by David Ellis
Some random observations about dialogue. These are sufficiently disjointed that I will number them. The opinions contained below are solely those of the author. Please do not read while operating heavy machinery or juggling sharp objects.
1. Like any other aspect of a novel, when dialogue is done well, it elevates the overall work. But to me, at least, when it’s done poorly, it detracts disproportionately from the product. It can ruin a book for me. And I think I discovered why. Most of our novels push the envelope of reality at least a little. I know mine do. But dialogue is one of the things that can make things seem more realistic. If the words sound like those that a “real” person would say, it makes the whole thing more plausible. But if they don’t ring true, the whole thing loses its impact for me.
2. I don’t particularly care for most of the dialogue I read in books. Most of it just rings hollow to me. I think I do it pretty well. But I suppose all writers think that about themselves, right? I mean, if you don’t think your dialogue is good, why did you leave it in the final draft? It recalls the line from When Harry Met Sally: All people think they have good taste, but not everyone has good taste, so you do the math.
3. I struggle with words like “gonna” and “shoulda” and with truncating the ends of words (fuckin’ instead of fucking). I try to write as realistic dialogue as I possibly can—I’m sure we all do—but these words confound me. Most people use them in their daily speech. I certainly do. Yet if I write those words in dialogue, it has the effect of making the speaker seem less intelligent. So I use them when I’m projecting the voice of a mafia thug or maybe a child, but not for my protagonist, who I consider very intelligent. Now that doesn’t really make sense, does it? I mean, if I’m looking for the most realistic dialogue, why am I making that distinction? My only reasoning is that, for whatever reason, it has that unintended effect, and I recognize it and don’t want it for my protagonist.
4. Along the same lines as # 3 above …. I was reading some transcripts from the Blagojevich intercepts and some of the government’s intercepts from the Tony Rezko trial, and it reminded me of how mundane our speech patterns can be. Lots of uhhhs and ahhhs and stammering. Some of the entries from Stu Levine (a government informant, if you didn’t follow this) have an incredible amount of stammering. And, and, and, and, and, that kind of thing. Now that’s how people really speak, right? But here again, while I try to do that a little, I don’t use “uhs” and “ahs” as much as I would prefer, and the reason, again, is that it will have a perverse effect. The principal effect is that it will imply reluctance or uncertainty. It could also imply lack of intelligence, like “gonna” or “shoulda.” So when I want to project those traits, I do it, but otherwise I keep it to a minimum. Listen to Barack Obama speak. Count the number of times he says “uh.” Yet everyone marvels at how gifted a speaker he is. But if you had a character who was an intelligent president and you wrote “uh” in his dialogue as much as President Obama uses it, he wouldn’t sound intelligent. Even though he is. I find that interesting for some reason. And unfortunate, because I am knowingly violating my quest for realistic dialogue. Life’s full of conflict.
5. One thing I find really cool in novels is when the dialogue reveals something about the character that the prose otherwise has not, particularly in first-person narratives. I remember reading John Connolly’s first book (and God help me, it’s late and I just can’t remember the name of it), and his main character, writing in the first person, was a very dark and sad man. But in his dialogue, he had a wicked sense of humor. It was great. He didn’t reveal even a hint of the comical in his narrative, but then this dry sense of humor came out when he was talking to his buddy. Memorable.
6. A teachable moment for new writers, and always a helpful reminder for established novelists: Not everyone talks the same. To put it another way, some people talk differently than others. In other words, one person may talk a certain way, and another person will speak differently. Raise your hand if you already knew that … really, all of you? Then please write different dialogue for different characters. And before I am accused of being overly snarky, I am writing this because I just caught myself violating this very simple rule in my current manuscript. It’s actually fairly difficult to differentiate dialogue. But I think it’s essential.
7. Very early on in my career, someone (a reader on Amazon, I think) said that my novel was “mostly dialogue.” That comment stayed with me. It’s hard to know when there’s too much. I mean, I follow a rule most of us follow—write only what is interesting. And its cousin—leave out the parts that readers skip. But I often find myself in a dialogue-intensive scene wondering if I need to break it up some. Sometimes, you want the rat-a-tat-tat of consecutive exchanges of dialogue, but sometimes it can be too much. Do you throw in a line about someone taking a swallow of their scotch or rolling their neck or shrugging their shoulders or sighing, just so it’s not one set of quotation marks after another? (Jeez, sometimes I think my characters shrug and sigh more than any other people on the face of the planet.) I don’t really have an answer here, other than to follow those rules—do what works best.
8. Do you hate it as much as I do when proof editors clean up grammar in your dialogue? Hey, I’m trying to speak the way my character does. They don’t all speak the King’s English, right? So leave it alone. Every day, I hear people screw up the use of “who” and “whom.” Or they use the reflexive pronoun, thinking it makes them sound intelligent when it’s flat wrong. (“It was the three of us. Laura, Libby, and myself.” Ack.) Or they screw up the difference between “me” and “I,” again thinking they sound intelligent. (“They gave free passes to Laura, Libby, and I.” No, they didn’t.) My point here is not to vent about poor grammar in our society, because that would be selfish of me to use this blog to vent about that … uh, where was I? Oh, right—but this is how people talk so sometimes we have to forget the rules and just write how people talk.
9. My friend Joe Konrath (J.A. Konrath to those who don’t know him but I think he’s pretty much given up on the gender ambiguity, except in his sex life) once wrote that you should only use the words “said” or “asked” in reference to dialogue. “Hi,” he said. “Why?” he asked. Nothing beyond that. On the other hand, a friend of mine once praised me for using other words like “answered,” “replied,” “continued,” “went on,” and the like. My take is that you don’t need to stick with “said” or “asked” but you shouldn’t be distracting, which I think was Josephine's point. If you’re not sure of what to use, stick with “said” or “asked.” But a well-placed “hissed” once in a while can drive home a point.
10. I really don’t like exclamation points. It has to be pretty damn important to merit an exclamation point in my view. I feel so strongly about this, I will not use an exclamation point.
Hey, uh, thanks for, uh, listenin' to myself.