David Cronenberg’s 1996 film Crash is largely remembered for two things. Not being the 2004 film of the same name, ie. everyone’s least favorite Oscar winner, and one particular line of spectacularly bad dialogue. James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger are in bed, discussing another man. “Can you imagine what his anus is like?”, Unger teases. “Would you like to put your penis right into his anus?”
Which brings us to the first rule of writing dialogue. Say it out loud. If it sounds fucking stupid, change it. Put another way, you should always try and write the way people talk. There’s a reason good writers are said to have an “ear for dialogue.” How it sounds is as important, if not moreso, than how it reads on the page. Your reader should be able to hear it in their head, and a clunky turn of phrase is as musical as a fart. Or as Cronenberg would put it, like flatulence, coming right out of an anus. That’s totally how normal people describe farting in conversation, right?
Bad Dialogue: As You Know, You Are A Writer, and As A Writer, You Know Better Than To Write This Way
Thankfully, most bad dialogue isn’t of the penis-into-anus variety. The most common bad dialogue is simply stiff. “I do not like when that happens,” isn’t a natural-sounding line unless you’re writing for Data on Star Trek. Or the kind of clumsy exposition that’s common on bad TV. “You’re the one who pioneered foot-to-hand transplant surgery, so I don’t need to tell you how risky this procedure is!” No, you don’t, and there are far better ways to tell the audience something they don’t know than telling the characters something they already do. But even beyond that, it’s not how people talk, which makes it jarring to read.
So, the first rule is, write the way people talk. The second rule? For the love of God, don’t write the way people talk. “Um… did you ever look at that thing… the one from… uh… [interminably long pause]… oh.” People in real life ramble, they trip over their words, and worst of all, they say things that don’t convey anything plot, emotion, or character.
So the trick is to write characters that sound like people talking, but better. As David Mamet once wrote, “I tried to imagine a fella smarter than myself. Then I tried to think, ‘what would he do?’”
It’s a fine line. Too real, and it’s a chore to read. Too good, and it comes across as stylized and unrealistic. How do you walk that line? Damned if I know. Read it, listen to it, get other people you trust to do the same. If it doesn’t sound natural to you, it certainly won’t to your reader.
Opening a Dialogue With Yourself
Ever have a fight with someone in your head? Of course you have. We’ve all had that mental fight with our significant other where you make such well-articulated, emotionally-resonant points, and they’re just being unreasonable, until we actually talk to them in person and realize they have a lot of good points that the version of them in your head never thought of, and you’re far more of an inarticulate boob than you realized.
It’s not a good way to navigate a relationship. But it actually is a pretty good way to write. Instead of writing what you think the audience needs to know:
“If we don’t plug this leak, our boat is going to sink into the Indian Ocean!”
“My God, man, that’s the ocean we are currently in!”
…just have a conversation in your head. Picture your characters actually in that situation, and think about what people would actually say.
“Shit. We’ve got a leak down here.”
“How bad is it?”
“Pretty fucking bad.”
“Plug it with something!”
“Do you think I didn’t think of that? It’s coming in too fast!”
Yes, people curse more in real life than they do in your head. But beyond that, they don’t talk in broad strokes about their situation. They know they’re in the ocean, they know what happens to a boat if it leaks. And if the characters know something the audience doesn’t, and you’re convinced they need to, don’t put it in the dialogue.
“Do you think I didn’t think of that? It’s coming in too fast!” Water was rushing in from the Indian Ocean, the ocean they were currently in.
Okay, not like that either. If you have to give the reader exposition, at least try and disguise the fact that it’s exposition. Or failing that, make C-3PO say it.
“Do you think I didn’t think of that? It’s coming in too fast!” The Indian Ocean was cold this time of year, and Smitty was already chilled to the bone.
Now they know what ocean we’re in, but you didn’t have to tell them like they’re four years old.
Dialogue-Adjacent Words: He Said, She Said, We All Said ‘Said’ Too Much
What we’ve discussed so far is general advice anyone could give you and you probably already know, even if you’re not always following it. And it’s coming from someone who’s written some fiction, but only ever had one short story published. So what do I know? I know enough to look up some advice from smarter fellas than myself:
One of Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 Rules for Writing is, “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Personally, I don’t even like to do that if I can help it. See how this dialogue reads with and without descriptives.
Jin was roused from her nap by the phone ringing. It was Danny.
“Drink!” he shouted.
“Drink?” she asked.
“Drink.” he affirmed.
“Drink!” she exclaimed.
“Drink!” he concurred. She hung up the phone and went looking for her shoes.
Now, let’s try that again.
Jin was roused from her nap by the phone ringing. It was Danny.
She hung up the phone and went looking for her shoes.
So, did all of those asked/said/exclaimed really add anything? Or can we just get to the point, which is that they both want to go out and drink. What’s that you say? It’s hard to keep track of whose turn it is to speak? It doesn’t matter. They’re both saying the same thing.
Here’s another stretch of dialogue from the same story. After drinks, they meet up with their friend Sasha, a struggling artist, who has a crazy scheme to move out of New York to some small town where everything’s cheap. (That was the premise of a novel I started writing, which ran out of steam when I realized I don’t really know what happens in small towns)
As skeptical as Jin was, Danny was starting to come around.
“So, how did you find out about all this? Did the Sunday Times have some sort of cheap-ass small town supplement?”
“I have connections.”
Jin raised an eyebrow. “You have shitty small-town connections?”
“How is that possible? Who do you know who lives in a shitty small town? Do they grow your pot there or something?”
“I know people.”
“I have… it’s kinda… well… I have family out there. My brother.”
“So your brother moved to some shitty small town? How did he find out about it?”
“He didn’t move there. He’s from there.”
Sasha’s shoulders slump. She sits down on the table, ignoring the wet paint and knocking off a few brushes.
“I’m from there.”
Danny’s eyes went wide in mock horror. “What!?!”
“You always told us you were from here!”
“I did. And I’m not. I moved here for college, same as you guys.”
“But you’re like Miss New York! You really didn’t grow up in Brooklyn?”
“You didn’t go to the Fame high school?”
“Your mother didn’t give birth to you on the F train?”
“You didn’t really live next door to Steve Buscemi when he was a fireman?”
“No. All lies. I do tell good stories, though. And people seem to believe ‘em.”
Danny puts on a mock serious expression. “You know, it’s the lying to us that really hurts.”
Jin waves at him to shut up. “So, all this time, you’ve been telling us you’re a lifelong New Yorker, and you’re from…”
“They do grow your pot there!”
It’s a quick back-and-forth, and it’s not always clear who’s speaking. Who says each of the last two lines? It’s clear that neither one comes from Sasha, and we’ve established that Jin’s skeptical and Danny’s curious, so it’s probably her than him. But again, it doesn’t matter. For all the “you didn’t really grow up in Brooklyn?” dialogue, Jin and Danny are interchangeable, it only needs to be clear when Sasha’s speaking, and that you can pick up from context. Never spoon-feed the reader. Speaking of fellas cleverer than myself, Aaron Sorkin once said, “never tell the audience something they already know,” and you can even apply this to things like who’s speaking.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
When you do have to make it clear who’s speaking, you don’t have to do the “said, said, said” thing. Whenever I can, I give the speaker some action, so it’s clear that it’s their dialogue.
“There’s actually a chain of Mexican-Chinese restaurants in Brooklyn.”
Scott laughed. “That’s wild. It’s like both of your cultures got together!”
Danny shook his head. “No it isn’t.”
Jin punched Scott’s arm, harder than before. “Yeah, I’m not Mexican!”
Not a single “said.” But their nonverbal actions add to the dialogue. You get a far better sense of the tone — Danny’s being patient, Jin isn’t — than you would with said, exclaimed, etc.
All These Characters Were Trying To Talk Alike and Not Succeeding
I have to be honest, this is the one that’s toughest for me. In fact, I’d appreciate suggestions in the comments. You can do things like having an overly serious character speak in clipped, short sentences, and a flighty character speak in rambling run-ons. But that’s really only good for setting two characters apart. The best thing you can do is give your characters distinctive voices, but I realize saying that as advice is like giving financial advice that boils down to, “have lots of money!” Apart from “be good at writing!”, the only thing I can say is, spend time with your characters in your head before you start writing them. Decide how they speak, how they react, what their priorities are, what they love and hate and fear. Once you’ve internalized that, you can give them dialogue and it’ll either sound in character for them or not. But you have to build the character first. Which is a Process for another day.
If you have a suggestion for a future installment of The Process, and/or would like to volunteer to host one, please don’t hesitate to let GoochExtension know in the comments!