Yakkity Yak (Dialog in Fiction)

Let’s start at the top, shall we, with Dialog concept the first: Have people in your fiction. Get them talking.
When people first start writing stories and novels, they sometimes feel a certain reluctance to get their characters together, onstage, to just talk.
There are reasons for this. Dialog gives fiction immediacy, and that can be scary. It feels more like speaking directly to the reader. There’s intimacy there… and a greater chance, too, that if the speeches you write are off, in any way–if they’re wooden, or clunky, or preachy, or melodramatic–that it’ll be obvious. If you don’t have a particularly good grip on your characters, that becomes evident very fast.
Since it is possible to tell a story with only narrative (especially if it’s simple: few characters, a close point of view, a straightforward plot) the temptation to avoidance beckons. It even works sometimes, when the piece is short and well-served by a distanced, once-upon-a-time voice.
Generally, though, hiding from dialog is like walking to the edge of the ocean and refusing to jump into the water. It denies the reader a major component of the fictional experience they are seeking. So wade in; get wet. It’s the only way to learn to swim.
Concept the second: Not everyone has the same voice.
When we’re drafting dialog, it’s easy to just put in the information necessary to the scene, and to forget how wildly we all vary in our way of expression.
What characters say is deeply revealing of character. The only thing more telling is what they do (and of course the two, do and say, overlap.)
Do they lie, for example? Are they good at it?
Age, experience, expertise, a person’s understanding of the situation in any given scene, whether they’re tired or sick. . . a million little influences can change how we express something.
When you’re starting out, just focus on your character’s personality. Who are they, and how do they usually talk? Are they terse? Informal? Longwinded? Preachy? Babbly? Tactless? Given to rants? Snide?
Concept the third: Dialog is situational.
In my day to day life, among my nearest and dearest, I’m a relatively earthy person. But for the most part, I try not to say words like fuck when I’m teaching, or around my four year old niece. In fiction, paying attention to this kind of detail–yes, she’d say this, but would she say it here?–can add nice nuance to a character.
Where we are and who we’re with affect how we say what we say: differences in social class, education. . . even whether we’re speaking our birth language. I sound clever and decently educated in English. In French or my smattering of Italian, I come off as not-so-quick.
Four: Characters are in relationships which are ever-evolving.
It’s not uncommon in a novel for two characters to start out strangers and become close by the end of the book. This will change how they talk to each other. Consider a simple element like formal versus informal address: in an early encounter, you might have two scientists addressing each other as Doctor Jones and Professor Smith. By the time they’ve fought a couple monsters (real or metaphorical) and fallen in love, maybe they’re Rocky and Doris.
Think about this as you bring characters together: where are they at? Where are they going? Can you plan to change the way they relate to each other, verbally, to illuminate the changes in their relationship?
Five: Dialog shouldn’t sound like actual human conversation
Go sit someplace with a laptop or a notebook and eavesdrop on other people. Try writing down what you hear. You’ll find that what you get is full of pauses and ums and physical gestures and sighs and inspeak and facial expressions.

Hi, how are you?
Okay. Um, how are you?
Good. At work, you know.
Oh yeah, how’s work?
It’s that thing again. Only more so.
I understand completely.

Well, we don’t! Yes, we have little exchanges like this all the time in real life. But transcribed faithfully, they’re not only somewhat incomprehensible, they’re deadly dull to read.
What you’re aiming for when you write a scene is something that sounds, to the reader’s ear, like human speech. What it actually is is a cleaned up, idealized form of that speech. It’s the difference between the mean thing you actually said to the guy who rear-ended you (Which probably came out: “You! You! Oh you potatohead! That’s my caaaarrr!” and the articulate, cutting monologue you rehearsed in your head and then told, first haltingly to the tow-truck guy and then–with increased verve, confidence and hilarity–to your mother, sister, landlady, dog-walker and finally your boss. It has verisimilitude. It sounds like speech, but it’s not exactly what you said; it’s not quite reality.
The above exchange about work, you know, is also flat because of something that relates to…
Concept the sixth: there should be an undercurrent of conflict.
A little hum of electricity that is generated by the characters not quite being on the same page.
Think of any murder-of-the-week cop show. How many times have you seen a scene where primary characters go ask their lieutenant for permission to try something, or they approach a judge for a warrant. Hundreds? How dull would it be if the scene always went this way:
“Hey, boss, we need an protective detail for Eyeballs McWitness.”
“Okay! I’ll give you someone good! And hey, I found a promotion in my cereal box today–you want it?”
Even if this is a scene that’s going to end in Yes, there’s ten or fifteen lines of getting there. Always. Lieutenant complains about the budget, or says Eyeball’s not in danger, or points out that McWitness got his name by collecting human… well, never mind that now, it’s icky. But the point is he doesn’t deserve protection.
The cops, in their turn, argue passionately that Justice cannot be Served! unless Eyeballs gets his bodyguard.
Why do that? Why waste the space? Why does this scene play out again and again, night after night, creating employment for crusty Hollywood authority figures whose mission in life is to serve as a minor adversaries for their fictional cop underlings?
Because going straight for the Yes (or the No, for that matter) is boring and it doesn’t tell you anything about the characters.
We don’t get into fiction to read “Once upon a time Sherlock Holmes wanted to solve a crime, and then he did. The end.” We don’t get into scenes to see characters sail along in sweet accord with each other. Who wants what? Why do the others disagree? Who wins? How do they convince or fail to convince the other person to give it to them? How do they feel about each other afterward? This is the stuff we want.
Concept the seventh: people multitask.
Very occasionally humans sit down facing each other, pay each other their full attention, and just talk. But mostly we yakk while we’re doing other things: eating, drinking, building cribs, driving, shopping, harvesting wheat (okay, probably not that often) playing video games, completing our homework, fishing, making love, attending a wedding, rolling cigarettes… you get the idea.
A little bit of attention to what the characters in a scene are doing will give you options to show some action, spotlight other things about the characters–he’s making a baby crib! What a great dad he’ll make!–and create necessary pauses in the flow of dialog so that you don’t find yourself writing:

“I have to tell you something really important.” She paused. “Really important.”
He looked at her. “Okay. I’m listening.”
“Great. Thank you. This is it.” She took a long breath… “I’m moving to Finland without you.”
He sighed.

And so did we, right? There’s more on this particular aspect of dialog-writing in my essay Eye Bookisms.
Finally: Practice, practice, practice.
Like most aspects of fiction-writing, dialog is something you get better at by writing more and more of it. So do practice, as much as you can. It is said that when a reader gets thrown out of your story–they’re bored by a descriptive passage, or they wonder exactly why a given detail of yours is what it is, or maybe their phone just rings–they will scan ahead to the next set of quotation marks, often without even realizing it, to see what the characters are saying to each other. Keep this in mind, and don’t make them flip through ten pages to find that next speech–they’ll miss so much!
“I believe in you,” she said, wrapping up at last. “Now get out there and make your characters talk!”

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About Alyx Dellamonica

After twenty-two years in Vancouver, B.C., I've recently moved to Toronto Ontario, where I make my living writing science fiction and fantasy; I also review books and teach writing online at UCLA. I'm a legally married lesbian, a coffee snob, and I wake up at an appallingly early hour.

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