Mastering Dialogue: 5 Techniques to Help You Shine
Are your dialogues sluggish or messy, or confusing? Do you feel they clutter your action sequences or seem too long or too short or too cumbersome? Do you wonder why? Here are a few hints for you.
I love dialogue. I like a good dialogue better than a good action sequence. It is not, however, the most obvious type of text. I also find that I go about it differently than many writers out there. I feel people get too hung up on words. I believe rhythm is much more important. I try to write dialogue in a musical way, following the reader’s mind. But that is not always simple to do. I end up using a bunch of techniques to help me — some I have learned somewhere, some I have figured out myself. I hope this post helps all of you out there trying to make it work — so here are a few things I try to get right when writing dialogues.
- Look who’s talking — one of the most essential things in writing dialogue is always making sure the reader knows who is talking. For me, as the reader goes through a sentence, he/she must already be aware of who is saying it (with few exceptions). Usually, people will assume that the person talking is the one that just made some kind of action. Think of it as operating a movie-camera: when you focus on someone doing something, you assume the voice you are hearing is from that character. The same happens with writing. Like this: Jane moved to the front, smiling. ‘Let’s go.’ You will assume Jane is saying it. Of course, you can always put ‘she said’ to make sure: Jane moved to the front, smiling. ‘Let’s go.’ She said.
2. Talking Heads — I read a post somewhere where the author was warning against writing dialogues without describing the scenes or what the characters are doing. She called it ‘Talking Heads’ dialogue. I actually like doing that — but I am also aware that you have to be very controlled in this kind of thing, otherwise it becomes messy. Hemingway did it and did it well: pages and pages of dialogue without any action. I spoke about it here. But the action in these scenes of his simply didn’t matter, all the story was happening in the dialogue. As a norm, be careful with this technique — always make sure it works, and don’t try it in a conversation with multiple characters unless you are very sure of what you are doing. Here’s a sample of how I do it, a sample from my latest book LAURA AND THE SHADOW KING:
After being announced, I knocked on the door.
I went in and saluted him. He pointed to the chair and I sat.
‘How are you, JJ?’
‘Sorry I took you off the pool.’
‘I need you to go in.’
‘No shit. Where?’
‘Southern Portugal. Your territory.’
‘Further north. We have a team missing.’
I frowned. That was unusual. ‘A whole team?’
‘A whole team.’
‘Fournier and the Belgians.’
I frowned even more. ‘Those guys are pretty good. How long have they been dark?’
The action here is very irrelevant: these are two military talking across a secretary, so it’s pretty straightforward — the Talking Heads is not a problem. Also, the scene is not particularly long, so there weren’t more than a couple of pages of dialogue.
3. Follow the rhythm — For me, rhythm is the absolute most important thing. It commands emotions. So I use actions to create pauses and hesitations in speech. See how J.J.Berger frowns twice in the sample above? Those frowns are not there by accident or just to convey the expressions on his face. They are there to mark the pauses in the conversation. Berger is surprised by what he is hearing and that makes him pause for a moment. Instead of saying that, I showed it by simply describing his body language. I do this all the time. A Talking Head moment shows a fast conversation. If I want a slower conversation, I’ll describe more actions to control the pace. Here’s another sample:
After taking a few bites of some really good beef, I turned to her again. ‘Look, what I need to know is that your mind is in this thing. Is it?’
She looked at me. ‘Yes. It is.’
‘How about the rest of you?’
She almost laughed. ‘You tell me. You took a good look.’
I clenched my teeth, irritated.
She stopped smiling. ‘I can handle it. I’ve been working out. A bit too much, actually.’
She hadn’t, I could tell.
‘I’ll be alright.’
I stopped eating and looked deep into her eyes. ‘I need you to have my back, Drexler. Can you handle it?’
She stopped eating too and looked back deep into my eyes. ‘I’ll have your back, King.’ And she was serious. ‘Thank you,’ she added.
I’m not describing the action because it is important: I’m using it to slow down the conversation and emphasize some of the sentences. Pace is everything.
4. Look who’s talking now — When you have several people in a conversation, make sure they are always identifiable or it will be a mess. You can use actions for that, as above, or you could just point out who’s talking. If you just do he said/she said, it will be almost invisible to the reader and be alright. But there are other ways. For me, again, the most important thing is the rhythm — use the techniques to follow the conversation without compromising the rhythm. Here’s a crew of a spaceship preparing for battle in THE DARK SEA WAR CHRONICLES. As the Captain is naming each crew member you can always spot who is talking. It’s a tense exchange — notice how the disciplined sentence construction keeps the rhythm at a steady regular pace.
‘Contact, sir. Level 6, 12-and-1.’ Said Dalto.
‘Thank you.’ I said. ‘Here we go. Mr.Ojoe, you’re D&D.’
More dots came onto the screens.
‘Multiple contacts, sir.’ Said Dalto.
‘I see them. Just put them on the MID, please, Mr.Dalto.’
But these were Silent Boats out there.
‘They’re gone now, sir.’
‘Never mind, Mr.Dalto, leave the signals on the screen. And please keep tracking them.’
‘Mr.Alzira. Forward torpedoes?’
‘Forward torpedoes ready, sir.’
‘Give me a 30 count, if you please.’
‘Yes, sir. T-minus-30. 29… 28…’
5. Exceptions to the rules — So, when you get really comfortable with the techniques, you can start bending and breaking the rules. I always do this to make an effect, to benefit the story, and never for the sake of breaking the rules. That’s amateurish, in my view. But sometimes I do start whole chapters with dialogue you don’t know who’s saying — even though I make sure not to maintain that obscurity and clear it up as soon as possible. Here’s an example. In this case, also from LAURA AND THE SHADOW KING, I actually have several characters speaking in Talking Heads without a proper introduction. See why I was able to do that:
‘Paige, this is Shadow team. Everybody, this is Paige Drexler. Everyone knows her?’
‘In case you don’t know everybody, this is Sergeant Ross, former Ranger turned Delta, he’s the team’s second and CLS.’
‘This is our AR, Corporal Gordon, also Ranger and Delta.’
‘This is Mike. He’s Italian and his real name’s Michele.’
‘What was the name of your outfit, Mike?’
‘Italian Special Forces, really good. This is Tony, Portuguese. Formerly known as António. He was a Portuguese Red Beret. What? Commandos?’
‘Yes. Comandos. Hi, Paige.’
‘And those over there are our snipers. We call them Luke and Vader, guess who’s who. Introduce yourselves, boys.’
‘We know each other, boss.’
‘Luke’s Carter, the blond guy, he’s the spotter with the Mark 11, and Vader’s White, the big black guy, he packs the .50.’
‘Paige is going to be my second in 1–1 while Morris is out.’
It’s obvious, no? I was saying their names before they spoke. By the context of the book, it was clear that the first guy talking was J.J. Berger, so I started the chapter just like that and I think it works.
These are a few of the techniques I use and the way I use them when I write dialogues. I hope it was useful.