Whether you’re a fiction writer, cartoonist, playwright, or screenwriter, the dialogue you write can be the deciding factor in making or breaking your artwork. In my opinion, nothing ruins a movie, play, novel, or comic more than too much bad dialogue. For instance, if a book has a great story but bad dialogue it won’t escape the label of mediocrity, just as a giant special-effects blockbuster won’t get critical notice if it’s full of stilted dialogue.
Some would argue that having dialogue isn’t so important, as the popularity of Lolita attests (the entire book only contains one line of dialogue).* As readers, Americans in particular expect a hearty amount of dialogue in a book; we’re a very gregarious, sharing people. The question you have to pose to yourself when launching out into a new work is how much talking is necessary? There have been books written made up almost entirely of dialogue, such as Raymond Queneau’s Zazie at the Metro or William Gaddis‘ JR. Oppositely, there have been contemporary movies made with very little dialogue, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, which features less than 400 words spoken (estimation). As you can see, there’s no rule on how much dialogue to include or exclude.
Before I write some of my tips down, let me point out that you can’t break rules of literature because there are no rules. The tips I offer are just that, tips. If you have an artistic conception already locked away in your head, then throw my suggestions out the window. If you’re in need of some aid though, please read the following.
Dos and Don’ts.
Use dialogue to create your characters. Add nuances to their speaking style to designate what age they are, what their political views are, what their sexual orientation is, what music they like, what God they believe in, what books they read, how they feel about themselves, what they eat and so on. For example, if your character’s an elderly woman, try and think of what phrases she used as a teenager; odds are, she still uses some of those phrases today.
Have characters be verbose when necessary and terse when not. Sometimes having a conversation of punchy one-liners can be good, such as Hemingway when he’s at his best, and sometimes long paragraphs resembling monologues will develop your characters as in Dickens.
Go ahead and throw out many grammatical conventions when writing dialogue. Most people don’t speak in full sentences, and it sounds silly when they do. Also, people confuse things like when to use was instead of were, yet instead of but, then in place of than. If people do it, let your characters do it too.
Use language in dialogue that outshines your prose. People are capable of saying anything, while when writing prose you oftentimes have to put function first instead of form. The mind, while gabbing, hardly knows the difference between the two, and interchanges them freely.
Use slang, lingo, laymen’s terms, idiosyncrasies, cliches, catch phrases, stock phrases, and polyglot. Again, if people speak a certain way, allow your characters to do so too. Don’t use too many cliches or stock phrases in your prose though; keep in mind you’re sitting around thinking, while most people talk right off the top of their head.
Fill up pages and pages with uninteresting dialogue. There’s no law or dictum saying the reader has to hear all of a conversation. Use the French New-Wave jump-cut technique if you have to and simply jump right to where the conversation gets interesting and leave everything else on the cutting room floor.
Use the dialogue to advance the plot. Dialogue is to build character, not necessarily build stories. The plot can be put together in descriptive paragraphs between the dialogue or by the images you display. Use the dialogue to show the characters’ reactions to their fate, but not discuss it in detail. Don’t make your characters plan out their day while talking first thing in the morning. Reserve dialogue for interesting things, not the mundane. Also, remember it typically takes out the suspense if your characters talk on and on about what they’re going to do before they do it.
Have your characters say cool, witty things all of the time. Sometimes everyone has to simply ask for someone to pass the mayo, or speak of the weather, or cry into a pillow, or be at a loss for words. Witty, smart-aleck characters get old if they’re always flippant.
If you’d like examples of exciting dialogue, look at the following suggestions.
The Portrait of Dorian Gray: the character Henry Wotton speaks dozens of subversive bon mots throughout the novel.
Catch-22: The dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny, full of Marx Brothers’ puns and swift irony.
True Grit: (remake or original). Uses a huge amount of colloquial and provincial language to good effect.
Ball of Fire: This Billy Wilder scripted film contains a wonderful amount of 1930s jive talk and slang.
Glengarry Glen Ross: Epitomizing the tough, curt, dismissive style of speaking. Fits in well with competing business men.
Peanuts: It might seem odd to include the Charles Schultz comic, but glance over it again and notice how each character has different speaking manners, vocabularies, and idiosyncrasies. This is a good example of doing more with less.
Krazy Kat: This is another old comic strip that I recommend for an example of totally inventive, pun-filled dialogue. Click here to read my post about Krazy Kat for my other site.
*Allan Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy contains no dialogue either from what I can remember.
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