In the course of my lengthy career as a professional musician, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet – and sometimes perform with – a number of rock stars and celebrities. Most of them have been wonderful to work with. Some of them, significantly less wonderful.
And then there’s Billy Joel. He and I… well, let’s just say that we are not currently on speaking terms.* Not after what he said.
I mean, I can forgive a lot, but not that.
Admittedly, it was a long time ago. 1977, to be precise. But Billy has never taken back what he said – hell, he’s probably said it a thousand times since then. I swear, there’s no apologies with this guy. Not even a hint of remorse. And in my defense, I like to think I’m pretty open-minded and accommodating. But some rifts are just insoluble. Some lines just shouldn’t be crossed.
That’s what happened with Billy. The guy crossed a line with me, and there’s just no going back. Not after he said this:
“I don’t want clever conversation.”
Here’s the thing. As a writer – and as a reader – I DO want clever conversation. In life. In relationships. And especially when it comes to dialogue in fiction.
So today’s rant – er, today’s post, that is – will focus on how to make the conversations your fictional characters have more effective, more engaging, more memorable – in short, more clever.
What’s the big deal with dialogue?
To me, dialogue is the single most powerful way to bring your characters to life. As author, editor and all-around writing guru Sol Stein says in his excellent book How to Grow a Novel, “The minute characters talk, the reader sees them. And we know readers much prefer seeing what’s happening rather than hearing about it through narration.” Stein also points out an additional benefit: “Not to be lightly dismissed are those white spaces on the page created by exchanges of dialogue. They make the reader feel the story is moving fast.”
Dialogue opens up a window for the reader into how a character thinks, how she perceives herself, how she views the world, and often, how she wants the world to view her. As Stephen King observes in his classic On Writing: “What people say often conveys their character to others in ways of which they – the speakers – are completely unaware.”
In addition to providing us a clearer view of a character, dialogue can often leave a lasting impression that is far more powerful than most passages of narrative or description. I often use movies as examples in my WU posts, since more people will be familiar with them, so to help drive home how powerful – and how memorable – good dialogue can be, see if any of these lines ring a bell:
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
“I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
“Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
“Bond. James Bond.”
“You can’t handle the truth!”
“You had me at hello.”
“There’s no crying in baseball!”
“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”
“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!”
One could argue that those lines are exceptions, purposely crafted to be pithy and memorable. I’ll grant you that, but would counter by asking: what’s wrong with that?
A common argument is that people don’t really talk like that. But I maintain that’s not only ok, but a good thing. Sol Stein apparently agrees with me, stating in his equally excellent book Stein on Writing: “Some writers make the mistake of thinking that dialogue is overheard. Wrong! Dialogue is invented and the writer is the inventor… it is a semblance of speech that has the effect of actual speech.” Bouncing back to How to Grow a Novel, Stein concludes, “At its best, as in Shakespeare’s best, dialogue provides us with memorable – and beautiful – guides for understanding the behavior of the human race.”
To that I can only add: Yeah. What he said.
That’s all well and good, but how do we actually DO this? Fear not – I’ll use some of the time I save by not talking to Billy Joel to share a half-dozen do’s and don’ts I’ve picked up over the years. Let’s start with some do’s.
1. DO bring the C word into every conversation
A few years back I attended an excellent writing seminar taught by author/designer Barbara Flores. She advocated the idea of writing dialogue with the goal of making it a confrontation, not a conversation. As an example, consider these two snippets:
Character 1: “Hi. How are you?”
Character 2: “I’m fine. How about you?”
Character 1: “Hi. How are you?”
Character 2: “Oh, so now you’re interested in how I’m doing? That’s new.”
The first snippet is the kind of throwaway fluff we all find ourselves saying every day. Realistic, sure – but utterly non-memorable, with zero impact. The second snippet, on the other hand, immediately lets us know there’s a problem between these two people. In other words, we’ve got the C word: conflict!
While preparing this post, I dug up my notes from Barbara’s workshop, and found that she got this approach from – wait for it – Sol Stein. Small world, right? Here are three reminders Stein offers at the end of his chapter on dialogue in How to Grow a Novel, each of which underlines the importance of conflict.
- What counts in dialogue is not what is said but what is meant.
- Whenever possible, dialogue should be adversarial. Think of dialogue as confrontations or interrogations. Remember, combat can be subtle.
- The best dialogue contains responses that are indirect, oblique.
2. DO give each character a unique voice
A frequent problem that an inexperienced fiction writer may encounter is that all her characters talk the same – often reflecting the way the writer herself talks. Again, this is totally fixable.
One approach that could help is to think about whether you know anybody – either personally, or through your familiarity with them from seeing them in TV shows or movies – who has a really memorable way of speaking. Then try to apply those spoken mannerisms to one of your characters.
Even if it’s not a great fit, it can be an excellent exercise in testing how well you know a person’s way of speaking. And it really makes you think about word choice and delivery, since you don’t get to use the actual sound of their voice. Tom Cruise in a military role might show his excitement by quietly saying, “Outstanding.” Meanwhile, in an episode of Friends, Chandler Bing’s annoying sometimes-girlfriend Janice would likely scream, “Oh. My. God!”
Chances are, you’re even more familiar with the speech patterns of people you know personally. Take advantage of that: think of the coolest person at work – or the most annoying one – and analyze how they talk and why it impresses or annoys you. Look around you: That family member who always mixes up their words, or never finishes a sentence. The guy who never lets you forget he’s from New York. The woman from Georgia who can pack both honey and venom into a softly spoken “Bless your heart.” The vegan who manages to make EVERY conversation about being a vegan. All those mannerisms – some of which might annoy the hell out of you – could be ripe for harvesting for one of your characters.
Also think about how formally – or not – certain people speak. For example, a device that’s become popular particularly in movies and TV, is to make characters sound more serious, alien or spiritual – or even more sinister – by having them avoid using contractions. The Native American character Henry (played by Lou Diamond Phillips) in the wonderful Longmire TV series does this, as did Data on Star Trek: the Next Generation, as well as the female protagonist in the original movie version and most of the characters in the 2010 remake of True Grit (although the original novel actually favored contractions). Mystery novelist Robert B. Parker had one of his scariest mob guys talk that way in the Spenser series of detective novels, and the meticulous formality of the character’s speech made him MUCH more intimidating than the stereotypically rough-talking “central casting” Mafia goons we far more frequently encounter in books and shows.
3. DO look for other ways to make how your character talks more memorable
Beyond word choice, there are other tics and mannerisms that can be equally memorable – and highly entertaining. In the long-running show The West Wing, the head of White House communications is Toby Ziegler, a tremendous speechwriter whose brilliant mind operates so fast that he sometimes speaks in an allusive shorthand, which he assumes the rest of his audience is smart enough to decipher. Toby’s “high atop the thing” rant (starting around 0:31) is an example I can watch again and again. And again. By not trying to write a beautiful piece of dialogue, the writer (Aaron Sorkin, I’m assuming) instead wrote something far more memorable – and dare I say, far more clever. (Take that, Billy, wherever you are!)
You can also use how the dialogue is delivered to show us something about your character. In Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You (a textbook case of the book-is-better-than-the-movie syndrome, by the way), the protagonist’s brother-in-law Barry is an all-business, all-the-time guy who can never be bothered to stop conducting business calls – not even for a funeral. And since Barry uses a wireless earpiece phone, he often appears to be ranting to himself.
In this scene, the protagonist’s ne’er-do-well brother Phillip is introducing his new girlfriend Tracy to his siblings, who are gathered together to sit shiva for their recently departed father:
No one says anything for a long moment, so Phillip performs a roll call.
“That’s my sister, Wendy,” he says, pointing.
“Great suit,” Wendy says.
“The guy talking to himself is her husband, Barry.”
Barry looks right at Tracy and says, “I can maybe sell another eighth of a point to them. Maybe. But they’ll want some pretty solid assurances. We’ve plowed this field before.”
“Barry is something of an ass.”
“It’s okay, baby. He can’t hear us.”
Not surprisingly, Barry spends most of the book rarely giving anybody his undivided attention, and in the process we get a clearer picture of how this impacts his wife, children, and extended family. But in Barry’s case, it is his way of delivering his dialogue – and to whom he’s directing that dialogue – that accomplishes this, far more than the actual words he says. Definitely an interesting approach, which I look forward to stealing – er, borrowing.
Okay, let’s move on to some don’ts. We already know not to try to make dialogue identical to actual conversation, but let’s dig a little deeper.
4. DON’T be a name-dropper
A common mistake many inexperienced writers make is overly frequent use of their characters’ names in dialogue. This is usually done out of concern for making sure the reader knows who is talking, and to whom, and the result is something like this:
“What’s that in your hand, Bob?”
“Funny you should ask, Ted. It’s a gun.”
“A gun? Bob, why on earth would you have a gun?”
“Here’s the thing, Ted. I’m planning to shoot you.”
“Really, Bob? That seems rather harsh.”
That’s an extreme example, obviously, but the fact is that people just do NOT talk that way – most people hardly ever say the name of the person they’re talking to in casual conversation. We might use somebody’s name to get their attention and/or to start a conversation, but for the most part, we get by just fine without using them. There are exceptions, to be sure, but as an alternative I suggest using dialogue tags to clarify who’s speaking – a subject we’ll touch on next.
5. DON’T go nuts with dialogue tags
Elmore Leonard was an author universally recognized for writing great dialogue – and damn good books in general. His legendary “10 rules for writers” have been floating around the Internet for years, and one of those rules places some very stringent limitations on how to attribute your dialogue:
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.
I’ll admit, this can be a tough rule to obey. I’ve certainly had a character grunt, blurt, or gasp a line of dialogue here or there. But many writers – again, less experienced writers in particular – can really go overboard finding “creative” ways to tag their dialogue, and soon their story is totally saturated with increasingly conspicuous substitutes for “said.” This is a red flag that can immediately identify the writer as an amateur, so I advise you to use alternatives to “said” VERY sparingly.
The thing that “said” brings to the table is transparency. This point was driven home for me when I entered a contest where the goal was to write a brief excerpt in the style of a famous author, and then present your “fake” alongside a real example of that author’s work, and see if the readers could spot which one was real. I chose Robert B. Parker, whose novels I’d been reading for 20 years. I had to hand-type the genuine Parker passage, and when I did, I began to realize that he NEVER veered away from using “said” – I think he even used it for questions (rather than using “asked”). In all my years of reading – and studying – Parker’s writing, I had never noticed that. Like I said, “said” is truly transparent. You really can’t go wrong using it.
6. DON’T go overboard with dialect
This merits its own post, preferably by an author who’s better at it than I am, but as both a writer and a reader, I can offer this advice: unless you have a REALLY good ear for dialect, don’t go nuts with phonetically spelling out the dialect of a person from a different region, culture or educational background. Done badly, it can be patronizing, tone-deaf, and a major chore to wade through. Sure, there are some authors who do it well. Tom Wolfe has some serious game in this regard, and I thought Kathryn Stockett did a great job with The Help, but it’s worth noting that she also caught a lot of flak for being a white author writing a book in African American dialect.
The thing is, if you paint a vivid enough picture of your character and her background, your reader can “fill in the blanks” and create their own accent for your character in their imaginations. As an example, if you make it clear your character is a Southern belle, and have her use some realistically Southern-sounding figures of speech – without changing the spelling or replacing all your G’s in “ing” words with an apostrophe (so that they’re walkin’ and talkin’ all the time) – your readers are fully capable of imagining that character’s accent.
You can help that reader along with word choice and sentence structure, as well as by showing how other people react to that character’s way of speaking, all without havin’ to resort to changin’ the spellin’ of any little ol’ words. Honest.
7. DON’T go changing
Sorry, that’s Billy Joel’s idea, not mine. I swear, that guy just won’t leave me alone. But I guess that’s my cue to wrap this post up…
How about you?
What do you have to say about how you put words in your characters’ mouths? Got any tips? Any sore points you continue to struggle with? Any favorite authors or books that inspire you with their dialogue? And above all, how do YOU feel about clever conversation? Please chime in, and as always, thanks for reading!
* Full disclosure:
Okay, I’m willing to concede that the fact that Billy Joel and I have never actually met could possibly have something to do with the two of us not being on speaking terms. But the guy still crossed a line with me, and I’m not letting him off the hook anytime soon.
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