WRITING: Creating believable dialogue.

Creating believable dialogue is an art, but part of the craft can be learned.

First of all, there are two adages that come to mind when writing dialogue. Strunk & White’s ‘Omit needless words’, and Elmore Leonard’s ‘Skip the boring parts’.

My own process:

What I most often do is write pages and pages of dialogue before I start culling the pages back to paragraphs. I’m a stickler for verisimilitude, so I tend to write dialogue that’s close to the real thing.

However, dialogue has a function in fiction, so I remove the quotidian from the verbiage and keep that which hints or tells something about the situation or the perspective of the character, as well as moving the plot forward.

I dislike ‘exposition’, but you can inform the reader in dialogue without info dumps if you infer rather than inform. So hint at stuff, instead of explaining things outright.

Another thing is that in real life, people rarely say what they mean. So that’s important to keep in your fictional dialogue–sometimes people are direct, other times they’re circumspect. Some characters are blunt, others tend to be more sophisticated.

An example from my current WIP, In Pocket. Wolfgang the pickpocket visits his fence to cash in his plastic:

I slipped into the booth, ignored the smoke from his cigar smouldering in the chipped glass ashtray, and placed a stack of credit cards in front of him. Mink sifted through the cards, refused three and pocketed the rest. His pudgy hand reappeared with cash and a gold-plated necklace, the lock broken to make it appear snatched.

“Two hundred retail,” Mink said. “Yours for twenty.”

“I don’t wear jewellery.”

He dangled the necklace from his thick fingers. “It’s a woman’s.”

“Don’t have a woman.”

I stuffed the money he gave me in my breast pocket, not eager to let him know where I stash my cash.

Mink smoothed the necklace on the table. “You should get out more.”

“If that advice had come from someone who didn’t live inside a dingy bar stuffed in a back alley, I might’ve taken it.”

“Always the smart mouth.” Mink shook his head. “One day you’ll learn that moving around isn’t the same as moving up.”

“Is that the voice of experience?”

He steepled his stubby fingers. “Don’t push your luck.”

“Respect goes two ways,” I said, “Don’t insult my intelligence pushing that gold-plated crap on me.”

Grinning, Mink put the necklace away. “You’re right, I should’ve known better.”

I got up to leave, but he flapped a pudgy hand. “Sit back down, we need to talk.”

“We do?” I sat back down, even though I didn’t really want to. Mink is connected and while I don’t want him to disrespect me, I also don’t want to piss him off.

Mink leaned back and drew on the stub of his cigar. “You work hotels?”

“Lobbies, on occasion. Sometimes hotel restaurants at breakfast time.”

He blew a plume of smoke at the ceiling. “But no further?”

“Not much to gain from venturing into the corridors.”

“Not for a pickpocket.” Mink ground out the cigarette in the ashtray with a savage twist. I heard somewhere that he used to have a highly volatile temper. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t be useful.”

I didn’t respond. Sometimes it’s better not to talk.

“I’m putting together a small crew for hotel burglaries,” Mink said. “You’d be a good addition.”

“I’m not into team sports, Mink.”

“I’m talking about a crew, not a team.”

“There’s a difference?”

“Members of a team all work towards the same goal, although there can be different tasks. A crew unites members with diverse specialties to work together as a cohesive unit.” He steepled his fingers. “You’d be part of a three-man crew. One stays by the door while two work the room. You have a good eye for valuables.”

I pointed at his pocket. “That necklace was a test?”

“You’d be in charge. I have passkeys, maps of the rooms, floor plans of the hotels. Three-way split. You, me and them.”

I shook my head. “Three people triple the risk.”

“I forgot, you don’t like to take risks.” Mink grinned, but his eyes stayed dead. “Let me know if you change your mind.”

I left the bar, glad to be back in the sunlight again.

If you can, please share your perspective on writing dialogue. And, of course, if you know anyone who might benefit from this information, share this post using the social media buttons below.

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9 Comments on “WRITING: Creating believable dialogue.”

  1. H.C. Dallis says:

    I don’t have steady access to the net at the moment, so apologies if this seems rushed, but I just had to comment. I love this topic! Dialogue is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, and has been ever since I discovered that reading the dialogue in books makes “real life” conversations boring (there is a lot of um’s and uh’s that are never transcribed onto the page, thank goodness).

    Two points of dialogue that I always watch for are these: first, does it sound different from the normal text, and second, does each character sound different from the others? The first point is often tricky enough, although your suggestions (make the dialogue quick and avoid exposition) do wonders for getting it right. But the second point can be extremely difficult. No two people in reality speak alike, and everyone’s speech tends to have small verbal “tells” that hint who they are. But for an author, creating these effects without a) going too far and annoying the reader or b) losing verisimilitude, that is the tough part! I definitely have sympathy for anyone struggling through such a problem.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment. It doesn’t read rushed at all. *grin*

      It’s important to get right in the head of the character when writing the dialogue, and to make sure the person they are conversing with has their own opinion (neither agree nor counter everything), so that the dialogue can go in unexpected ways.

      What I always see is how beginning authors want to create perfect dialogue without editing, while I found it’s best to let the ‘conversation’ ramble for several pages before you start editing. In lots of dialogue, authors tend to favour one view over the other. I found it helps to just write it that way, and not concentrate to much on the opposite dialogue.

      After writing the draft of the dialogue, highlight only the opposite dialogue and try to find the character’s voice. Think about, ‘How would this character react to this opinion? Would they become defensive? If so, what would they say?

      For me, I think every character, whether minor or major, is the protagonist in their own story, so you need to see things from their perspective and use that to develop a believable dialogue.

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      • elletodd says:

        That is phenomenal advice to keep in mind: “every character…is the protagonist in their own story…”

        Too often, characterization is sacrificed for convenience–which spoils the dialogue and cheapens the plot. If every character in a book truly is their own person in the writer’s mind, it comes across on the page.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you, Elle.

          Yes, I’ve seen that before, where the other characters are just foils for the protagonist to feed off. If the minor characters are well-drawn, you hope to see more of them, hope to get an inkling of their story.

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  2. I love to study the dialoge in excellent TV shows. One thing that is of prime importance for those is dialog dynamics, i.e. the interaction between different speakers. And it’s fascinating how very different styles of interaction can each work perfectly.

    Firefly e.g. uses the Joss Whedon style of elegant rapier duelling, where antogonists, whether quarreling lovers, disputing crewmembers, or friends and enemies, exchange whitty remarks that build up on each other.

    Breaking Bad OTOH uses a totally different style of heavy saber fighting, where each antagonist makes strong points on his own, contrasing rather than complementing each other.

    And The Big Bang Theory shows how specific lines have great impact if they stand out from the usual: Much of the dialog is rapid-fire comedy, but some of the most memorable and remarkable lines are the more sober ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for visiting, Timothy.

      I enjoy the Whedon universe (Firefly/Serenity/Buffy/Angel/Dollhouse), although I’m wary of putting too much witty come-backs in my own suspense fiction. There’s a serious risk of getting ‘over the top’ when your protagonist has to make a wisecrack before shooting someone.

      Big Bang Theory has great dialogue. So does Breaking Bad, although the show itself became a bit tedious for me. Other shows with excellent dialogue are Sopranos and The Wire.

      Like

      • You’re certainly right to be wary of too much witticism. Many fast-talking, wisecracking characters just come accross as “over the top”, and also don’t feel Whedonesque.

        In fact, you make me realize that I stated my point wrongly. Instead of “exchange witty remarks” I should have written “make strong points” like I did in the other sentence. Because in my opinion the difference between Whedon style and Breaking Bad style is in the way that the speakers interact, and not so much in what they are saying.

        My favorite TV show right now, “The Good Wife”, gives me this Whedonesque feel of “fencing”dialog, even if almost everyone speaks “in character”; when they wisecrack, they do it the way that lawyers, politicians, spin-doctors or journalists are supposed to, and typically not before “shooting someone”.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Do you know the British comedy series The Thick of It? It’s about the British government and features a spin doctor, Malcolm Tucker (played by Peter Capaldi), who is inventively abusive towards virtually everyone, burying everyone under creative verbiage. Seems there really was a belligerent spin-doctor in Whitehall who was almost as bad as the fictional Tucker. Great show, I have it on DVD.

          Sample:

          Malcolm Tucker: Has anybody seen Jamie?
          Glenn Cullen: Why? Have you lost him?
          Oliver Reeder: Don’t tell me he’s gone feral, ’cause he was fucking terrifying when you had him on the leash!
          Malcolm Tucker: Let’s not overreact.
          Oliver Reeder: Easy for you to say, he threatened to shove an ipod up my cock!
          Malcolm Tucker: You get that alot, though, don’t you?

          There’s also a feature film, called In The Loop, where Tucker accompanies the British PM to the United States, where he gets into altercations with a General Miller played by the late James ‘Sopranos’ Gandolfini:

          Malcolm Tucker: General Flintstone… Was it you? Did you leak PWIP-PIP?
          Lt. Gen. George Miller: No, I didn’t leak it. I’m not like some little gay mercenary running around doing other people’s dirty work.
          Malcolm Tucker: Hey, I’m doing my own dirty work. I’m doing my job.
          Lt. Gen. George Miller: I think you’re doing Linton’s dirty work. You’re his little English bitch and you don’t even know it. Bet if I came to your hotel room tonight, I’d find you down on all fours, him hanging out the back of you.
          Malcolm Tucker: Oh, that’s nice. That’s really tough talk coming from the Armchair General. Put your feet up on a pouffe and go back to sleep, why don’t you.
          Lt. Gen. George Miller: Look, Tucker, you might be some scary little poodlefucker over in England, but out here you’re nothing. You know what you look like? A squeezed dick. You got a big blue vein running up your head all the way to the temple. See, that’s where I’d put the bullet. Only I’d have to stand back ’cause you look like a squirter.
          Malcolm Tucker: Have you ever even actually killed anybody? Really?
          Lt. Gen. George Miller: Yeah.
          Malcolm Tucker: Falling asleep on someone, that doesn’t count!
          Lt. Gen. George Miller: That’s funny. What about you, pussy drip? Ever kill anyone?
          Malcolm Tucker: Maiming’s what I prefer. Psychologically.
          Lt. Gen. George Miller: Yeah? Why don’t you try to maim me? I’ll hit you so hard in the face you’ll be shitting teeth.
          Malcolm Tucker: Go right ahead. I can see the headlines now. “Peace-Loving General Starts Brawl in U.N., Swiss Intervene”. I don’t know, I’m no expert on spin but that could hurt your career.
          Lt. Gen. George Miller: Yeah?
          Malcolm Tucker: Right. Do excuse me, I’ve got to get back to work.
          [pause]
          Malcolm Tucker: Don’t ever call me fucking English again.

          Wonderful dialogue. I’m sure some people will object to the profanity, but I don’t care about that…

          Like

  3. […] Every time you write, you will get better at telling the story. Writing this answer took me about an hour, with no rewrites or polishing necessary. And that’s because I’ve done the time. […]

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