Writing better dialogue

Good at dialogue

Good between the lines

I don’t normally write dialogue in my day job at The Economist. Nor is dialogue a major part of my forthcoming book. But it is a small part of it, which is to say that I’ve inserted precisely one single dialogue between Hannibal and someone else that is not actually in the ancient sources (ie: Livy, Polybius, Cornelius Nepos, Appian, etc). This was necessary, as you guys will eventually see when I start blogging parts of the book.

The discovery that I made as a writer is that dialogue is

  1. very different from other prose, and
  2. difficult to do well, really well.

It should sound the way an actual conversation would sound, between real people, and between the specific people in their specific context in that particular dialogue. Not corny but meaningful, not overpolished but not sloppy.

In my first draft, the particular dialogue I am talking about was one of the weaker parts of the chapter it appears in. And that’s OK. I knew it at the time.

In this second draft that I am working on right now, I think I finally hit the sweet spot.

How? It helped that I practiced.

I wasn’t even aware that I was practicing when I wrote down–essentially transcribed–the conversation I had that night in a taxi cab when things went a bit wrong.

But then Cheri said in the comments that the dialogue reminded her of Hemingway’s A Clean Well-lighted Place. That was charitable of her, and it is not necessary to take her compliment too literally. But it did make me go and read that dialogue by Hemingway, and to my delight I think I understood what Cheri meant: There was a certain sparse, masculine, between-the-lines, staccato tone to the whole thing. It sounded the way a real dialogue between men sounds. Dialogues between women are very different.

And so I was able to transfer, not the content, but the tone of that dialogue into my second draft. It works. And so this is yet another way in which my dabbling in blogging has helped my craft as a writer.

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16 thoughts on “Writing better dialogue

  1. Cheri: That was my point about Hemingway’s dialogue in A Clean Well Lighted Place, the between-the-lines stuff of men. For another tutorial on strained dialogue between men and women, read one of my favorite Hemingway short stories, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.
    The story isn’t short but well worth the time.

    Hurricane Bill: Whooshhhh, ahhhhhh, pound..pound…whoosh!!

    We are grounded here in Halifax.

  2. Cheri, after I read your comment, I just knew I had immediately to read “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, which I’d never before read.

    Wow, what a superb story, and what a lot it gave me to think about, including that the real truths, the real emotions, in dialogue, are, as you’ve said, contained in what isn’t said.

    Andre Gide once wrote: I only write for those who can read between the lines. Hemingway obviously thought similarly.

    I’d read only Hemingway’s novels, which I only sort of liked, and had ignored what I’d heard, that Hemingway’s genius lay in his short stories.

    Now, after having just read “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”, I see this.

  3. I became most aware of bad dialog reading children’s books aloud. I love Frog and Toad, but it is the worst thing to read aloud. I try to edit on-the-fly, but I either blunder or get accused of skipping words. Evelyn Waugh is a master in his Sword of Honor Trilogy (everything else of his is just a sketch).

  4. What always drives me nuts is movie dialogue when you have a foreign character who speaks with a heavy accent like he just got off the boat but for some strange reason boasts flawless syntax, perfect grammar, and the vocabulary of an educated native speaker. An accent alone is not enough to make someone sound foreign. I wish they would teach that in screenwriting school. (Notable exceptions exist, for instance Paul Hörbiger as the Austrian superintendent in The Third Man. He’s really struggling with his English on all fronts.)

    • I know. That’s annoying.

      But not surprising: MOST of the dialogue, in films and books, is bad dialogue. Good dialogue is so rare that it stands out.

      I struggled with the one dialogue that I had to invent in my book.

    • Yeah, dialogue is tough because (a) spoken language generally differs from written language, and (b) every speaker uses language differently, so vocabulary and sentence structure are not supposed to sound like they emerged from the same brain.

      Just make sure your readers always know who’s speaking. So if you plan to introduce a Hannibal Lecter character into your narrative, it must always be clear exactly which Hannibal each “he” refers to in order to avoid the Thomas problem.

    • Is it possible to tell whether a piece has been written or dictated, merely by reading it, then?

    • I think it is, yes. Definitely. Unless one consciously trains oneself to write just as one speaks, written language will always come out differently to varying degrees.

    • Well, I’m not a linguist, so my guess is as good as yours. All I know is that when I look at a written transcript of spoken language (for instance a transcript of a talk show or an ad-libbed speech) the language simply looks different than a Hemingway novel or a New York Times article.

      I guess we’re using a slightly simplified vocabulary when we speak, shorter sentences, smaller words, and we repeat the small words more often. It’s a different rhythm. More like chunks of speech separated by commas rather than long and complex sentences. Depends on the speaker. Some stuff simply sounds spoken, and some sounds written.

      I think we’re more focused on structuring our sentences when we’re looking at a screen or a piece of paper, and then we (perhaps subconsciously) judge our creation by the “look” of it, and a different sense of aesthetics kicks in than when dealing with a non-visual medium like a tape recorder. After all, we’re visual creatures.

      Moreover, kids in school aren’t taught to write the way they talk. In fact, they’re taught NOT to write the way they talk. So then later in life, the moment we grab a pen or alight at a keyboard, our indoctrinated writing habits take over and our brain tells us it’s time to WRITE, not talk, and we do the internal code-switching thing from spoken to written language.

    • Just watched an old movie on TV where one character says to another, “You speak like you write everything down before you say it.” Great line.

  5. It is reported today that researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville found that patients could make letters appear on screen just by focusing on them. Does this corroborate what you say, Peter G?

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