Dialog Don’ts and Do’s
One of the skills top writers own is the deft handling of dialog.
The best way to become adept at this is to simply listen—really listen—to the people around you. After a while you’ll develop an ear for dialog and dialect and inflection, and can begin applying what you’re learning in your fiction. One thing that’s quickly apparent is that people rarely speak with perfect diction or grammar. Also, they often don’t speak in complete sentences, but rather in fragments.
Over the years, I’ve interviewed many people for magazine articles, usually recording them because I never could take notes fast enough. I’ve always had to edit what they say, rearranging their sentences, correcting grammar, tidying up. This requires a light touch, because I want to preserve personality and emotion, so I can’t edit too heavily. Not one interviewee has ever complained, probably because I’ve always made them sound better than they really did.
For example, in answer to the question, “What was your first car?” someone might say, “Well, you know, I was, uh, just sixteen so I was, like, real happy just to have anything that, you know, just had four wheels and ran at all, so when Dad bought me this twelve-year-old Chevy with, like, a million miles on it, you know, well I was just ecstatic.” I might edit that to, “When I was sixteen, my Dad bought me a twelve-year-old Chevy with a million miles on it and I was ecstatic.”
One glaring mark of the inexperienced writer is attempting to inject emotions into dialog attributions. Big mistake. Examples: “I miss my Mom,” Suzy said dejectedly. Or, “Wow, that’s awesome,” Tim expostulated. Or, “Welcome home,” Dave smiled. Don’t do this.
Here are three dialog commandments.
One: Use dialect and accents sparingly. Often mere suggestions are enough.
Two: Generally, keep dialog brief and simple. For great examples, see Elmore Leonard’s work. Or study the work of any best-selling writer.
Three: Almost never use anything but “he said” or “she said,” even when characters are asking questions. Readers will not tire of you doing so. They don’t even consciously see the “she saids” and “he saids,” just as they aren’t conscious of most correct punctuation. All they want is to always be sure of who’s speaking.