For me, dialogue is the true measure of a writer. I’ve found that if a writer is adept at writing dialogue, then he’s almost always good at everything else, as well. Writers who fall into this category also seem to use it a lot – not just so their characters can speak, but to show us what their characters are like, to explain how they think, to advance the plot, to provide humor and entertainment, etc. Well-written dialogue is a terrific tool. On the other hand, nothing detracts from a story more than poorly written dialogue.
When I was a kid and just beginning to get serious about writing I asked my dad how to write dialogue. He gave me some basic, grammatical instructions and offered a few do’s and don’ts. Then he said, “If you really want to learn how to write good dialogue study the writers who do it really well. Start with John O’Hara, Ernest Hemingway, and Eudora Welty. They are masters at dialogue but they each have their own style. Studying how they do it will give you a good understanding of how it should be done.” Then he thought about it some more and said, “The bottom line is dialogue should be heard not read. When you read what you wrote, are you reading what you wrote or are you hearing the characters talk? If you’re hearing their conversation then you got it right.”
Obviously, the authors Dad recommended were of his era, but they are still worth studying. Later in life he added Scott Turow and Elmore Leonard to the list.
When I’m writing and I’m in a groove, it’s like I’m sitting in a booth at a diner and listening to the conversation in the booth behind me. I’m not really aware of thinking very much or choosing words or putting in punctuation. It just flows and I simply write down what I hear.
This relates back to an earlier article where I talked about getting to know your characters intimately. If you really know your characters then you don’t have to think too much about what they would say or how they would react or any of that. It’s almost like you’re involved in their conversation, not writing dialogue. So, if you’re struggling with it, or if you don’t know what they would say or how they would react, then you probably don’t know your characters well enough.
Next week I’ll get into a little more detail about the technical side of writing dialogue. But for now my recommendation is to study the people who write dialogue really well and pay attention to how they do it. Likewise, if you know someone whose dialogue drives you crazy, study them as well. It’s always good to know what not to do. Then look at your own dialogue. If it needs work you need to determine if it’s a technical problem or if your characters “just don’t sound right.” If that’s the case then you don’t know them well enough and you need to take the time to get better acquainted. If it’s a technical problem…check back next week.