing I’ll cut is dialogue. It’s easy to write bad dialogue without even realizing it, so I’ve compiled five tips to help you craft Snazzy Dialogue to please even the pickiest dialogue critic - like me!

1. No talking just for talking’s sake

"Hey bro. What's up?"
"Nothing really. You?"
"You know. More of the same."
"Yeah dude. I know."

Not terribly exciting, is it? But I bet you've had - or overheard - this very conversation, dozens of times. That doesn't mean you need to write it in your story.

Sure, your characters have to speak to one another, but dialogue needs to be meaningful. It needs to be real, but it can't be real. Get my drift? I don't care how many times you scream "But I've heard dozens of people talk like that!" Just because people have long conversations about their bowel movements or their cousin's husband's predilection for online porn, doesn't mean your characters should.

Dialogue should tell us something about the character speaking it. It should illuminate the situation. It should create tension or assuage it, clarify a problem or confuse it, whatever the goal of the scene-at-large, the dialogue should work in tandem with the rest.

Let's think about that and revisit the above conversation:

"Hey bro. What's up?"
"Cut the shit. How much you need to borrow this time?"
"Dude, a grand should cover me. Blackjack table got me this time."
"Yeah, more of the same."

See? At least now we know a little bit about what's going on. We can see distinct personalities in the speakers. There's connotation to the remark "more of the same." Like any “rule”, there will be exceptions. You may have a character who talks a lot when they’re nervous, or who has a tendency to avoid difficult questions through circumlocution. In this case, there will be times when excess dialogue will make sense. But if there is no sense, no good reason for all that talking, that’s when you need to cut. Going along with the idea that your characters shouldn’t engage in meaningless dialogue just for the sake of talking is this next tip:

2. Don’t be afraid of silence

In your every day life, I bet you know more than a few people who would rather talk about nothing in particular than sit in silence with someone else. Who knows, maybe you are one of those people. That’s fine, but don’t ignore the potential value of silence.

Silence can mean omission or guilt. It can imply either agreement or disagreement. There’s a flip side to that, too. While it can mean one thing to one character, another character in the scene can interpret it differently. Imagine the possibilities this creates for action and dialogue later on.

Silence is also a good place for physical action that can add more dimension to the dialogue. Those tiny quiet moments, added up, can spell big-time character building. Think of the last time you were speaking to someone and you learned more about them from one or two non-verbal cues than from any word they spoke. Which leads me to…

3. Supporting/intermittent action

Action can do a lot for your scene in tandem with your dialogue. It can potentially change the meaning of the words. It can alter the mood of the scene, the pacing, it can ease or create tension. Let’s look at this stripped-down version of one of my scenes. Charlotte and Steven are two characters who have had a tumultuous relationship. After a long separation, with little to no contact, they have a passionate reunion. This is the morning after:

“I have bacon?” he asked.
“No. Your refrigerator was pathetic. I had to steal your car and a twenty from your wallet so I could make breakfast,” she said.
“And just how do you plan on paying me back?” he asked mischievously.
“The bacon’s going to burn,” she said when he unbuttoned her pants.
“Let it.”
“We’ve got all day for that,” she said, grinning.
“All day?” he asked.
“Well, most of it. My plane doesn’t leave until six.”
“Stay,” he implored her.
“Steven, I can’t,” she insisted.
“I know. But I had to ask anyway.”
“I’m glad you want me to, though,” she said. “Now put a shirt on and sit down. Breakfast is almost ready.”

Eh. It's just okay. Nothing spectacular. All dialogue. No pacing. Not much on the descriptive or emotional side. There's no action from either character to help us understand how they each feel during this scene. Not to mention it sucks to read "he said," "she insisted," "she said" every other sentence. Let's see what some supporting action can do for us:

“I have bacon?” he asked, coming up behind her.
“No. Your refrigerator was pathetic. I had to steal your car and a twenty from your wallet so I could make breakfast.”
“And just how do you plan on paying me back?” He put his arms around her waist and kissed the back of her neck. Her hair was still damp from the shower and he could smell his shampoo, his soap. She still wore his T-shirt, though she’d put on her own jeans. She’d never been more sexy.
“The bacon’s going to burn,” she said when he unbuttoned her pants.
“Let it.”
She squealed as he slid his hand down between her legs, but she managed to wriggle out of his arms.
“We’ve got all day for that,” she said, grinning.
“All day?”
She looked away, turned back to the stove. “Well, most of it. My plane doesn’t leave until six.”
“Stay.” They’d just found their way back to each other and she was leaving already.
“Steven, I can’t.”
“I know. But I had to ask anyway.”
“I’m glad you want me to, though.” She turned around and kissed him. “Now put a shirt on and sit down. Breakfast is almost ready.”

Not to toot my own horn (well okay, maybe a little) but I think the second version is much better. When Steven puts his arms around Charlotte and reacts to the scent of her, we can sense the sexual tension. And then it's not nearly so shocking when he puts his hand down her pants! And the fact that she "squeals" shows her playfulness and willingness to participate. Otherwise the scene could come across as super creepy. There's some tension of the non-sexual variety when she turns away from him before mentioning her plane leaving at six. It would be difficult to achieve this kind of layered meaning with line after line of dialogue alone.

Okay, are you still with me? We’re almost finished. Practice these three steps, and when you're ready, move on to the final two.


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