How to keep dialogue lively
The key to memorable lines is to tweak everyday speech with colorful turns of phrase
Published: December 7, 2011
You should have two aims when writing dialogue: making it sound real, and keeping it interesting. These problems are related, though sometimes opposed. If you sit at any coffee shop and listen, you’ll hear plenty. But go home and transcribe it all in a paragraph, and what do you see?
“I’m really tired of this job.”
“What’s the matter with it?”
“I don’t know. It’s boring.”
“What’s so boring about it?”
“Well, I do the same stuff every day.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
“Maybe I should quit, but …”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
“Yeah, well, that’s the problem.”
You want to scream, “C’mon, get moving!” But that’s the author’s job, not the speakers’ responsibility.
So how do you inject some interest into the exchange? Real dialogue doesn’t have to mean simple and dull (just as "simple" doesn’t have to mean dull). Bear in mind that good dialogue isn’t exactly speech, just as a memorable character isn’t quite real. You take what you hear every day and tweak it. Here’s an exchange between two card players in Chris Offutt’s short-story collection Kentucky Straight:
“I’m out,” he said. “First good hand all night and godd--- if I don’t run into a diamond flush.”
“Girl’s best friend,” W. said.
“Shut up, old man. What you know on girls won’t fit up a gnat’s ass.”
“I been married fifty-one years, to a woman.”
Would two guys talk like that? They could. And that line about the gnat is worth putting in, even if your friends wouldn’t put it that way. Which is to say: Another way to increase interest is to invest in metaphor, giving some color to the sentences, because even people who may not seem too articulate are capable of surprising you. How much beer did you drink from that bottle? “Just half,” says a character from a humdrum story. “Just the neck and shoulders,” says a more memorable character, one I’d like to hear more from. His line is both clever and plausible, and you can see—or hear—some guy in a bar describing it that way. Good dialogue whets the reader’s appetite for more.
One more pointer for building interest: Don’t rely on talking heads, no matter how gripping you may think your dialogue is. Cut the speeches with action, which in fact is how most people speak, unless they’re encased in quick-drying cement. They gesture with their forefingers, they take a healthy swig of coffee, they run across the room to stop the person they’re shouting at from using that knife, and they pause for emphasis. Do this well enough, and you’ve got a whole scene:
“You know, you’re a real pig.” Kathy took a poke at Larry, just to see if he’d react.
“Well, what kind of woman marries a pig?” Larry reached out for her, still hopeful.
“You always turn things around!”
“S’what I do best.” He had his hand on her back and was moving downward.
What does Kathy say next? Hey, that’s your job.
Next month I’ll discuss dialogue don’ts.
David Galef, the director of the
creative-writing program at Montclair State University, is a shameless
eclectic, with more than a dozen books out. His latest short-story
collection, My Date With Neanderthal Woman
, is available now.