Sunday, April 17, 2011

Overstuffed Dialogue

James Scott Bell

A short lesson today in the art of dialogue.

Here are the opening lines from an  old Perry Mason show, circa 1958. A couple is in their compartment on a train:

I still wish I were going to Mexico with you instead of staying here in Los Angeles.

This trip's going to be too dangerous, Harriet. It's some of the most rugged terrain in the Sierra Madre mountains. It's no place for a woman, especially my wife. It's almost no place for an amateur archaeologist, either. Thanks for coming with me as far as Cole Grove station.

You see what's happening? It's an example of the writers shooting information to the viewers through expository dialogue. In fairness to the writers, that was done all the time in those old days of television.

But it's death to dialogue if you do it in your fiction.

Dialogue has to sound like it's coming from one character to another, in a way that both fits the character and the moment.

The first thing to look out for is a character saying anything that both the characters already know.

In the above example, they both know they live in Los Angeles. They both know she's his wife. They both know he's an amateur archaeologist. They both know he's going into the Sierra Madre mountains. And they both know they're going as far as Cole Grove station.

Again, we understand why it was done within the confines of a one hour TV drama from the 50s. But you're writing a book, so don't you do it.

I'm at a conference this weekend, mentoring some students. One of them turned in a manuscript with the following (used by permission). A woman (Betty) has been planting bombs to avenge the death of her son.  She now has a forensic investigator (Kate, who has been closing in on her) tied up, and is threatening to kill her:

Betty looked down at Kate. The triumphant smile on her face faded into a snarl at the mention of her son’s death. “Why do you care?”

“Because if my son had died as a result of finding out about something terrible that had happened to him that I had kept hidden to protect him, I would want to blame the person responsible.” Kate thought she would try the empathy tactic. She did feel a great sorrow for Betty and her tragic story. She watched as Betty returned her statement with a hard stare. 

Here in this tense moment, Kate has revealed to Betty facts about the case, but dialogue sounds unnatural. The long line has information stuffed into it, but it feels more like it's for the reader's benefit rather than the character's.

I told the student to go back and cut all dialogue that is not absolutely true to the character and the emotional beats. What would either of them really say?

Dialogue is a tool like any other in the craft. Also, dialogue is the fastest way to improve your manuscript––or sink it. If you do it well, it creates in the reader a subliminal confidence in you. They trust you as a storyteller.

If you don't do it well, confidence flies out the window.

Great dialogue keeps readers in the fictive dream. So never have a woman answer the door and say, "Oh, hello Arthur, my family doctor from Baltimore. Come in."

You know great dialogue when you read it. Who are some of your favorite masters of this aspect of the craft? 

*The above photo, BTW, is from the classic screwball comedy His Girl Friday, which has some of the best dialogue ever recorded on film. Check it out.


  1. Jim, I love that movie, one of my all time faves. Hands down, Elmore Leonard is the greatest dialogist of the modern era, followed closely by Stephen King and David Mamet. It's my understanding that Stieg Larsson's original Swedish dialogue is quite good as well.

    Also, fun fact about the production of His Girl Friday, Rosalind Russell paid a comedian to look at her script and come up with one-liners for her scenes with Cary Grant.

  2. Anna Gavalda - a french author. In addition she also has a quirk of writing out silences with dialogue tags and dots.

  3. Fletch, thanks for weighing in. I agree with your assessments.

    Malin, I'm not familiar with her work, but that does sound like a cool stylistic choice. I'll have to check her out.

    I'm teaching today at a conference and won't be able to be as active in the comments as I'd like. So dialogue amongst yourselves, as it were, and I'll try to check in later.

  4. Thanks, Jim, for this very helpful post. I want to stress one point that you made so it doesn't get overlooked: Expository dialogue sounds unnatural if both parties already know the facts. If one of the parties doesn't already know the facts, expository dialogue can be used to great effect -- as long as it isn't a data dump. One of my favorite examples is from the 90s TV series "Mad About You." Jamie confesses to her husband Paul that she once accidentally had sex for money. But when he presses her for details, she gradually reveals that she stole money from the guy's wallet while he was sleeping. People commonly withhold details to make themselves look better, and by injecting this into dialogue, you increase the suspense and create opportunities for humor.

  5. I love dialogue. I love to write it but I've been told I rely on it too heavily so there's more work to be done.

    Wish I was running around Mt. Hermon. One of my buddies, Diane Stortz is teaching there this year related to writing for children.

    Downloaded Writing Fiction For All Your Worth. Can't wait to dive in.
    And I got my book, Secrets of the Heart, in the mail yesterday. Talk about a rush! All you Killzoners remember that feeling? :)

  6. Hey Million--Congratulations on receiving your first book. That is definitely a rush. Cyber-hug.

    Jim--great post. When you asked about a favorite author for dialogue, I immediately thought of Robert Crais and his Elvis Cole PI series. The witty banter and the funny one liners can often make me laugh aloud. And he can completely touch me with the tight relationship between Elvis and his partner Joe Pike who are closer than brothers. I think he honed his dialogue skill when he wrote for the TV show, Hillstreet Blues.

  7. LOL...darned phone. Million should be Jillian, but here's hoping you sell a million.

  8. Jillian, congratulations! Wait until you see it in a store!

  9. LOL Jordon. Love it, and thanks. I hope I sell a million too. Jillian's Millions. Sounds good to me. :)

    And Joe. I can't even imagine. I'm still gaga over seeing it on Amazon.

  10. Elmore Leonard writes excellent dialogue, but I think when it comes to learning to write dialogue you're better off listening to actual people.

    It's the difference between reading about a sunset, and seeing it for yourself.

    When I listen to people talk, I don't always focus on the details of WHAT they are saying, I try to listen to HOW they are saying it.

  11. Largo--I completely agree that listening to dialogue is a great teacher. And when I'm writing YA, it's really fun to watch kids speaking to adults versus how they speak to each other. So much subcontext and body language.

    And "million" Jillian--get readers to send you pics of your book sightings. They pose with it or send shots of them in groups--lots of fun.

  12. Jim--I know you're busy generously teaching at a conference, so I checked the spam filter. As of 2pm cst, no comments have been held up. Free and clear.

    It seems the comments with links have had problems getting hung up in the past, but other non-link comments get whacked for no apparent reason. Spam gremlins.

    Go Spurs!

  13. Largo, I agree. Listening to people is definitely better for learning what to write as dialogue. But once you've got a natural meter and diction to your work, you still might not know the right syntax to put it on the page unless you've seen examples by other authors. And there isn't always just one way to skin a cat in this regard. Seeing how others do it gives you a good repertoire to go to when you want to have a character say something a certain way, or have a certain accent.

  14. What does the character need to say and how would they say it. We're not talking rocket science. People as individuals communicate in certain ways, and it ain't that hard to get that by listening. Elmore Leonard does criminals and bottom feeders better than anybody. John Cheever did class better than just about anybody.

  15. I think Laura Lipman (SP?) writes great snappy dialog. Most competent authors write decent to very good dialog. If you don't, your pages just die.

  16. Anonymous, I'd argue that there are ways, and then there are ways. Truly great dialogue is a fine art, and it requires not only the ability to convey a message or information, or even characterization, but also an ability to connect with the reader, like how Jordan laughed out loud at some of the oneliners Robert Crais wrote.

    Saying that dialogue is as simple as writing what a character needs to say is equivalent to saying that playing the piano is just a matter of banging on the keys. I'm not saying it's hard. I'm saying doing it right requires more than just knowing how people talk.

  17. Good discussion, all. One last thing I'll say here is that dialogue is not real life speech, but stylized speech. The author can shape it to fit his needs. There is an "ear" aspect, how it sounds to you, but also a craft aspect, what you can do to make your dialogue even better.

    So go yak it up.

  18. Some of my favorite dialogue comes from Pride and Prejudice. There's nothing finer than spunky dialogue spoken with a cool accent. Thanks, as always, for your amazing advice.