Writing Believable Dialogue

Another BBC – Get Writing article, this one by Glenn Patterson, and about integrating “believable dialogue for your narrative.” You can find the original article here. Once again, very large article:

Our Job as the Writer

‘You want to know about dialogue?’ he said.

‘I want to know about dialogue.’

‘Then here goes, for what it’s worth.’

And he told her everything he knew about dialogue.

As writers our job is, in some respects, wonderfully straightforward. It is to create in the minds of our readers as complete a picture as possible – as complete an understanding – of our characters and the world that they inhabit. The question we must ask ourselves every step, or word of the way is how this is best achieved.

Any of you who have ever – and many of you who have never – darkened the door of a writing group will be familiar with the injunction’show, don’t tell’. The four lines at the beginning of this article illustrate the difference.

Lines 1-3 show us every word the characters say.

Line 4 tells us what was said generally, without going into the specific words.

If we had to rely on line 4 we would never discover what ‘he’ knew about dialogue.

The word ‘dialogue’ is common to written and dramatic narratives and indeed ‘show don’t tell’ could be boiled down to just one word: ‘dramatise’. Like plays and films, novels and short stories are populated by characters. (I use ‘populated’ in its broadest sense: it’s not unknown for a novel or a story to be told, or narrated, by an animal or even an inanimate object.) Unlike plays and films, novels and short stories have no visual dimension. The reader can’t ‘see’ anything unless the writer writes it. In the short story in particular writers often limit themselves to narrating the story from one point of view. That is, they filter the world of the story through the eyes, ears, brainwaves of a single character.

(This need not necessarily be a first person narrator – an ‘I’ character. We could establish a firm point of view in the exchange at the top of the page by modifying the second line: ‘I want to know about dialogue,’ she said, though in fact what she wanted was for him to stop treating her like an idiot.)

Dialogue takes on an added importance in such stories, because it is practically the only way that we – and the character from whose point of view the story is being told – can know what other characters are thinking… even if we come to the conclusion that they are lying to us or themselves. In good fiction even a barefaced lie can be believable dialogue.


How to Write Dialogue
So how do you set about writing this believable dialogue? The first thing I would say is open your ears; the second is open your front door.It should almost be part of the writer’s job description to travel on public transport or attend large public gatherings. A few years ago, when working on a radio documentary, I was kitted out with a device that looked like an ordinary Walkman but was in fact a MiniDisc recorder and positioned at the door of a Belfast department store. The collage of voices that resulted caught the flavour of an ordinary Belfast street scene. Although I worried at every moment that I would be exposed as a snoop, in a sense I was doing no more than the writer does every day: sifting the snatches of conversation that surround us for the turn of phrase, the word that catches our imagination.

One of the barriers to writing for many people is the feeling that they don’t know how to do ‘proper, written English’. Writing fiction is not like writing a letter to the bank, or an essay on Beowulf. The ‘writer’s voice’ that you will often hear talked about is nothing more than a style that is natural, and therefore unique, to each individual writer. (Many people will tell you it isn’t that far removed from your way of speaking.) Our characters voices should likewise be natural to them. Actors know when a line is literally unspeakable. Even when you are writing for the page, rather than the airwaves, I find it helps if you can read your dialogue aloud. Never mind whether you want your character to say these words: can you actually say them? Ask yourself too, does this vocabulary fit the age and experience of the character who is speaking? Have they suddenly acquired your knowledge of quantum physics without an indication in the text of where they got it? If the word ‘dialogue’ itself is off-putting, is making you make your characters try too hard, keep reminding yourself it is only a derivation of the Greek word for ‘conversation’.


Narrator vs Character
When I was starting to write a friend of mine read one of my short stories. She didn’t like it at all… Sorry, I’m telling, not showing: ‘It’s crap,’ she said. ‘The narrator talks one way and the characters talk another.’ She had a very good point. In fact, though, I went on to do a Master’s course in Creative Writing, it was probably the best point anyone ever made to me. In those days I was still trying to use phonetic spelling for the dialogue of my – mainly Belfast – characters. That is, I was trying to spell their words as they were pronounced rather than as they were conventionally written. My friend thought it made my characters appear like buffoons, like members of a different language group, almost, from the teller of the story.The argument for using phonetic spellings is that for readers to understand the character who is speaking they must be able to ‘hear’ – approximate in their own heads – how he sounds. The argument against using them is that the readers have such difficulty unscrambling the letters that they don’t hear anything clearly at all. (I read a story recently in which the writer had used ‘outta’ when he meant ‘oughta’.) And if you drop the final ‘g’ from some of your words, why not drop it from them all?


Conveying Character
More and more I think that a character’s voice is best conveyed by the rhythm of what they say, rather than the phonetics. Janice Galloway’s novel Foreign Parts has two wonderfully vivid characters, Rona and Cassie – Scots, like their author – whose voices are suggested to us by phrases like ‘are you wanting to go?’ (as opposed to ‘do you want to go?’), or ‘get the use out the thing’ (not ‘out of’).In his novel Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides captures a whole range of voices in this way, some of them straight out of his Greek-American background, but others not: in one chapter the central character’s grandmother’s gets a job in a black neighbourhood of 1930s Detroit. It seems to me crucial here that the author doesn’t attempt to replicate phonetically the speech of the women who the grandmother works with. Even if it wasn’t his intention he might otherwise have left himself open to the charge of ridiculing them. You might ask, of course, how he could even begin to put words into the mouths of people, not just of a different gender and ethnic group, but also from a different era. Jeffrey Eugenides isn’t here to tell me otherwise, but I would guess he managed it by a combination of listening (to how the language is still spoken by different people), researching (to make sure his characters don’t use words of phrases not current at the time), and, crucially, identifying with his characters to the point where he begins to trust their own voices. That might sound like an unscientific way to proceed, but it’s the only one I know, and let’s face it, writing fiction isn’t science.

Where vocabulary is concerned I don’t go out of my way to include dialect words (and dialect means simply language peculiar to a region or section of society), but try to think of the words that, under no circumstances, could my characters exist without. Characters in stories from other parts of the English-speaking world might tell a friend to make the best of a bad situation; characters in mine would tell him he’d just have to ‘thole’ it. Similarly, I can’t imagine that too many of my characters would never say ‘yous’, for the plural of ‘you’; even if sometimes it comes out of a Belfast mouth sounding more like ‘yis’, or yas’. Rona and Cassie in Foreign Parts say ‘folk’ where those of us outside Scotland would normally say ‘people’. They could no more say ‘people’ than I could say ‘folk’.

Janice Galloway is interesting to look at in another regard, for she dispenses with all speech marks, trusting to readers recognising from the context, as much as the content, that they have moved from narration into dialogue. Most often writers will signal dialogue by single or double inverted commas: ”, “”. Some writers favour a dash, which is common in literature in other European languages. (Roddy Doyle is one.) These are not just matters of taste – though I’ll admit I’m not found of double inverted commas – they may help break down some of those barriers I mentioned between the narrated and the spoken: help make your characters feel less like performers, more like participants.

Look at this passage from James Kelman’s The Chancer:
After signing on they headed round to the job centre but Tammas halted at the entrance.
See yous later…

What d’you mean? asked Billy.

I’ll see yous later.

Where you off to?

Just a message.

Aye, aye… Billy glanced at McCann.

Look, said Tammas, and he smiled, held his hands palm upward. I’m away to see if I can get a few bob. If I can I’ll f*****g send you a postcard, alright!

No want us to come with you?

Naw, best no.

Billy shrugged.

Just as he was about to walk off McCann brought his cigarettes out and gave him one. Hope you’re lucky!

Tammas grinned. Ta.


What’s the Writer Doing?
As with so many aspects of writing, the best way to familiarise yourself with the options is to read: look what the writer is doing; see if you can work out why.Closely linked to the punctuation of dialogue is the question of dialogue attribution: the words we use to indicate who is speaking. It is a subject on which writers can become very heated. Elmore Leonard, for instance, says you should never use a word other than ‘said’ to carry a line of dialogue. He once read a Mary McCarthy book in which someone ‘asseverated’ something and had to put the book down to find a dictionary.

Leonard is just as vehement in saying that you should never use an adverb to modify ‘said’.

It should be stressed that before you accept what any writer has to say about any aspect of writing it’s worth having a look at what they write. Do you like this kind of writing? Would you buy a used opinion from this person?

I am not an avid reader of Elmore Leonard, but I agree with him on these points. (Even though when I read through my most recent novel I know will have failed again to stick to ‘said’ and avoid adverbs entirely. He admitted, shamefacedly.)

Nearly always everything we need to know is contained within the speech marks (or dashes, or whatever.) ‘Give me all your money!’ is a demand whether or not I add ‘he demanded’. If the character has produced a gun before speaking I won’t need ‘menacingly’ either. If you are going to use shout, you don’t need loudly; likewise who needs to be told that a whisper is quiet? Starting from these obvious examples it is no great effort to work back and dispense with almost all adverbs. In fact, I find that the less there is by way of direction outside the speech marks, the better I hear what’s being said within them. Perhaps because the writer is confident that he has got the voice spot-on to begin with.


Dialogue as an Asset
Note too, if there are only two people talking, then it isn’t necessary to attribute each speech act: if it’s not one of them speaking, we’ll know it has to be the other. Occasionally a bit of narration will intervene – a character does something, or the writer focuses on something external to the characters – and we have to be reminded when we come back whose turn it is to speak. (This may also be possible for larger numbers of characters, especially if one or more is easily identified by some verbal ‘tic’.)Mentioning interruptions reminds me that while dialogue done well is a great asset to any story, dialogue overdone, like anything else overdone, can be a drag. On occasion, reading page after page of unbroken dialogue, I find myself asking: what are the characters doing all this time? If I get any image in my head it is of actors in a bad play trying to think what to do with their hands while they listen to another actor hold forth, or indeed what to do with them when its their turn to hold forth in reply.

Practice interspersing dialogue – direct speech – with indirect speech. A character arrives home and her partner asks, ‘How was your day?’ ‘Oh, you don’t want to know,’ she says and then proceeds to tell him anyway about the fire drill and piece of paperwork that went astray in the confusion and Byron and his bloody unfunny joke with the hose and… ‘That bad?’ her husband says. ‘Listen, that’s only the start of it.’

In this instance the catalogue of events would take longer to speak than to summarise (just think how long it would take to describe the fire drill in any sort of detail), although ‘bloody unfunny’ carries the sound of the wife’s voice into the summary. You can (I hope) sense the partner’s impatience at the length of the catalogue, without have to experience it yourself, and feel with him the foreboding of ‘that’s only the start of it’. Direct speech occurs in real time: the words take as long for the character to say as for the reader to read. Indirect, or reported speech telescopes time: ‘they talked all night about what they would do now they had realised, after twenty-one years, they were no longer in love.’

Finally, it is important not to put too much of a narrative burden on to dialogue: not to rely on it to do the job of ‘telling’. Two characters who are intimately acquainted would not greet each other by saying, ‘Ah, John, my neighbour of twenty-five years! How is your wife, June?’

(The only problem with talking about writing is that each time you think you have identified a hard and fast rule something comes along to persuade you to change ‘would not’ to ‘would not normally’. John McGahern’s most recent novel, That They might Face the Rising Sun, opens with a group of neighbours telling each other facts of which, so long have they known each other, you would imagine they needed no reminding. It is not until late in the book, when the year has come full circle and the characters are telling each other the same things again that we see this is intentional, indeed essential to the characters: a form of ritual repetition.)


Parodies of Dialogue
Another much parodied version of dialogue-as-polyfilla-in-the-narration is the end of the murder mystery where all the characters are brought together while the investigator reveals the identity of the killer, with suitable interjections – or feed lines – from the assembled company:

‘So – what? – you mean Roderick…’
‘Yes, Lady Grainger, Roderick took the knife…’

‘Roderick! How could you! That was your grandmother’s gift to your father and me.’

‘Took the knife and waited behind the curtain until Sir Howard had finished ablutions.’

‘All right, Inspector, I’ll admit I did it,’ Roderick said. ‘My father was about to change his will. But tell me. How did you know it was me?’

‘Ah.’ The Inspector sat back in his chair. ‘Let me take you back to last Thursday night…’

But listen to me making fun. Time for another shamefaced admission: we all do it. Because when all is said and done showing is only another way of telling. Every line of a story, whether it is narration or dialogue, is building up that picture in your reader’s mind. The trick is to disguise as much as possible when you are using dialogue to further the story. Again, the more believable your characters’ voice the less any of what they say jars.

Of course, we have to keep reminding ourselves, we are talking about works of fiction. No matter how closely it might approximate it, the world of the story is not the three-dimensional world that we inhabit. (I will leave it to other writers to convince you and me of other dimensions.) People in stories say more – and better – and are a good deal less likely to be interrupted than people we encounter in our day-today lives.

I said earlier that writers needed to ‘open their ears’ to become attuned to dialogue, and of course a writer who is particularly skilled at it is said to have a ‘good ear’. But a good ear can also hear when enough is enough. It’s all very well to be able to reproduce the kind of dialogue you might overhear on the bus, or the tube, or at the department-store door, but if all that readers wanted was what they could hear in those places, wouldn’t they rather go there than buy a book or listen to your story on the radio?

General Tips

  • Make dialogue count: Dialogue should never be small-talk or conversation for its own sake – or simply because you happen to like the line! Every word that your characters utter should count.
  • Following grammar & syntax: Be aware that dialogue doesn’t have to follow the grammatical and syntactical rules of written English, but at the same time avoid the ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ that practically everyone uses in daily speech (unless you want to make a specific point about a character’s indecision).
  • Spotting too much dialogue: Avoid full pages of dialogue, unbroken by stage directions or descriptions. People do not stop what they’re doing in order to speak, and speech is often a response to action, not just to another speech. There’s nothing more boring (to your audience) than long stretches of ‘talking heads’.
  • Using dialect and slang: Dialect and slang should be used sparingly, just to give a flavour of how a character speaks. Slang dates quickly and dialect doesn’t travel far – your writing should be understandable a hundred years from now and 3,000 miles away!

Glenn Patterson’s Suggested Reading:Foreign Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Directors and Writers by Lewis Herman
A comprehensive guide to using believable dialects in scipts and screenplays, but the principles apply to prose as well.

How to Write Realistic Dialogue by Jean Saunders
More invaluable advice on how to get your characters speaking right proper like.

Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda Edelstein
Personality traits boiled down to their essential elements which you can mix and match to create your own psychological profiles for your characters.