Crafting Dialogue that Works

The one thing that agent after agent told me about my manuscript during the submissions process was that my dialogue was great: it was strong,  it worked, and it was completely believable. (It was the rest of it they didn’t like :-).)

Dialogue, to me, is one of those make-or-break aspects of a book. If I pick up a book that has dialogue that’s stale, stodgy, overly formal, or ridden with indecipherable dialect, I put the book down. Sometimes right in the recycling bin.

Children’s dialogue I’ve already commented on in another post. With kids, in particular, you have to be careful not to put words in their mouths that make them seem either precious or overly precocious.  Dialogue tags (those descriptive words often used to replace  ‘said’ and ‘asked’ eg. hissed, snarled, screamed) are something to watch out for — and limit –regardless of who’s speaking.

But what about dialogue generally? Why do some authors write it so well and others so poorly?

I think some writers think of speech as being more linear than it is in real life. They write characters who speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences. No-one interrupts. Each question is answered in turn. No prepositions are left dangling : no sentences begin with ‘ifs, ands, or buts.’

But that’s not how we converse in real life. When we speak to each other, we speak in fragments, not full sentences. We often interrupt, and we often start sentences with ‘but.’ (“But, Mom ….!”)We return to topics in the conversation long after a new one has begun, and sometimes answer questions that were posed to us two or three questions earlier because our minds were elsewhere.

In fact, the latter device is one of my favourites. 

I used to see it happen all the time as a criminal defence lawyer,  watching other lawyers doing cross-examination. A lawyer will often ask a series of questions in a row, instead of focusing his or her questions sharply. For example, “If you were so concerned about finding Mrs. Plumtree, why didn’t you call the police when she wasn’t there? Why did you wait until 6 p.m. the next day before you told anyone she was missing? And why did you go the warehouse to look for her at all?”

That’s not one question, that’s three. The response is usually given to the most innocuous of the questions: “I went there to find her.” Which answers the third question, and is completely non-responsive to the first two without being evasive at all. Poor cross-examination, maybe, but great written dialogue.

That’s exactly how we talk. If that was an ordinary conversation, not a cross-examination, and those questions were being posed by someone else, the person  who had gone looking for Mrs. Plumtree might respond: “I dunno. Supposed to be there. I called around; no-one knew.”

Notice how the responses are not in the order that the questions were raised in any of these examples? They’re out of sync. Grammatically incorrect. And fragments of a sentence that will drive your Spellchecker nuts. And yet the dialogue is far more believable because of that.

My advice on dialogue is to scramble it up a bit.  Have your characters sometimes go back to topics after the conversation has moved elsewhere. Ignore grammar, unless the obvious stuff like confusing ‘they’re’ and ‘their’ or ‘its’ and ‘it’s.’ 

My old pal, and Alberta Court of Appeal, Justice Buzz McClung, once jokingly asked me in a moot court trial of prostitution charges (a moot is a mock presentation) if I was really arguing that a proposition should never follow a sentence.

What I’d tell him now is that it reads better if it does :-).

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