Dialog is a challenge for a lot of authors and sometimes the common, easy advice like “read it aloud” isn’t enough. It could be that there are writers who read their dialog aloud and think, That’s good—that sounds right for this character, but pretty much no one else agrees. The explanation for this disconnect could be as simple as performance. Maybe there’s some almost imperceptible inflection you’re using when you read it aloud that isn’t indicated, or that most people who don’t share your regional accent or dialect—whatever that may be—wouldn’t pick up on.
That all sounds pretty grim, then, in terms of learning to write dialog that will resonate with everyone—and it is difficult, maybe even impossible. You can’t please everyone, after all.
But there are a few things that the overwhelming majority of us share in terms of the patterns of the content of our speech. One of those common patterns is that we don’t tend to speak in bullet points.
Yes, there certainly are exceptions to this rule. The order-acknowledgement back and forth you’d hear on the bridge of a submarine, for example. But regular people don’t talk like that:
“Johnny, clean your room!” the harried mother yelled.
“Answering: clean room, aye aye ma’am,” Johnny shouted in response.
Overly formal, regimented dialog is one of the most common stumbling blocks for inexperienced writers and I see it all the time. And it’s an affliction that can be cured, like most writing afflictions, by specific attention followed by rewrites.
“I considered joining the King’s Guard once. Something else came up. Then I began an apprenticeship with a blacksmith. The blacksmith was a good man. He taught me everything I needed to know. I became a practicing blacksmith. I worked in Megacity. In the Smithy District. Off of Ingot Street. I realized this was my calling. I met a woman. We fell in love. The beer wraiths killed her. They were drunk at the time. What have you been up to?”
I know that might sound like a goofy example, but trust me, I see this kind of thing all the time. Even if this character who’s speaking is being interrogated by the Megacity Watch, this still isn’t the way people talk to each other. Let’s look at that again, but this time rendered as bullet points:
- I considered joining the King’s Guard once.
- Something else came up.
- Then I began an apprenticeship with a blacksmith.
- The blacksmith was a good man.
- He taught me everything I needed to know.
- I became a practicing blacksmith.
- I worked in Megacity.
- In the Smithy District.
- Off of Ingot Street.
- I realized this was my calling.
- I met a woman.
- We fell in love.
- The beer wraiths killed her.
- They were drunk at the time.
- What have you been up to?
One option, and in this case, I think a bad one, would be to own the list and describe the character ticking these off on his fingers or writing them down on a white board.
Cringe, right? No thanks!
It means breaking this paragraph up again, but this time, taking each sentence and thinking carefully about what it does right here to serve the story and the character saying it, and the character or characters listening to it.
“I considered joining the King’s Guard once.” I might leave alone. It introduces the whole thing, starts this character thinking about his past.
“Something else came up.” This says, essentially: “I didn’t join the King’s Guard,” but I bet that if we could see the rest of the scene this paragraph is a part of, we’d already know he isn’t a member of the King’s Guard, and anyway, didn’t he just say he considered joining once? That implies he didn’t join, just thought about it at some unspecified point in the past. Say goodbye to that sentence entirely, but maybe indicate with a facial expression that it wasn’t necessarily a tragedy that he didn’t join.
“Then I began an apprenticeship with a blacksmith.” Feels a little passive, no? Once you start on that then this then that then the other thing cycle it can be as hard to jump off of as a hamster wheel. What we need to know is that instead of being a King’s Guard he became a blacksmith. Does it matter that he went through an apprenticeship? Maybe not, but let’s say it does since he’s talking to someone about his past—maybe an old friend who joined the King’s Guard and hasn’t seen the speaker in a while. If you’re talking to an old friend, the words you choose tend to be more personal, and by keeping an ear out for that you can start to build back stories for your characters with little off-hand references. I’ll imagine that the person he’s talking to would know this specific blacksmith, and the fact that “The blacksmith was a good man,” can remain unsaid. Oh, and remember that people often speak in sentence fragments, so don’t forget to write dialog the way people talk, not the way their English teachers would prefer they talk.
“He taught me everything I needed to know. I became a practicing blacksmith.” Since one would follow the other, can I combine these two sentences? I bet I can.
“I worked in Megacity. In the Smithy District. Off of Ingot Street.” Now, who says all this actually has to be said by the same character? Imagine this is a conversation, so make sure there’s some back-and-forth. Let’s have the person he’s talking to ask him if his shop is in Megacity and then the original speaker can nod in response—because we don’t always speak information: gestures, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues work just as well in a lot of instances. We can even have the other character get to the next specific level, and then go back to the original speaker for confirmation.
“I realized this was my calling.” Okay, do you care? I don’t, and I bet whoever’s listening to this won’t either. He’s a blacksmith, not a King’s Guard. Let’s kill that line and move on.
“I met a woman. We fell in love.” This is a pretty severe shift in subject matter from his job to his personal life. That’s fine, but people either don’t do that—we really don’t just smash cut from subject to subject—or if we do, not without some kind of “tell.” I’ll start thinking of ways to call out that transition.
And then another hard left turn from romance to tragedy: “The beer wraiths killed her. They were drunk at the time.” We’ll assume we’ll get into what a beer wraith is later—or have before this—so let’s concentrate on thinking about whether it matters that they were drunk, and if it does, why are these two obviously (based on the name of the monster) related facts cordoned off from each other in separate sentences? And beyond that, maybe the other person in the scene can help with that transition, can say something to move the speaker from “We fell in love,” to “The beer wraiths killed her.”
And that kind of tragedy needs to show in their faces and body language. You don’t report the death of a loved one like you’re announcing the 5:15 from Newark arriving on Track 16. We need to feel the emotional weight on the characters.
Then the last harsh transition, what really feels like a sort of punch line: “What have you been up to?” I have to imagine that this conversation is a tough one for both characters involved, so lets see if we can sell that punch line on an emotional level—and sell it with a contraction at that.
Here’s what I ended up with:
“I considered joining the King’s Guard once,” Galen said, the corner of his mouth curling into a wistful half-smile. “Apprenticed with Garrick Ironson instead.”
Bronwyn smiled and nodded at the mention of the old blacksmith’s name. She hadn’t seen Garrick Ironson in years either, but she remembered her father never went to another blacksmith in Smallercity.
“He taught me all I needed to know to start my own shop,” Galen said, looking at her in the eyes for the first time, his head tipped a little to the side.
“Here in Megacity?” Bronwyn asked. Galen nodded and she added, “Smithy District?”
Still nodding, Galen raised his eyebrows and replied, “Ingot Street.”
Bronywn offered him an impressed frown and returned the same nod until he sheepishly looked away.
Still not looking at her, Galen said, “I met a woman.” His voice was quiet, almost lost to the noise of the street. He was looking her in the eye again by the time he finished saying, “We fell in love.”
Bronwyn blinked and forced herself to smile. She nodded, but it felt jerky, insincere. Not sure what to say, she started with, “Are you and she—?”
“Beer wraiths,” he cut in.
Bronwyn gasped and took a step closer to him without intending to. He stiffened, but didn’t move away from her. “She was . . . ?” Bronwyn started.
Galen interrupted her with a shake of his head, and he looked down at the cobblestones at his feet.
There was a long moment of silence while Bronwyn considered reaching out to touch his shoulder, even hug him.
Then he looked up and with a forced smile over eyes heavy with tears, asked, “What’ve you been up to?”
I sprinkled in a little more back story for both of them. We now know they grew up in Smallercity, so Galen must have moved to Megacity to set up shop.
This was meant to indicate that Galen was curious to see if Bronwyn was impressed by the fact that he’d set up his own blacksmithing shop: Galen said, looking at her in the eyes for the first time, his head tipped a little to the side. Was I being too subtle?
Lots more words in the end, but words are cheap. Use as many as you need to share your characters’ story with your readers. Save the bullet points for work memos—and your own notes.