The 7 Tools of Dialogue

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My neighbor John loves to work on his hot rod. He’s an automotive whiz and tells me he can hear when something is not quite right with the engine. He doesn’t hesitate to pop the hood, grab his bag of tools and start to tinker. He’ll keep at it until the engine sounds just the way he wants it to.

That’s not a bad way to think about dialogue. We can usually sense when it needs work. What fiction writers often lack, however, is a defined set of tools they can put to use on problem areas.

So here’s a set—my seven favorite dialogue tools. Stick them in your writer’s toolbox for those times you need to pop the hood and tinker with your characters’ words.

When you write the first draft of a scene, let the dialogue flow. Pour it out like cheap champagne. You’ll make it sparkle later, but first you must get it down on paper. This technique will allow you to come up with lines you never would have thought of if you tried to get it right the first time.

In fact, you can often come up with a dynamic scene by writing the dialogue first. Record what your characters are arguing about, stewing over, revealing. Write it all as fast as you can. As you do, pay no attention to attributions (who said what). Just write the lines.

Once you get these on the page, you will have a good idea of what the scene is all about. And it may be something different than you anticipated, which is good. Now you can go back and write the narrative that goes with the scene, and the normal speaker attributions and tags.

I have found this technique to be a wonderful cure for writer’s fatigue. I do my best writing in the morning, but if I haven’t done my quota by the evening (when I’m usually tired), I’ll just write some dialogue. Fast and furious. It flows and gets me into a scene.

With the juices pumping, I find I’ll often write more than my quota. And even if I don’t use all the dialogue I write, at least I got in some practice.

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Before going into writing, I spent some time in New York, pounding the pavement as an actor. While there, I took an acting class that included improvisation. Another member of the class was a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright. When I asked him what he was doing there, he said improvisational work was a tremendous exercise for learning to write dialogue.

I found this to be true. But you don’t have to join a class. You can improvise just as easily by doing a Woody Allen.

Remember the courtroom scene in Allen’s movie Bananas? Allen is representing himself at the trial. He takes the witness stand and begins to cross-examine by asking a question, running into the witness box to answer, then jumping out again to ask another question.

I am suggesting you do the same thing (in the privacy of your own home, of course). Make up a scene between two characters in conflict. Then start an argument. Go back and forth, changing your actual physical location. Allow a slight pause as you switch, giving yourself time to come up with a response in each character’s voice.

Another twist on this technique: Do a scene between two well-known actors. Use the entire history of movies and television. Pit Lucille Ball against Bela Lugosi, or have Oprah Winfrey argue with Bette Davis. Only you play all the parts. Let yourself go.

And if your local community college offers an improvisation course, give it a try. You might just meet a Pulitzer Prize winner.

One of the most common mistakes aspiring writers make with dialogue is creating a simple back-and-forth exchange. Each line responds directly to the previous line, often repeating a word or phrase (an “echo”). It looks something like this:

“Hello, Mary.”
“Hi, Sylvia.”
“My, that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.”
“Outfit? You mean this old thing?”
“Old thing! It looks practically new.”
“It’s not new, but thank you for saying so.”

This sort of dialogue is “on the nose.” There are no surprises, and the reader drifts along with little interest. While some direct response is fine, your dialogue will be stronger if you sidestep the obvious:

“Hello, Mary.”
“Sylvia. I didn’t see you.”
“My, that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.”
“I need a drink.”

I don’t really know what is going on in this scene (incidentally, I’ve written only these four lines of dialogue). But I think you’ll agree this exchange is immediately more interesting and suggestive of currents beneath the surface than the first example. I might even find the seeds of an entire story here.

You can also sidestep with a question:

“Hello, Mary.”
“Sylvia. I didn’t see you.”
“My, that’s a wonderful outfit you’re wearing.”
“Where is he, Sylvia?”

Hmm. Who is “he”? And why should Sylvia know? The point is there are innumerable directions in which the sidestep technique can go. Experiment to find a path that works best for you. Look at a section of your dialogue and change some direct responses into off-center retorts. Like the old magic trick ads used to say, “You’ll be pleased and amazed.”

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A powerful variation on the sidestep is silence. It is often the best choice, no matter what words you might come up with. Hemingway was a master at this. Consider this excerpt from his short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” A man and a woman are having a drink at a train station in Spain. The man speaks:

“Should we have another drink?”
“All right.”
The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table.
“The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said.
“It’s lovely,” the girl said.
“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.

In this story, the man is trying to convince the girl to have an abortion (a word that does not appear anywhere in the text). Her silence is reaction enough.

By using a combination of sidestep, silence and action, Hemingway gets the point across through a brief, compelling exchange. He uses the same technique in this well-known scene between mother and son in the story “Soldier’s Home”:

“God has some work for every one to do,” his mother said. “There can’t be no idle hands in His Kingdom.”
“I’m not in His Kingdom,” Krebs said.
“We are all of us in His Kingdom.”
Krebs felt embarrassed and resentful as always.
“I’ve worried about you so much, Harold,” his mother went on. “I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are. I know what your own dear grandfather, my own father, told us about the Civil War and I have prayed for you. I pray for you all day long, Harold.”
Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on the plate.

Silence and bacon fat hardening. We don’t need anything else to catch the mood of the scene. What are your characters feeling while exchanging dialogue? Try expressing it with the sound of silence.

We’ve all had those moments when we wake up and have the perfect response for a conversation that took place the night before. Wouldn’t we all like to have those bon mots at a moment’s notice?

Your characters can. That’s part of the fun of being a fiction writer. I have a somewhat arbitrary rule—one gem per quarter. Divide your novel into fourths. When you polish your dialogue, find those opportunities in each quarter to polish a gem.

And how do you do that? Like a diamond cutter, you take what is rough and tap at it until it is perfect. In the movie The Godfather, Moe Greene is angry that a young Michael Corleone is telling him what to do. He might have said, “I made my bones when you were in high school!” Instead, screenwriter Mario Puzo penned, “I made my bones when you were going out with cheerleaders!” (In his novel, Puzo wrote something a little racier). The point is you can take almost any line and find a more sparkling alternative.

Just remember to use these gems sparingly. The perfect comeback grows tiresome if it happens all the time.

Many writers struggle with exposition in their novels. Often they heap it on in large chunks of straight narrative. Backstory—what happens before the novel opens—is especially troublesome. How can we give the essentials and avoid a mere information drop?

Use dialogue. First, create a tension-filled scene, usually between two characters. Get them arguing, confronting each other. Then have the information appear in the natural course of things. Here is the clunky way to do it:

John Davenport was a doctor fleeing from a terrible past. He had been drummed out of the profession for bungling an operation while he was drunk.

Instead, place this backstory in a scene in which John is confronted by a patient who is aware of the doctor’s past:

“I know who you are,” Charles said.
“You know nothing,” John said.
“You’re that doctor.”
“If you don’t mind I—”
“From Hopkins. You killed a woman because you were soused. Yeah, that’s it.”

And so forth. This is a much underused method, but it not only gives weight to your dialogue, it increases the pace of your story.

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This is a favorite technique of dialogue master Elmore Leonard. By excising a single word here and there, he creates a feeling of verisimilitude in his dialogue. It sounds like real speech, though it is really nothing of the sort. All of Leonard’s dialogue contributes to characterization and story.
Here is a standard exchange:

“Your dog was killed?
“Yes, run over by a car.”
“What did you call it?”
“It was a she. I called her Tuffy.”

This is the way Leonard did it in Out of Sight:

“Your dog was killed?”
“Got run over by a car.”
“What did you call it?”
“Was a she, name Tuffy.”

It sounds so natural, yet is lean and meaningful. Notice it’s all a matter of a few words dropped, leaving the feeling of real speech.

As with any technique, there’s always a danger of overdoing it. Pick your spots and your characters with careful precision and focus, and your dialogue will thank you for it later.

Using tools is fun when you know what to do with them. I guess that’s why John, my neighbor, is always whistling when he works on his car. You’ll see results in your fiction—and have fun, too—by using these tools to make your dialogue sound just right.

Start tinkering.

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brian-klems-2013Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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10 thoughts on “The 7 Tools of Dialogue

  1. Avatarmeganwiens

    This is all great advice, which will help me greatly in my writing! #4 is a great tip. Usually people think, in order to get more information into the story, you need more dialogue; but in most cases, that’s false. Actions speak louder than words. For instance, if a character is shaking their legs, or twiddling their thumbs, this could show that they’re nervous; Instead of having the character say “I’m nervous”. Describing what they’re doing not only makes your story longer in a good way, but pulls the reader in more.

  2. AvatarCDaly89

    I have to disagree with #3. The examples provided actually demonstrate different writing styles. There’s nothing wrong with any of them. The first is simple and formal, easy to digest and understand. The others seem like an attempt to develop character or progress the story through just those sections, utilizing suspense and a shift from the expected to the unexpected to draw the reader in (understand though, the more common that is, especially within a single book, the less compelling and captivating it becomes overall).

    In #4 and #6 I noticed the usage of “said” a lot. Unintentionally, you are reinforcing bad habits of writing, while also managing to contradict your “sidestep the obvious” clause, back and forth dialogue needn’t be explained with who said what when, and it becomes utterly dull and distracting eventually, unless you’re interjecting narration in between phrases and need to reiterate the next phrase is from the same speaker, or if confusion is a possibility, the speaker is often identified in other ways (i.e. placing the name of the person being spoken to in the sentence, or using dialogue that plays off of the reader’s understanding.

    And again, in #7, you’re speaking of character expression or development unintentionally. Using slang would be characteristic of a character, not good writing practice.

    You should pay a little more attention to what you read, and try to develop a personal sense of what “good” and “bad” writing are.

  3. AvatarGina

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog since I signed on with this site a few months ago. Thanks for all the advice and tips. Being able to label a tool to store away for later use is much easier than just trying to instinctively improve the text or solve the issue when I hit a road block. Thanks again for helping out the little guys (and gals).

  4. AvatarGina

    I’m new to writing and have really appreciated the tips you offer in your blog. I don’t have much in the way of formal training, so I devour every bit of advice I can get. I’ve begun to notice that it’s a lot easier to use what’s in my writer’s toolbox when I can put a name to it. Instead of “where’s that thingamajig that I use to fix this,” I can say to myself “time to whip out the old uncomfortable silence technique!” Thanks again for taking the time to help out the little guys (and gals).


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