Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Dialogue, it'll make or break your book.

Good dialogue is a pleasure. Bad dialogue can make you cringe.

I have the Prince Bride poster because some of the best dialogue in a movie came from this film. Here's a site with the memorable dialogue.

In the movie business, if the dialogue is bad they say it is 'on the nose'. For a look at dialogue in computer games for secondary characters,see this post. Chris Breault is talking about NPCs (non-player-characters). They jump out, take aim and scream -- 'Die, you capitalist pig!' -- or something similar, before you shoot them.

He says:
'The persona's behavior is generic, so their character must also be generic. That's why these lines usually suck.'

And that's what the problem is with poor dialogue in any medium. If you don't know the character, you fall back on generic archetypes and this shows in bland dialogue.

I find on my first draft of the book there will be patches where the dialogue feels weak. But I know, by the time I get to the end of the book, I'll have grown familiar with the characters (their quirks and blind spots) and the dialogue will come to life. They'll simply refuse to say something, if it isn't true to them.

Here's a snippet of Princess Bride dialogue for you.

Buttercup: You can die too for all I care.
[she pushes him down a high hill]
Man in Black: AS... YOU... WISH.
Buttercup: Oh my sweet Westley what have I done?

When I ask him to do something my husband will sometimes say, 'As you wish'.

So, dialogue. Do you struggle with it? Do you find characters saying things you don't expect?


FlooredMusic said...

I couldn't agree more. There is nothing that will lose me as a reader faster than bad dialogue.

On one of the writing forums I frequent we play a characterization game. Place one of your characters in a generic setting and have them interact and 'discover' other authors' characters primarily through dialogue. I find it a very useful exercise,and frequently end up with a much better understanding of my characters when I'm done.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

FlooredMusic, Wow, that is a good exercise.

Jonathan D. Beer said...

Indeed, that is an excellent idea. I have used a few games and exercises to get into the mindset of my characters, but that is a great idea to nail their dialogue.

I worried when I began writing that my dialogue would be dreadful - very samey, very stilted, and overall not very realistic (in the way novel-dialogue is realistic). But I have relaxed a little bit and I think the characters' voices are coming through now. Before I was getting in my own way, but worrying and over-correcting and editting. I think your point about getting to the end of a book and really knowing your characters by then - I can certainly relate to that (yay!)

As an aside, I once had a lecturer at university who was the spitting image of Wallace Shawn (Vizzini). He once shouted "Inconceivable!" as punctuation to his point and I rather disrupted the lecture with my guffaw :p

C Kelsey said...

Several months ago John Scalzi had an author do a Big Idea post where she explained how she had figured out her characters, who they were, how they spoke, etc. For each character in the book, she sat down and wrote a journal entry of a page or two sort of like a diary. That act helped her flesh the characters out in her head. I thought it was a very interesting idea. Alternately I've always wanted to role play an email exchange with another authors character as one of my characters. It would probably be funny as can be.

Anonymous said...

It's not so much the dialogue (spell checker says that's wrong, and wants dialog... I hate English) that I have problems with, but the narrative in between. I don't know what to put between two awesome lines between arguing characters. I sit there and feel like a vapid idiot, thinking "So does he look at her from his left, or her left? Should I have him pause briefly before firing back? Why does God hate me so much?".

I actually like to think of just how I would respond to a certain question if I was angry, sarcastic, lonely, etc. It helps, sometimes, but more often than not I tend to get characters who are psychotic extensions of my own personality.

Poor buggers...

Anonymous said...

Yeah. The dialog clues are a pain for me as well. Hampered by the feeling that almost either party could speak either role. The words themselves flow easily. But then I have to go back and make sure this character uses the long words, that one uses every contraction he can get away with. This one is angry, that one is placating. And they can't argue if they both have the same opinion.

It helps to have them doing something while they talk. This one can pace the length of the room, the other one shoves food around on her plate, and contemplates suicide if she has to diet a single day more.

But too many conversations still end up being data dumps or something. Ugh.

Synova said...

I just took another chunk of info-dumpy dialog out and I'd already cut the verbal interaction by two thirds when I decided that they were both pretty much the strong silent type, people of action rather than words.

The first time through, though, everyone was emoting all over the place, pleading where they wouldn't plead and trying to persuade and make argument preemptively on anticipated objections. The dialog simply flowed. But it was wrong.

Princess Bride is brilliant and most of the brilliance is in short snippets, a single exchange and few words. There are some longer speeches that are just as good from Vicini and of course Wesley's 'to the pain' monologue.

Another that I particularly like is in the movie Serenity where Jayne, who's not generally a talker starts in on a monologue about the reavers, "I'll kill a man..." Kylie is there sorting things in her own mind but they aren't either of them speaking to each other so much as at the same time.

I suppose that technically monologue isn't dialog at all. But there you go.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I know what you mean about getting in your own way, Jonathan.

Lecturers like it when you get their jokes, but I gather he wasn't making a joke?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

C Kelsey, I know where that author is coming from. Rather than do a journal entry, you could always interview your character.

Imagine you are both sitting on the back veranda (or somewhere that your character feels safe) and ask a few questions. Before long they will be rambling.

'My father? Let me tell you about my father!'

Or maybe there is something really weird about me.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Warpcordova, you bring up an interesting point. Those bits in between the dialogue are really important. They help flesh out the interaction for your reader.

For me it all happens like I'm watching a movie. If it is going well, I'm scrambling to write fast enough to get it all down.

As a kid I belonged to a theatre group, so assuming a character feels natural for me. I just know what their mannerisms would be and how they would react.

I think Sarah has a background in acting, too.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Matapam, data dumps. Whoa, we don't want that.

I teach two subjects on writing and I do an exercise with my students. First they write a scene straight.

Then they write it with subtext.

Person A secretly hates person B because they got a promotion, when A believes he/she should have got it.


Person A is secretly in love with person B's partner.

When you have subtext to dialogue it changes the way the information is carried. If you do it right the dialogue works on two levels. one conveys information and one conveys characterisation.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Synova, I LOVE Firefly. I think it is brilliant on so many levels.

I mentored on writer who was a social worker in her day job. She had everyone emoting as a social worker would. So her hard bitten mercenary said 'I know how you feel ...'

When I pointed this out to her she was horrified.

C Kelsey said...


I like to spend days just letting the characters yammer away at me. Then I get a very good idea of almost everything about them. They still surprise me when I actually write the dialogue though. I have a character I'm working on now, I wrote a scene where he was speaking with the POV character. I figured he'd play it pretty straight and be all charming and gentlemanly. Nope. He teased her and then the conversation ended without her knowing if he was being serious or not. I have to rewrite the scene eventually because that doesn't work. It is enormously funny though.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

"Oh, please!" She glared at the younger writer acros the diner table. "What do you mean you don't know how to break up dialogue?"
He sighed. "I just don't. Like, does he look from left to right, or right to left or... or what? Why does G-d hate me so much?"
She zipped up her leather jacket and started gathering her things. Her mouth was set in disapproval. Her hands kept pausing in their scrabble for purse, keys, notebook, as though she were trying to find the cigarrette he knew for a fact she'd given up more than a quarter century before.
"What?" he said. "You're not even going to talk?"
"Look," she said, looking at him, straight in the eye, her mouth setting grim and straight between words, like a closed trap. "Look. You're going at it all wrong. You're only thinking of it from the point of view of 'something goes here'. Think instead of actions that underline words." Her fingers stubbed a phantom cigarrette on the table top. "It doesn't matter if he looked from left to right or right to left. It matters he looked away from her." Her expression softened, minimally, her gaze suddenly maternal. "Maybe I was a bit over the top. I've forgotten what it's like to be where you are. I'm sure I was worse."
And then, before he could say anything, she was gone, a blur in black jeans and black leather jacket, walking fast between the isles of formica-top tables and out the door of the diner. The parting jingle from the bells behind the door echoed in the warm spicey-smelling air long after she left.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Sorry, Chris. I meant Jason. And he knows where we were sitting, too. Pete's Kitchen! :)

C Kelsey said...

LOL, Sarah. :P

Kate said...

The link about bad dialog is worth reading for all sorts of reasons. I nearly broke something trying not to laugh when the writer got to the possibility of the fuckopalypse in the game he'd done dialog for, and a little later I was thinking "Whoa. That's a damn good point" about the way the policies actually end up working with game ratings (and movie ratings).

I'm still mulling that one over.

C Kelsey said...


Yes that was a very good post. As a frequent gamer it opened my eyes as to how secondary dialogue works in video games, and why it works the way it works.

His mention of RDR was great. That game had a story so well written that since I've finished it I've been positively dying to watch "Winchester '73" just to get a story and some acting that was somewhere near what that game had. Which goes to show that great dialogue can leave you desperately wanting more.

Dave Freer said...

My biggest problem with dialogue is that I'm a smart alec. I seldom say things with one meaning, double or treble entendres are quite normal, as are cross references, and repartee is what we do... which is all very well if one of your characters does it, or even a couple, if you're morally opposed to literary onanism. But two realities emerge (he says after a pregnant pause) firstly, the book starts to read like a conversation between mini-mes, (or Miles Calverly talking to Miles Calverly and later meeting and arguing with Miles, about Miles... by which stage the reader craves kilometres) and secondly it's just out of character and jars the reader by its unreality. The world is not full of people who play with words and joke about everything.

C Kelsey said...

Dave, "literary onanism" followed by "pregnant pause"? ROFLMAO! :P

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Ah! Says Sarah. I always said you were Miles Calverley!

(Edges away from literary Onanism. Not touching that with a ten foo... uh... ah.)

Chris McMahon said...

Its always flowed pretty easily for me and generally I think its done the trick, although anything can be improved. I have not noticed any difference between the beginning and end in terms of how this works for me and how well it fits the character.

Dialogue is often ignored as a way to show character, convey information and propel the story.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

C Kelsey, sorry to hear the scene didn't work. It sounded like fun with him teasing her and leaving ambiguity to his meaning.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

LOL, Sarah.

I bet you're scary when you're angry.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate so glad to have made you laugh. We all need to laugh more.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris, I like it best when the dialogue contains subtext.

C Kelsey said...


I think the scene actually works, but I really hesitate to leave the POV character's (and through her the readers) first opinion of the uber-mega hero of the book be (as the POV character herself thinks at the end of the encounter) "what an ass!".

It's funny, but how to recover the opinion of him as a nice guy is probably a task beyond my writing skills at this point.

C Kelsey said...


I think the scene actually works, but I really hesitate to leave the POV character's (and through her the readers) first opinion of the uber-mega hero of the book be (as the POV character herself thinks at the end of the encounter) "what an ass!".

It's funny, but how to recover the opinion of him as a nice guy is probably a task beyond my writing skills at this point.

Anonymous said...

Chris, I think it's traditional for the hero and heroine to dislike each other at first glance.

And having the hero wake up the next morning and say, "Dear God, please tell me I am not remembering being a complete ass yesterday" can garner some sympathy from readers who've stuck their feet in their mouths themselves.

C Kelsey said...

I'll leave it for now and revisit when it's time to rewrite. Who knows, perhaps the scene will work.

Synova said...

If the uber mega hero is an ass it could work to substantiate his uber mega hero status. This is non-intuitive, I know. But think of tech geeks. Back when the industry was crazy the more slovenly (though perhaps we hope bathing wasn't neglected) someone was the more a person figured they knew what they were doing... or else why would any employer put up with it? What chance did a tech wizard have to get a hair cut or shave?

So the uber mega hero might have people around him who tolerate the annoying habits that wouldn't normally be tolerated because they know, even if a new person doesn't, that this person has always come through for them... that his actions don't really match his words or how he presents himself.

Or in a pinch, have him pick up a kitten to cuddle in the middle of being an ass.

The power of kittens should never be discounted. ;-)

C Kelsey said...

Synova... considering there he's a werelion the kitten comment has me giggling. :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Kyrie is a were panther. She has Not Dinner.

C Kelsey said...

Now, now, Sarah. Tell the truth. Not Dinner has Kyrie. :P

Seriously though, you've reminded me that animals tend to be integral in folks lives. I'll have to give it some thought.

Anthony J Langford said...

Dialouge is everything. It demonstrates character. No need to tell us. Let them speak for themselves..

"You killed my brudda. Now, prepare to die!"


C Kelsey said...

I got surprised last night. Looks like the scene is going to stay. I was setting up another scene in my mind and that darned werelion pranked the POV character again... and made the first prank all better at the same time. POV character still is going, "what an ass"... it's becoming a term of endearment I think.

The characters... they is all crazy.