The best advice I ever heard about writing effective dialogue goes something like this:
“Bad dialogue tells, good dialogue shows, excellent dialogue shows more than the writer intended.”
It tells writers a few things. Don’t use dialogue to impart information – the dreaded info dump. It looks and sounds artificial. Much better to show the characters interacting in distinctive ways.
Ernest Hemingway was a master at dialogue. He heard a lot of it as a newspaper reporter and a war correspondent. Journalists are always on the prowl for a meaty quote.
Hemingway wrote quick bursts of dialogue in his short stories. This is the opening conversation between two waiters in a café from “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” They are discussing one of their patrons, a deaf old man:
"Last week he tried to commit suicide," one waiter said.
"He was in despair."
"How do you know it was nothing?"
"He has plenty of money."
In my short stories, I use dialogue to move the story along, to build conflict, and to flesh out the characters. Many contemporary stories concern themselves more with character than plot. The protagonist faces a dilemma. The dilemma is important. But it’s how the characters confronts it that is important. Inner (and outer) turmoil is revealed in conversation.
Here’s an example:
In my story entitled “Baggage,” an airline employee named Millie notices something odd in the airport baggage claim. Among the luggage on the conveyor belt was a black pool the size of a dinner plate.
“Uh oh,” she said.
“What?” said a man wearing a white shirt and tie. He was the lone passenger waiting for luggage.
“We may need Homeland Security.”
“Probably not.” He held his suitcase in one hand, reached down and scraped his left index finger through the liquid.
“Don’t,” she said. “It could be dangerous.”
The man smelled his finger. He laughed. “Crisis averted.”
“What?” He proffered his hand.
She inhaled. “It’s sweet.”
He drew closer and they inhaled together. She wanted to move away because she didn’t know this man and hadn’t really been with anyone since her divorce. The liquid’s sweet smell mixed with his cologne and confused her nose. Vanilla? Licorice? “Some kind of liquor?”
“Smell again,” he said.
She grabbed his hand and again inhaled the sweet smells of the evening. She noticed that his skin was warm, his fingernails trimmed.
Short story writers are stingy with dialogue. Less usually is more.
But that’s not always the case. As in life, some characters are more interesting than others. It may be more important to hear more from some characters as what they say is crucial to the story. But avoid monologues. Have your character interact more with others. That also may boost the level of tension.
In Michael Connelly’s City of Bones, Detective Harry Bosch questions a doctor whose dog has brought home from the woods a human bone. It’s a chapter-long swatch of dialogue, filled with intriguing detail. But Connelly makes things a bit more interesting when he sends the characters out into the woods to investigate. One way to keep the story moving along is to have your characters converse while they too are moving along.
Write thousands of lines of dialogue and it gets easier. Your instincts take over. Study excellent writers such as Alice Munro and Elmore Leonard. Leonard may possess the most recognizable cadence of any American fiction writer. It didn’t happen overnight. Said Leonard in an interview: “It took about ten years before my ‘sound’ emerged. That’s about a million words.”
You may have to sacrifice a good many of those million words to write dialogue as snappy as Leonard’s.
|Mike Shay sitting at Hemingway's writing desk at Spear-O-Wigwam in the Big Horn Mountains|
Michael Shay is the author of the short story collection, “The Weight of a Body.” He retired in January as communications and literary arts specialist at the Wyoming Arts Council.