What makes for good dialogue?
That’s a question I really wish I had the answer to. I find it easy to spot good dialogue or bad dialogue but have a hard time expressing why it’s good or bad.
My nominee for the greatest modern day writer of dialogue goes to Elmore Leonard, who passed away in August of this year. I could take the dialogue from just about any excerpt of his writing and it would sound realistic and just absolutely crackle with coolness. In fact, let me try that with a passage from my favorite Leonard novel, Get Shorty, which also made a pretty damned fun movie:
This was when she said, out of nowhere, “You know what I been thinking?”
Chili said “Tell me.”
“I wish he really was dead, the son of a bitch.”
Chili kept still. Don’t talk when you don’t have to.
“He’s called me up twice since going out to Las Vegas and since then I haven’t heard a goddamn word from him. I know he’s there, it’s all he ever talked about, going to Las Vegas. But I’m the one stuck my neck out, I’m the one they gave the money to, not him. I’m talking about the airline company, the three hundred thousand dollars they gave me for losing my husband.” Fay paused to shake her head.
She said to him on that dark patio, “I trust you. I think you’re a decent type of man, even if you are a crook. You find Leo and get me my three hundred thousand dollars back if he ain’t spent it. I’ll give you half. If he’s hit big, we’ll split that, or whatever he has left. How’s that sound as a deal?”
Chili said, “That’s what you been thinking, huh? Tell me why the airline thinks Leo got killed if he wasn’t on the flight.”
“His suitcase was,” Fay said and told Chili everything that happened.
That dialogue is super early in the book (I literally just flipped it to a random page and transcribed), and is mostly expositional about setting up the plot of the novel. It sounds authentic though, doesn’t it? The characters have distinct voices, they’re often ungrammatical and there’s a faint twinge of sarcasm indicated by the language rather than by the dialogue tags. Indeed in his Writers on Writing essay for the New York Times, Leonard himself stated that he only ever tagged dialogue with “said,” and never paired “said” with an adverb. This was all part of his attempts to “leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
It’s good solid advice, and something that I try to keep in mind. (The over use of non-standard dialogue tags is one of my writing flaws. I’m aware of it and try to limit it, but a lot of my first drafts have “grumbled,” “groaned,” “muttered,” “sighed” and a million over tags struck through in virtual read pen with “SAID!” as the editing note. This is a tendency that is even more pronounced come NaNo time) I think that limiting the tags to “said” forces the dialogue to become stronger as it has to stand on it’s own.
So what about bad dialogue? To me, the reigning king is the classic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Some of that is the style and era he lived and wrote in (Lovecraft was born in 1890 and died in 1937). It seems Lovecraft was at least partially aware of this and wrote little dialogue as compared to description. Indeed, it’s often closer to monologue than dialogue. Take this from The Shadow Over Innsmouth:
The old man’s whisper grew fainter, and I found myself shuddering at the terrible and sincere portentousness of his intonation, even though I knew his tale could be nothing but drunken phantasy.
“Wal, Sir, Obed he ‘lart that they’s things on this arth as most folks never heerd about – an’ wouldn’t believe ef they did hear. lt seems these Kanakys was sacrificin’ heaps o’ their young men an’ maidens to some kind o’ god-things that lived under the sea, an’ gittin’ all kinds o’ favour in return. They met the things on the little islet with the queer ruins, an’ it seems them awful picters o’ frog-fish monsters was supposed to be picters o’ these things. Mebbe they was the kind o’ critters as got all the mermaid stories an’ sech started.
“They had all kinds a’ cities on the sea-bottom, an’ this island was heaved up from thar. Seem they was some of the things alive in the stone buildin’s when the island come up sudden to the surface, That’s how the Kanakys got wind they was daown thar. Made sign-talk as soon as they got over bein’ skeert, an’ pieced up a bargain afore long.
“Them things liked human sacrifices. Had had ’em ages afore, but lost track o’ the upper world after a time. What they done to the victims it ain’t fer me to say, an’ I guess Obed was’n’t none too sharp abaout askin’. But it was all right with the heathens, because they’d ben havin’ a hard time an’ was desp’rate abaout everything. They give a sarten number o’ young folks to the sea-things twice every year – May-Eve an’ Hallawe’en – reg’lar as cud be. Also give some a’ the carved knick-knacks they made. What the things agreed to give in return was plenty a’ fish – they druv ’em in from all over the sea – an’ a few gold like things naow an’ then.”
The problems here are legion, but the most glaring one is that it just doesn’t sound real. Nobody talks like that, least of all 90ish year old New Englanders like this narrator is supposed to be.
(Of course no one really talks like Leonard’s characters either, but it sure sounds like they might.) I don’t really have much advice when it comes to dialogue, but the one tip I do have is a simple, but for some reason, oft overlooked one. After, or even as, you write that dialogue, READ IT ALOUD, it’ll give you a much more natural sense of how it sounds, and might suggest some edits for grammatical informality or clarity.
Who do you, dear reader, consider to be a great dialogue writer, and what example would you give to show it?
(Image by Ivan Prole)