Characters Make Talky-Talky: How To Write Dialogue That Doesn’t Suck Moist Open Ass

Said it before, and I’ll say it again: your story adds up to characters do shit and characters say shit. At it’s core, that’s every tale — somebody does something, and that somebody probably talks about it, and hopefully it’s not totally fucking boring. Right? Right.

Well, it’s time to talk about the talking.

(“Talk about the talking?” Really? Really, Wendig? You’re not going to go back and fix that? For reals? Yes. For reals. I’m leaving it. Suck it. Suck on those guava melons. This is raw. This is unfiltered. This is Jesus Juice, pumped straight to your liver and kidneys for processing.)

For me, dialogue is easy to write, but difficult to get right.

What I mean is, my characters will yammer and blather and chat and whine and argue and opine and emote and all that garbage, and they’ll do it willingly, without circus peanuts or a paycheck or even a rare word of encouragement. That part, for me, is no problem.

The challenge comes when trying to make the dialogue count, in trying to make it work.

I continue to be obsessed, you see, with this notion of double duty. (Double doody! Number two! … ha ha ha ha ha! Hee! … okay, clears throat, I’m done.) Dialogue is generally handed a single task in a scene: it speaks to the character, it provides information or explanation, it reinforces the theme of the work, it foreshadows events, it advances the plot or the story, it makes us laugh, it makes us cry, you take them both and there you have The Facts of Life — er, whoa. Sorry. Anyway. What I’m saying is, bad dialogue does nothing, and good dialogue does something.

Ah! But the best dialogue does more than one something.

It stacks shit on top of itself. Like a delicious mille-feuille.

This is especially true in a screenplay or a comic script; in such a format, you don’t have a lot of room to bring the awesome. (If you haven’t seen my overwrought essay on the differences in writing novels and screenplays, feel free to check it out.) You don’t have space to stretch out; no time for writerly indulgences there.

So, dialogue has to count. It has to fire on all cylinders.

With one bullet, you must kill two men.

Wuzza? You want some tips on writing dialogue, then?

I live to serve.

Learn How To Write It

Not trying to be a dick, but really, seriously, for realsies, learn how to write some goddamn dialogue. I don’t mean all that fancy stuff we’re going to talk about. I mean punctuation, attribution, process. I’ve seen dialogue by writers that should know better, and the dialogue looks like:

“John, I don’t want to go to the barn to milk the Blood Cows.” Mary said.

Hello? Comma? Please come to the emergency room.

Or sometimes it’s dialogue that overkills the attribution (Mary said Mary said Mary said Mary said, yeah, we get it, Mary said some shit).

Or it tries to get all fancy, and instead, looks like it was written by a pompous college freshman:

“Look over there!” John ejaculated.

Or it staples a dirty, filthy adverb to the sentence:

“Why did you murder Bessie the Blood Cow?” Mary whined seductively.

Dialogue has rules. Further, our eyes like to float over dialogue; it should be easy and even fun to read. You bog it down with every extra punctuation, with every extra attribution, with every junk synonym for said. Simplicity. Elegance. Ease-of-reading.

Get it? Got it? Good. Moving on.

Let Them Blubber And Ramble

Having trouble finding your center with these characters? Can’t quite get into the groove of how they talk? That’s because characters can be real assholes. Dealing with them can be like raining toddlers, herding cats, or worse, shepherding bees. Like with cats and toddlers (but not bees), you have to just let them run themselves out, and the way to do that in terms of your fiction is to let those jerks talk.

Just let them talk.

For as long as you need them to.

If I’m with a close friend, a professional cohort, or most particularly, my wife, I can yammer. The conversation can go for hours. Write like that. Write that kind of conversation. Is it going to be interesting to outside parties — meaning, the readers? No. Hell, no. No fucking way. But that’s not the point. If I have an hour-long conversation, it won’t be interesting to outside parties, but those listening carefully will probably be able to pinpoint character traits, or vocal patterns, or an overarching theme to the discussion.

That’s what you’re looking for. You’re painting with shotguns. You’re throwing noodles against the wall. You’re going to cut 99% (or even 100%) of that conversation. But you’re going to discover things about how these characters speak, and you’re going to savor that like a gobbet of meat held in the mouth after weeks of vegan eating. (Relax, vegans, I’m not picking on you. But we all know you really want meat. It’s why so many vegan and vegetarian products attempt to ape meat. “Ch’ken” or “Tofurkey” or “Veggie burgers” and what not. C’mon. C’mon. Meeaaaaat. It occurs to me, upon re-reading, that I said “ape meat.” Hrm. I’m sure ape meat is illegal. Don’t eat apes. )

Filter By Purpose

When it comes time to winnow the dialogue down to something manageable — like bonsai or pubic grooming — you want to wade into the fray with purpose. You may even inscribe said purpose on the blades of your vicious hedge trimmer. Remember earlier when I was talking about dialogue pulling double- or triple-duty? This is that.

Identify the purpose of the dialogue. Try to hit on at least two purposes for maximum awesomeness. The characters might be carrying the story forward at the same time they’re expressing important character traits. Or they might be giving the audience information while simultaneously reinforcing theme.

This’ll likely get a post of its own someday, because I think the ways to make dialogue — or any part of your story — rock multiple purposes requires finesse and technique. And I don’t mean to suggest I have either of those down pat, yet, but dangit, I’m trying.

Exposition Ain’t That Interesting

Here’s what’s fucked up about dialogue: the rule of writing is show, don’t tell, but dialogue is ultimately an expression of telling. In daily life, I tell people shit all the time. Some guy stops for directions, I tell him how to get to the post office. I don’t show him. I don’t take him on a wondrous visual journey down the back streets and potholed highways, past the meth den and the possum breeders, past Old Man Hymenbreaker’s place, past the bar where Johnny McGlinchey got stabbed in the neck with a shard of Native American pottery. Much as I’d love to, I can’t. So I tell him. Thing is, that’s not going to be that interesting for the audience, is it? Nope.

How do you make dialogue show and not tell?

The answer?

Characters should never speak.

No. No! Wait, that can’t be right.

What I mean to say is, you don’t need to be so concerned with the fact the character is telling. Rather, you need to be concerned with the fact that you, as the writer, are showing.

That doesn’t make much sense yet. I know.

The character can tell. You must show how the character tells.

Better? Still not there? We’re zeroing in on it. Don’t pee your pants.

Let’s assume that Ruth Rumpletits, the Matriarch of Archer Avenue, wants to talk about the history of the town in which she lives, Redlandtownsburg. We know she’s going to convey information, and we know an information dump is a boat anchor that will drag your narrative down. And yet, that infodump contains information that both the reader and the other characters must have. Fine.

How Ruth tells that history is where you have the chance to show and not tell — meaning, it’s your chance to make it interesting.

You will show her mannerisms.

You will show how she tells a story — just as you tell a story, so does she, and the way she tells it is of equal importance to what she tells. Her rules for storytelling are the same as yours, so keep that in mind.

You might show that she’s doing something else as she info-dumps all over the other characters. Just as many games feature mini-games, your big story will feature lots of mini- and micro-stories, and as Ruth tells her story, she might be cooking some eggs. Maybe she can’t find the eggs, or she burns her hand, or she suddenly freaks out from some acid flashback and she throws searing hot omelette cheese into one of the other main character’s eyes. Dialogue can be immediately punctuated by action — you’re showing what she’s doing as she tells her story. (Plus, action breaks up dialogue, which is generally good.)

One more thing:

Remember: exposition and information are sometimes necessary, but it forces you to go the extra mile to be interesting. Hence, do not overuse. I’m not saying “avoid like the plague,” but I am cautioning you not to rely on it, lest you perforate the drama of your story.

Avoid The Nose

Ever heard the phrase, “That dialogue is on-the-nose?”

It’s not a good thing.

It means that your dialogue is too precise, that it features characters saying what they’re thinking or otherwise acting more as an archetype or an agenda rather than a real character.

Your character is not an unfiltered expression of Message, Agenda, or Action.

Your character does not express emotion by talking about that emotion.

The character may be that  in part, yes. But the audience should never know that — or, rather, should never feel that you’re talking to them. They want to feel like they’re witnessing something, that they’re looking in a forbidden window. The audience doesn’t want to feel told.

Look at your dialogue. Is it on-the-nose?

Example: if one character hates another, does he tell him that he hates him, how much, and why?

If someone is angry, do they say, “I am angry,” and then list the reasons why?

Do they tell a loved one how much and why they love them?

Does an ecoterrorist spout his ecoterror message like it’s out of a goddamn pamphlet?

In real life, maybe.

In fiction, don’t do that.

They shouldn’t say what they feel. They shouldn’t say what they’re doing all the time, or why, or how. Dialogue is a cipher, a code, a mystery, and the variables presented there speak to the character. Let the reader do a little detective work both in her head and in her gut. And this leads me to…

What Don’t They Say?

I’m boldly stealing from something one of the advisors said, and it’s this: an uncomfortable family dinner is not always uncomfortable because everyone sitting there is mouthing off about their feelings. Maybe in reality it is, but ultimately, what’s most uncomfortable lies in what they don’t say. The discomfort lies in cold stares and passive-aggressive statements. It’s how someone suddenly says something nasty about the mashed potatoes. It’s comments under-the-breath. It’s facial tics and gestures.

Sometimes, dialogue is about what characters aren’t saying at all. Sounds weird. Doesn’t stop it from being true.

Ever been in a fight with a significant other? It’s a battle of the unspoken. “Something wrong?” “I’m fine.” Those two words have cursed relationships for glacial epochs; even the mammoths feared them. Has a two-word phrase ever meant so much more? Could two words ever be more of a lie? “I’m fine” means that person is anything but fine. Those two words conceal a thousand other unspoken words. That’s the truth of dialogue.

Characters hold back. They lie — outwardly, and to themselves. They say things they don’t mean without intending to. They mix truths in with fictions. All of these things offer tension and uncertainty. They are transgressions spoken and unspoken, and out of such transgressions we get conflict. And conflict is the food that feeds the reader.

Authenticity Versus Reality

You are striving for authenticity in your dialogue.

You are not aiming for reality.

Ever see Michael Mann’s Public Enemies? (Originally mistyped as “pubic enemies.”) I haven’t, but I know why a lot of people didn’t like it. I get it. I’ve got the secret. See, Mann wanted to tell the story of John Dillinger in a real way. He used digital video and aimed for an unpretentious look at the times without all that maudlin posturing or grandstanding you find in period piece films. Great idea, but here’s why that doesn’t work: the audience had a perception of the past that is largely filtered through that maudlin posturing and grandstanding. We look back and we see the sweeping marquees and the canyon-like streets and the overwrought dialogue. Period pieces have a certain style, and that style is what we’ve come to expect.

It’s authentic. “Authentic” does not imply true or factual. If the world becomes convinced that wine made from grapes of the Bordeaux region of France tastes like Welch’s grape juice, it doesn’t matter if that’s accurate. It matters that it’s not authentic. Someone will sniff their glass and say, “It doesn’t smell of concord grape,” and put it down, all snooty-like. Authenticity is a matter of perception. Reality is not.

It’s why “But this really happened!” is never ever a justification for your story. Truth is stranger than fiction, which means you can’t automatically use truth, because it can be too strange. It feels real, but it doesn’t feel authentic, and so nobody believes it in the story.

Now, circling back to dialogue.

People speak in certain ways. You can learn a lot by listening to people talking.

But do not attempt to emulate it out of the gate (er, “out of the mouth?”). You’ll look like an asshole.

Reading the reality of how people speak is not easy on the eyes. Further, it isn’t authentic, even if it is factual. People say “um” and “like” and they misspeak and interrupt each other and sometimes don’t say very much at all. You can get away with a little bit of that in your fiction, but in my mind, you should only use it for flavor. A dash here, a pinch there. That’s not to say you’re removing all character and intonation from the words. Not at all. What you’re doing is attempting to distill real conversation into an essence. Squeeze it out. That essence is the authenticity, the perception, the expectation.

You’re using the juice of the lemon, not the whole lemon.

By the way, this is also why local color is hard to use. It’s not impossible, but once more, I say leave it to flavor. If it saturates your dialogue, it becomes hard to read. Dialogue should flow unbidden, like an undammed river, or a stream of urine unfettered by urinary tract disorders. Local color can be the equivalent of kidney stones.

Conclusion?

Conclusion is, I’ve gone on too long.

I ask you: comments, questions, complaints, prayer requests, death threats?

Anything to add?

Maybekindasorta?

15 comments

  • Especially handy advice for me to keep in mind as I wrap up the Character Bible of Der Projekt. I’m chomping at the bit to start the actual narrative. See this bit? I’m chomping it.

    But first I need to make sure the major characters are covered – nobody likes one-dimensional characters with more than a few lines of dialog after all. Then it’s off to the World Bible to establish the history, rules and other little tidbits of info I’ll need.

    After that… ????

    Then, profit!

  • Great material in here, Chuckster, with some time-honored advice and classic Wendig sass. Good stuff.

    But you know what this thing is really missing, seriously? Seriously? Examples of good dialogue. Write them yourself, take them from favorite sources, or whatever you want. But show us some dialogue you love.

    I sometimes cite this example, which my wife hates and I love, from Mamet’s HEIST: “Everybody loves money. That’s why they call it money!”

    That says everything we need to know about DeVito’s character in two sentences.

    It’s also technically not dialogue, since it’s not two-sided. It’s really a very short monologue, as is so much great dialogue.

    • Herr Doktor Hindmarch:

      Man, totally. I need to post some examples — unfortunately, that’s a research thing, and if I take time to do research on these posts, I’ll never have time to write the posts, I think. So, that’ll come — gimme a little while, tho.

      Someone was tweeting recently about that DeVito line — Ebert, maybe? Yeah. Ebert. I love that line. It’s classic Mamet. It doesn’t have to make sense for it to work. It’s a controversial line, though, as some people seem to really detest it — but, then again, maybe that’s the mark of good dialogue.

      – c.

  • February 8, 2010 at 5:23 PM // Reply

    This is monumentally helpful, Chuck. I just saved this to text so I could reference it later. Thanks for it.

  • One of the dangers with writing dialogue is that sometimes what people say can not appear real once it hits print. With my friends I know they don’t speak with perfect grammar and at times this does affect* my grammar.

    …crap, I don’t know if I used the right effect/affect there. CRAP.

  • “Thanks for the helpful post,” Keith commented gratefully. “I bet Old Man Hymenbreaker has some great dialogue to spill. Old Man Hymenbreaker? Really? There’s a story there. How’s an old man breaking so many hymen? Or is he the last in a long line of breakers, and has had little success?”

    “Great dialogue to me?” Keith questioned himself quizzically. “I’d have to say ‘It’s not me’ uttered in all the right moments of Grosse Point Blank. Three little words that summed up both the character and the internal struggle of his personal plot.”

    “I noticed some of this post shares an ethos with Steven King’s On Writing, which always garners high marks.” Keith noted, notably.

    Yes, I know. I’m fired.

  • In the midst of hating everything I have written today, I chose to google, “How to write something that doesn’t suck,” in the hope of some divine inspiration, and this was the top hit. What a truly beautiful find. I’ll be a returning reader. (You had me at, ‘characters do shit and characters say shit.’ And that’s what it’s all about!)

  • Kind of laughing because the last comment was two years ago but HERE I AAAAAM. I just want to say that any time I am searching for any sort of writing advice this is my favorite place to go. Your humor just kills me. But I have to say, the thing that worked the most for me was just letting my character ramble on and on and on. I got something fantastic stuff out of it. Soooo, pretty much thanks for being you and giving wonderful advice. :-)

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