What we don’t say is as important as what we do say. Things never mentioned, things left out, whether there is intention or not, reveals character and plot. Someone says ‘I love you’ at an inappropriate time, or doesn’t say it all. Someone referencing something they couldn’t have or shouldn’t have known. Someone confessing.
There are times when dialogue can appear to be an info dump but they really aren’t. At the conclusion of a murder mystery, especially a cozy mystery, you might find the detective has gathered the suspects in a room and slowly and painstakingly reveals the solution to the crime. At times, the extended monologue might be broken up by a question or bit of business the writer puts in to avoid it appearing to be a thesis.
However, the more impactful dialogue comes between characters well before the end. Word choice, dialect, even tone, can reveal personality, education level, class level. In this fashion, dialogue should be filtered down to an essence, i.e. the most important things passed between characters. If you wind up discussing brands of toothpaste, you will not be moving the plot along and will subsequently lose your reader.
George V. Higgins was a former deputy assistant Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. His crime fiction is largely dialogue with a smattering of exposition to bridge the gaps. For him: “Accurate dialogue is not a verbatim transcription of things said but an imaginative recreation in compressed form.” In this segment from his debut novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a down on his luck errand boy for gangsters is meeting a young gun dealer named Jackie Brown:
“You don’t understand the way I understand.”
“Look…I tell you I understand. Did you get my name or didn’t you?”
“I got your name.”
“Well, all right.”
“All right nothing. I wished I had a nickel for every name I got that was all right, I wished I did. Look at this…You know what that is?”
“I hope you look closer at guns’n you look at that hand. Look at your own goddamned hand.”
“Count your fucking knuckles.”
“All of them?”
“Ah Christ. Count as many of them as you want. I got four more. One on each finger. Know how I got those? I bought some stuff from a man that I had his name, and it got traced, and the man I bought it for, he went to M C I Walpole for fifteen to twenty-five. Still in there, but he had some friends. I got an extra set of knuckles. Shut my hand in a drawer. Then one of them stomped the drawer shut. Hurt like a fucking bastard. You got no idea how it hurt.”
There is a clear sense of geography (the novel takes place in Boston) as well as the generational difference between the two.
Good dialogue can replace extended exposition. Take the following sequence from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep when Marlowe first meets General Sternwood:
“Tell me about yourself, Mr. Marlowe. I suppose I have a right to ask?”
“Sure, but there’s very little to tell. I’m thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there’s any demand for it. There isn’t much in my trade. I worked for Mr. Wilde, the District Attorney, as investigator once. His chief investigator, Bernie Ohls, called me and told me you wanted to see me. I’m unmarried because I don’t like policeman’s wives.”
“And a little bit of a cynic…You didn’t like working for Wilde?”
“I was fired. For insubordination. I test very high on insubordination, General.”
“I always did myself, sir. I’m glad to hear it.”
We learn about the detective’s and the client’s background in a brief exchange. It sure beats a lengthy biography.
The following are 10 tips for writing dialogue:
- Say the dialogue out loud
- Cut small talk when writing dialogue
- Keep your dialogue brief and impactful
- Give each character a unique voice
- Add world-appropriate slang
- Be consistent with the characters’ voices
- Remember who they’re speaking to
- Avoid long dialogue paragraphs
- Cut out greetings
- Show who your character is
NEXT: THE CRAFT, PART 5 – EDITING