Writing Believable Dialogue

posted in: Various Musings | 3

Carrie asked me a couple of writing questions on last Saturday’s post, so I’m going to tackle the first one today. She asked, “How do you write effective dialogue? What I write sounds better in my head than it does on paper.” I understand that! I’m sure you’ve all heard the advice to listen to and observe conversations in real life to help you get better at it. Yes, that advice does help, but it’s not perfect. After all, you and I both know it would be boring as hell to read a real conversation:

Hey.

Hey.

How’s it going?

Oh, you know.

Job suck?

Yeah, uh, the usual. You?

Yeah, it sucks.  So, well, um, I kinda called in sick yesterday.

Cool.

There are stops and starts and niceties and formality that occur in actual spoken dialogue that would kill a book—or a movie or TV show, for that matter. When we’re wanting to be entertained as readers (or viewers), we want to get to the good stuff. So don’t bore your readers with real dialogue. Make it real-like.

So how do we do that? Sometimes, it’s not as simple as it seems, but what can help is an offshoot of the listen-to-real-conversations advice. Do that. And actually record several conversations—verbatim—and type them out. Do this as many times as you can. You’ll see, first off, that there’s a lot going on, a lot of veering off course, a lot of starts and stops and pauses and formalities that just wouldn’t work in a book. So take these real conversations and make them exciting—take out the boring and unnecessary stuff. That’s step one.

There’s more, though. Most of the time, dialogue will drive the plot forward or, at the very least, will add to character development. The most important thing I can tell you about dialogue is it needs to matter. Don’t just put in dialogue because you think you need to. Make sure there’s a point. That said, dialogue can sometimes be a better communicator than narrative. For example, here’s a snippet of dialogue from Lies (Nicki Sosebee #10):

In seconds, JD appeared in front of Nicki with the bottle of Jose Cuervo and poured her shot. “This one’s on the house, birthday girl.”

She sneered. “You sure Napoli can afford it?”

“Fuck Napoli. Every girl should get a shot on the house on her birthday. Let ‘em fire me if they want.” She gave him a grin while he fetched a wedge of lime from under the bar. “Maybe I’m buying this one myself. Ever think of that?”

Nicki slammed the shot, and there was no way she was going to answer before chasing it with lime. She denied her shoulders the shudder they wanted to give into and forced her lips into a half smile. “Maybe you should say that if it’s true.”

JD smiled wide then. “You’ll just have to wonder, girl.” He winked and sauntered down the bar to tend to two women who’d just sat down. And Nicki was no idiot—those girls weren’t there for the drinks or even the atmosphere. Most people who drank at Napoli were there for the food first. Every once in a while, they’d get couples there for wine. Back in the day, when they were packed with customers from wall to wall, people would actually dine at the bar.

But those days were long past.

Those two women, though…they’d discovered cute, sexy JD, and Nicki knew, sure as shit, that they were there to see him, not to experience his killer bartending skills.

Not that he wasn’t good. He did mix a mean Cosmopolitan.

JD reappeared after serving the young ladies at the other end. Stupid man. Couldn’t see an invitation even when it was lined in gold. “Penny for your thoughts, Nicki.”

She ground her jaw together before she answered. “You don’t want to hear my thoughts, JD.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “Try me.”

If he’d thought she was there for his particular sexy ways of bartending, he was mistaken, and it was best to let him know right now. “They’re depressing as hell.”

He was undeterred. “Of course, they are. That’s why you’re drinking alone…on your damn birthday. And that’s why I’m telling you to let it all out. I’m a hell of a listener and what you tell me will go no further.” As if she needed more convincing, he nodded his head toward the end of the bar where the two girls sat chattering. “They don’t need me to listen, so shoot.”

The look in his eyes was so sincere, so inviting. How the hell could she say no?

She couldn’t. “How much time you got?”

You’ll notice that I do a lot more when writing dialogue than just adding dialogue tags (like “he said”/”she said”). I like to show “behind the scenes”—the thoughts of the main character informing what he or she is saying. It’s no secret what Nicki’s thinking because we’re in her head. But what about JD? What can we tell from his dialogue? More than that, though, the dialogue drives the plot forward. We learn here that it’s Nicki’s birthday and she’s drinking alone—JD is going to get her to open up and let him (and our readers!) know what’s going on. And that’s what the most effective dialogue will do—it will inform your readers in an entertaining way. I could very easily have summed up what Nicki’s thinking and feeling in a paragraph or two—a boring paragraph or two—but instead I chose to have these two characters banter in a half-flirting dialogue that also lets readers in to see Nicki’s state of mind. The hope is that, by this point, readers are on the edge of their seats, wondering what the hell is going on with Nicki—and then feeling relieved when JD manages to talk her into spilling her secrets.

Good dialogue can also reveal character. This is a snippet of dialogue from On the Rocks (Vagabonds #3):

We sat at a quiet booth and Brian asked, “You’re dating CJ Slavin, right?”

I managed a halfhearted grin. “Was. Don’t you keep up with the news?”

He chuckled. “Yeah…I make sure to buy my copies of The National Enquirer and Star the second they’re hot off the press.”

“Ever hear of Revolver?”

“They print shit like that?”

That told me all I needed to know about Brian Zimmer. He was a good guy and he didn’t go in much for gossip of any kind. I grinned as the waitress brought us two bottles of beer and I drank a quick swig. “What about you? You been dating a hot bassist?”

He laughed again. “I am the hot bassist.” Now, let’s pause here. Brian was hotter than hell—he just wasn’t my type. He had felt like a friend from the beginning—and I think he felt the same way about me. We just clicked on a level that I don’t with most people. And it was instantaneous.

When we were done laughing, I asked, “Okay…so who’s dating the hot bassist?”

He shook his head. “Not anymore. I’m kinda in between relationships like you.”

I could tell right away that joking with him was probably the best way to go—after all, we’d already been doing it. So I said, “Who says I’m in between relationships? Who’s to say I’m not done?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Fair enough.” Then he took a swig of his beer. “For argument’s sake, though, I’m gonna assume you’re just on pause like me. And…well, it might take me a while to get back on the horse.”

Oh. He got serious all of a sudden. I nodded. “Sorry to hear that.”

He shrugged, lifting his beer to his lips again. “Don’t be.” After he took another drink, he said, “You know, they say the longer it takes you to get over somebody, the more you loved them. Or some shit like that. I dunno. I didn’t really love Cookie.”

“Cookie?” I was shaking my head, certain I’d misheard. “Were you dating a poodle?”

“No. Her real name’s Caroline, but her friends always called her Cookie. She’s a model.” I nodded, taking a long draw off my beer. “A bra-and-panty model. I guess it wasn’t bound to last.”

“Too many guys ogling over her?”

“No. Too damn stupid. And too damn vain. I get that she’s gotta look good, but rough sex is gonna mess up your hair. If it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong.”

That girl reminded me of someone else who seemed vain and stupid. “Her name wasn’t Barbie, by any chance?”

He started laughing. “Oh, shit. Speaking of the news, I’m surprised you haven’t sued that woman.”

A shiver charged down my spine. “What? Why?” I’d actually been out of touch while on the road. Yeah, I could have turned on a TV once in a while to watch that train wreck of a TV show Barbie was on, but I wasn’t much for reality television—especially if it featured a person I was glad was no longer part of my life. But it was sounding like she wanted to continue to be in my life, whether I wanted her to or not.

“I don’t watch that show all the time, but at least once an episode, at least the ones I’ve watched, she vilifies you. Sweetheart, you are the bane of her existence.” Brian, with those two sentences, solidified our friendship for all time. He was the first rock star I’d ever met who not only used the word vilify but knew what it meant…and then letting me know that Barbie blamed all her shit on me? Well, that wasn’t so good, but if Mollie was right and there was no such thing as bad publicity, then let her bring it.

The character of Kyle, the narrator, is pretty easy to “read” because we’ve been in her head for all three books. Brian, though, is seen through Kyle’s eyes and, aside from her own assessments, what does the dialogue reveal about his character? He’s a bit of a smart ass. He’s smart. And he’s a nice guy. Did you get that here? So how can you do that with dialogue that you write?

Aside from listening to conversations and making them better on paper, I also recommend that you write dialogue—a lot. Set it aside and come back to it a week later. Reread it. One of the best things you can do with your dialogue is cut out the fat—so don’t be scared to chop! How would this scene have felt if it had started out with them ordering their drinks, discussing what they wanted to get? Boring! Instead, get to the heart—get to the point. The point of this scene was not only to develop character but also to develop the relationship between Kyle and Brian in one nice, neat scene. You learn a lot about him in just a few words—and that’s what good dialogue will do.

Sometimes, you’ll have characters with some sort of accent (careful, though—if it’s too distracting, you’ll irritate your readers). Or maybe they have a catch phrase they say all the time, or maybe they use crappy grammar. Get in your characters’ heads and let them speak—and then do a little chopping as you see fit.

My final bit of advice, though, pertains not just to dialogue but to all writing (and, I’m afraid, it’s advice Stephen King gives all the time, so it’s not that original!)—write a lot. There’s no avoiding getting better if you keep doing it. Practice; practice; practice! And then read a lot. More than that, though: when you come across a book that has good dialogue (what you find to be entertaining and effective), analyze it. See if you can figure out what makes it so good. Why did you like it? And then figure out what it did—did it reveal character? Drive the plot? Show motivation? Provide more information? It might have done all those things and more, but you’ll figure it out as you pick it apart. Happy writing!

If you have any questions about writing, feel free to ask! I plan to cover a new topic every Saturday.

3 Responses

  1. You rock, Jade! Thank you so much for answering my question. I have discovered that I am more of a plotter rather than a pantser. I have an outline of the scenes so I will be adding in and practicing dialogue using your helpful advice 🙂

    I was in the path of snowstorm Jonas this past weekend so I was able to get through quite a bit of reading while snowed in. Most of what I read was okay and I tried to figure out what wasn’t working for me.

    Chopping is hard but I did get practice in grad school. I had one professor that was a stickler for making sure that you got to the point. We would have to address up to eight different points and not be able to go over three or four pages. I would have to write down everything I wanted then go back and clean it up so I would not have points deducted for going over the page limit.

    • Oh! I had a prof like that in grad school too. She was all about being concise, and we had to write a two-page paper every week. She wouldn’t read anything past that second page and so your grade depended on brevity. It’s tough to cut your babies, and I don’t know that it gets any easier (for me, at least)–but I feel like I’m better about spotting what needs cut or changed (although, sometimes I need my beta readers to tell me!).
      Keep writing! You will become a better and better writer. There’s no getting around that, Carrie! 🙂

Leave a Reply