A Little Lesson in Dialogue

by | Aug 17, 2016

My mission as a book coach is to help writers write the best books they can, which means paying attention to:

  • the macro elements (the story or argument the book makes)
  • the micro elements (the words on the page)
  • the emotional realities of the writing life (the habits that lead to success)

I’ve developed a series of posts to help you learn how to write one really great chapter so that you can take those lessons and apply them to all your work.

Post 1 – Yank Your Reader Into Your Story With a Great Opening Line
Post 2 – How to Start Your Story in the Right Place
Post 3 – How to Get the Book Out of Your Head and Onto the Page

A Little Lesson in Dialogue

Every writer of every genre needs to master the art of dialogue. After all, books as diverse as Maurice Sendak’s 400-word picture book Where the Wild Things Are and Carolo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics include dialogue – and almost always within the first few pages. If a writer gets it wrong, they risk losing their reader right from the start – and I’m not talking about getting the rules of dialogue right. I’m talking about the purpose of it.

The Rules of Dialogue

Why am I not talking about the rules? Because it’s easy to find the rules and to follow them. Some of the key rules include:

  • Every time a new person speaks (or thinks or reacts), they get a new paragraph.
  • Use quotation marks to set off the things people say. Leaving them out isn’t edgy; it’s wrong.
  • Use dialogue tags (i.e. he said, she said.) They guide the reader and keep us from guessing. It’s fine to leave dialogue tags out if it’s clear who’s speaking, but don’t make the reader work too hard to figure it out.
  • Be very judicious in the use of adverbs and adjectives (she said longingly, she said compassionately) in dialogue tags. They can be extremely distracting. Use body language, internal thought, and context to let the reader know what’s going on in the scene.
  • Know the rules about which punctuation goes in or out of quotation marks. Grammar Girl has a great round up of these rules.
  • Put thoughts in italics but not in quotation marks. If someone says, “I’m so happy to see you!” but they are thinking, You dirty rat, while they say it, that would look like this:

    “I’m so happy to see you!” I said, all the while thinking, You dirty rat.

Rules are useful, but in order to master dialogue, you need to understand what dialogue is really doing.

Why Dialogue is Important

At its most basic, dialogue zooms us closer to the characters in a story. If you imagine a movie camera panning over the city skyline to set the scene, that is zooming out. Zoom into a crowd of people walking along a street in that scene and we get a more specific picture of where we are – Houston, New York, Dubai? Zoom all the way in so that we can hear what two people are saying to each other and now we have an intimate view. Now we are there, and it feels like being let in on a secret.

In that sense, dialogue slows things down in a narrative. The author is not making broad generalizations, or sweeping past hours, days, or years the way they do when they write, “ the next day” or “three years later….” They are sharing specific information about a specific moment that is playing out in real time. As readers, we lean in and listen, and that naturally makes the reading slow down.

But what’s fascinating – and critical for the writer to know — is that dialogue does not let us into a character’s head (unless it’s a monologue, which is a whole other thing.) Dialogue is an external reality – something a person says out loud to someone else. And very often, we humans don’t say what we really want to say. We hedge our bets, we temper our enthusiasm, we check our anger, we make a case, we tell little white lies and big whopping lies and everything in between, sometimes in an effort to lie to other people and other times in an effort to lie to ourselves.

And the world reacts to what we say or don’t say – by believing us, or calling us out, or taking us at our word. Remember the last time you had an argument with someone you love; chances are good that part of your argument was what you said or didn’t say and how that aligned with what you did or didn’t do. In real life, our dialogue is measured and judged every second of every day as people decide whether to trust us, help us, work with us, learn from us, and love us.

The real story is often underneath whatever is being said and you ignore that at your peril. As Lisa Cron, author of Story Genius says, “Story isn’t about what we do, it’s about why we do it. It’s not about what we say out loud, it’s about what we’re really thinking when we say it.”

In this way, dialogue gets to the very heart of story.

Dialogue Example

For an example of masterfully written dialogue, I’m going to use Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. There was so much to admire in this book — the wit, the narrative drive, the way Flynn kept just enough information from the reader to maintain the mystery while still letting them inside the emotional heart of the story — but the thing that stood out to me most was the nuanced way Flynn writes dialogue. Every conversation presented layer upon layer of meaning, and put the reader smack in the narrator’s head so that we could really feel what they were feeling.

To show you exactly how Flynn does it – and how you can, too – I’m going to break down just one instance of excellent dialogue and walk you through it line by line, with my comments in brackets. I’ll also show how the dialogue is amplifying what is going on in the scene. I have chosen a passage that I don’t believe spoils the story in case you haven’t read the book yet.

This scene takes place in a volunteer center where people have gathered to help in the investigation of a missing woman. The narrator of this passage of the book is Nick, the husband of the missing woman. He is fast becoming the police’s prime suspect, and he is gradually becoming aware of this reality. So first, read the scene on its own:

I could feel the presence of someone, a woman, near me, but I didn’t look up, hoping she would go away.

“It’s not even noon, and you already look like you’ve had a full day, poor baby.”

Shawna Kelly. She had her hair pulled up in a high bubblegum-girl ponytail. She aimed glossed lips at me in a sympathetic pout. “You ready for some of my Frito pie?” She was bearing a casserole dish, holding it just below her breasts, the saran wrap dappled with sweat. She said the words like she was the star of some ‘80s hair-rock video: you want summa my pie?

“Big breakfast. Thanks, though. That’s really kind of you.”

Instead of going away, she sat down. Under a turquoise tennis skirt, her legs were lotioned so well they reflected. She kicked me with the toe of an unblemished Tretorn. “You sleeping, sweetie?”

“I’m holding up.”

“You’ve got to sleep, Nick. You’re no good to anyone exhausted.”

“I might leave in a little bit, see if I can grab a few hours.”

“I think you should. I really do.”

I felt a sudden keen gratitude to her. It was my mama’s-boy attitude, rising up. Dangerous. Crush it, Nick.

I waited for her to go. She needed to go – people were beginning to watch us.

“If you want, I can drive you home right now,” she said. “A nap might be just the thing for you.”

She reached out to touch my knee, and I felt a burst of rage that she didn’t realize she needed to go. Leave the casserole, you clingy groupie whore, and go. Daddy’s boy attitude, rising up. Just as bad.

“Why don’t you check in with Marybeth?” I said brusquely, and pointed to my mother-in-law by the Xerox, making endless copies of Amy’s photo.

“Okay.” She lingered, so I began ignoring her outright. “I’ll leave you to it, then. Hope you like the pie.”

Dialogue Critique

Here is my breakdown of why this dialogue and scene works so well.

I could feel the presence of someone, a woman, near me, but I didn’t look up, hoping she would go away. [Right from the very start of this scene, it is crystal clear what Nick’s stance is about this woman. We know what he wants – for her to go away. This clear knowledge must be in every scene you write.]

“It’s not even noon, and you already look like you’ve had a full day, poor baby.” [No dialogue tag here but we know this is the woman speaking because Nick was working hard to ignore her so he wouldn’t be the one to speak. Also it’s a new line so it’s a new speaker.]

Shawna Kelly. She had her hair pulled up in a high bubblegum-girl ponytail. She aimed glossed lips at me in a sympathetic pout. “You ready for some of my Frito pie?” She was bearing a casserole dish, holding it just below her breasts, the saran wrap dappled with sweat. She said the words like she was the star of some ‘80s hair-rock video: you want summa my pie? [Nick’s description of Shawna is fantastic. Note that every single physical detail he chooses to share with us has a purpose in defining the way Nick perceives her. The ponytail is not a random detail about hair. It’s a “high bubblegum-girl ponytail,” which is a description that makes us see that this woman is sugary sweet and young and frivolous in Nick’s eyes. And the lips are not just glossed – she aims them. He sees her lips and her pout as threatening. And she bears the casserole dish just below her breasts – not in front of her, not at her waist, not without any commentary whatsoever. The breasts are called out because the breasts – and the fact that this woman is presenting them to him – are a threat. Many times writers throw in physical detail for no real reason, but every single thing in this paragraph is chosen to paint a specific picture of this woman and evoke a specific feeling in the reader.]

“Big breakfast. Thanks, though. That’s really kind of you.” [The clipped way Nick replied here further establishes his discomfort in having this woman approach him. Also note that Flynn is still not using dialogue tags – he said, she said. She doesn’t need to. We know exactly who’s talking.]

Instead of going away, she sat down. Under a turquoise tennis skirt, her legs were lotioned so well they reflected. She kicked me with the toe of an unblemished Tretorn. “You sleeping, sweetie?” [The description of Shawna here lets us see how calculated this woman’s appearance is. Nick understands that none of this is random – the skirt, the lotion, the unblemished shoes – and Flynn lets us know it, too. All of this adds up to a rising sense of Nick’s growing wariness: this seemingly innocent woman could be big trouble.]

“I’m holding up.” [You can tell by the way he says it that he’s not. He’s putting on a good face. The next line – the reaction to this line — confirms this.]

“You’ve got to sleep, Nick. You’re no good to anyone exhausted.”

“I might leave in a little bit, see if I can grab a few hours.”

“I think you should. I really do.”

I felt a sudden keen gratitude to her. It was my mama’s-boy attitude, rising up. Dangerous. Crush it, Nick. [This is where Flynn just absolutely shines. Nick shows us that he is keenly self-aware. His attitude towards Shawna suddenly shifts, and he sees it and knows it. And THEN Flynn adds the “Crush it, Nick,” which shows an even deeper level of self-awareness. He realizes that his sudden kind feelings could make a bad situation worse.]

I waited for her to go. She needed to go – people were beginning to watch us. [Note that he didn’t DO anything or SAY anything to get her to go. He just waited. This says something very important about his state of mind in this moment. He is not a man who is taking action when he knows he should. Also the “people were beginning to watch us” shows that he notices what is happening in the room. We see Nick as a smart, self-aware guy who is not handling this difficult situation in a particularly authoritative way.]

“If you want, I can drive you home right now,” she said. “A nap might be just the thing for you.”

She reached out to touch my knee, [Because of the previous descriptions, we feel the sense of violation of this action.] and I felt a burst of rage that she didn’t realize she needed to go. [Flynn doesn’t just TELL us about the burst of rage, she shows us with the next line. Many writers only do the first part without doing the second. They tell us what the emotion was but they don’t show us what it means. The second part is what really lets us in and it’s the only thing that does. Without it, we’re lost. With is, we are right there with Nick, right there in the story.] Leave the casserole, you clingy groupie whore, and go. Daddy’s boy attitude, rising up. Just as bad. [Again, there is a wild shift of attitude, and Nick’s self awareness about it. Now we know that this is a man who is highly emotionally unstable – yet Flynn has not once said that. She is showing us.]

“Why don’t you check in with Marybeth?” I said brusquely [The adverb here works – but it’s the only one used like this in the scene.] , and pointed to my mother-in-law by the Xerox, making endless copies of Amy’ photo. [Nick’s small physical action here is actually a big moment. He takes action to turn Shawna away. He TRIES. Later, when Shawna does something that turns her ‘innocent’ ministrations into an actual problem for Nick, we feel sympathetic towards him. We know how he felt here, we know that he tried.]

“Okay.” She lingered, so I began ignoring her outright. “I’ll leave you to it, then. Hope you like the pie.” [We can hear Shawna’s disappointment here, so that when she becomes a problem for Nick, we have a clear sense of why she may have done what she did.]

You can see from these notes that everything in this scene is helping Flynn to make her point. Every bit of dialogue is serving a purpose, and driving the subtext of the scene.

Writing Great Dialogue

In order to make sure you are doing the same, I suggest the following exercise:

  • Take one short scene from your work in progress. Choose a scene that includes dialogue.
  • At the top of the page, write down what the point of the scene is. What are you showing or trying to prove in this scene? Why does it exist?
  • For each line of dialogue, check the rules. Are you following them? If not, clean up the mechanics.
  • Now dig into what that dialogue is doing.
    • What is the agenda of each person in the conversation?
    • Do they get what they want out of it?
    • Does the other person believe what they are saying? Why or why not?
    • What is the body language of each person conveying and is it different than what the words are conveying?

Make sure the dialogue SOUNDS good when read out loud. Actually read it out loud. And remember that written dialogue does not necessarily sound like real life. In real life, we ramble and repeat and hesitate… and that doesn’t necessarily work well on the page.

 
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8 Comments

  1. Cynthia Reyes

    Very helpful advice, Jennie. Thank you for the great reminders!

    Reply
  2. Joelle LeGendre

    Your advice resonates! You’ve sardine-packed a lot of information in one article. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

    Reply
  3. Maryann Miller

    Thanks for the terrific article. Very helpful.

    Reply
  4. jonathan banales

    Hello i am a fellow blogger. I post short stories as well as poems and i would like to know what you think. I am not going to lie, i would also definitely appreciate a shout out to help get me going as well. thank you. I suggest reading ” I am the king”.
    thejonba.com

    Reply
  5. Chris Norbury

    Thanks, Jennie,

    Excellent article and I loved the illustrative deconstruction of Gone Girl.

    Chris

    Reply
    • Jennie Nash

      Thanks Chris! I’m glad it helped!

      Reply

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  1. He said, she said: dialogue issues - - […] Practical advice on dialogue by Jennie Nash […]
  2. Writing Links in the 3s and 5…8/22/16 – Where Worlds Collide - […] https://www.thebookdesigner.com/2016/08/a-little-lesson-in-dialogue/ Dialogue is the heart of the story. […]
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