You can either focus on the words, as some of us were taught to do, or you can focus on the thoughts and feelings of the characters behind the words. The thoughts and feelings are more important, but fortunately there’s an easy way to improve both aspects.
Here’s a suggestion: Go buy the program “Great Dialogue”: http://www.greatdialogue.com/
It’s cheap, less than twenty dollars right now. I have absolutely no connection with it whatsoever – except that I use it and love what it’s done for my dialogue.
“Great Dialogue” is a compilation of short dialogue excerpts from excellent writers and great writers. There’s context and thoughtful comments as well. It’s even organized in an interesting way.
I use the program to prime my dialogue pump before writing. Using it gets the characters’ voices to subtly fall in line with good dialogue. I don’t even think about it. I don’t try to remember anything. It just happens.
The subconscious mind kicks in, learns things that linear analysis can’t teach, and influences the dialogue as I write. The influence wears off after awhile, so I try to use the program before every writing session.
It helps more than anything else, including anything I’ve read in writing books.
Reading excellent dialogue from a novel is a similar influence, but less intense.
Go buy “Great Dialogue,” I’m begging you. http://www.greatdialogue.com/
As you know, to write good dialogue you need to get into the head of each character to see how the world feels from that perspective – before you try to speak.
Here’s an example of me trying to do just that… Lets’ say I’ve got two people in a small bathroom. I take the hero first. He’s standing in front of the stinky urinal about ready to say something that will advance my plot and increase the depth of his personality by showing his twists of motivation. Before I write a word, I get into his head and “remember” that he might have left the stove on this morning. His house could be burning down to the ground, even as he’s peeing. He worries too much. The smell in this bathroom is not insignificant to him. He’s a clean freak, maybe. The new hiking boots his girlfriend got him for his 20th birthday are making blisters on his feet. He hated turning twenty and now hates it more. He needs to take the ransom money to a drop-off point before 9:00 AM, which doesn’t give him enough time if traffic is bad. (The kidnappers are unreasonable bastards.) He’s getting a caffeine-withdrawal headache now because he rushed out of the house without his coffee this morning. The floor under his feet is sticky. The urinal was made by Kohler. A flying-saucer shaped pink “deodorant” bar is balanced on edge against the dome of the drain, smelling worse than anything else in the room. The guy in the urinal next to him, his side-kick and friend says, “Johnnie, we got any toll money for the bridge?”
What is this hero going to say? How about this…
He goes to check his pants pockets and pees on his shirt sleeve. “One thing at a time,” he says out loud to himself, trying to relax. “Hey, call Carol would ya? I think I left the stove on.”
“But the toll money. We aren’t getting very far if…”
“Do you have to whine so loud?” Johnnie bangs the side of his head with his one dry wrist. “Just call Carol. Soon as I’m done peeing on myself I’ll check my pockets.”
Or… when the sidekick asks him if he’s got money for the toll bridge, does he say:
“Yeah, got it covered.”
If you don’t put in the work to get inside your people’s worlds and look around at everything through their eyes – and maybe take notes – your characters are going to sound like cardboard.
After you’ve got some rough dialogue down, go back over it one character at a time. Take the hero first and go through the dialogue again, making changes only to the hero’s words. Don’t let anything take you out of that guy’s head. Forget the others until the next pass. Then do the same for another character, and only that one.
When you work your dialogue, if you’re like me, you tend to worry too much about how things are said, rather than what is being said. One key to good dialogue is to do the opposite: Think content, not wording.
Example: “I don’t care who you say your daddy is, I’m not going to lie to the people of this county just to keep your sorry ass out of prison.”
The word-centered worthless edit process that I tend to do would produce this: “It doesn’t matter to me if your dad’s the president, I won’t lie to the people of my district to keep you out of jail.”
See that? I’ve merely said the same thing with different words. Honestly, I don’t know if the first one was better or the second one.
But I know this, if I let myself, I’ll spend hours trying to tweak words until I think I’ve made an improvement. The sad thing is, in the same amount of time I could have made a huge improvement to my dialogue if I’d just forgotten the words, stopped and noticed the texture of life from the character’s perspective.
Now, about those little exclamations at the beginning of phrases…
“Jeepers, I thought you were human!”
“Son of a bitch, that’s great coffee, Marge!”
“Look, I’m just saying this once.”
These preliminary words of emphasis can go viral. You’ll be up to your teeth in them because once you’re accustomed to hearing them, your dialogue won’t feel forceful enough without them. Worse still, they can sometimes fool you into “hearing” powerful dialogue when it’s not really there.
What about using four-letter type words?
All I know is this: don’t be a lamb and use vege-bad words like I tend to do in my nonfiction writing. They sound distracting, unless they make a point about the inconsistency of a character…
For instance, a crazed pseudo-religious killer might use watered down cuss words as part of her characterization. (Misery, by Steven King?) She’d break an author’s knees but feel compelled to use baptized exclamations rather than the sinful four-letter stuff.
That works, especially for King. But he’s not going to bring us a high school bad-boy saying, “Dang it, I’m going to kick your bottom!”
Either use four letter words or forget about them completely. It’s very difficult to play the middle ground and make it sound natural.
Another impossibly great piece of dialogue advice: Overdo it. When you speak for your characters, “dance like nobody’s watching.”
Is she angry? Find an angry person in your head (someone you actually heard yelling at someone) and amplify that voice, amplify the anger, make the cutting remarks crueler, think of something stupid for her to yell about. Maybe make her less than brilliant when she’s mad. Don’t edit yourself, just let the smoke fly.
Then go back later and write it all again (save the original) as if she were an upper-class British intellectual using cold, subtle criticism without losing her temper… saying cruel things in a calm, clever way.
Now you have two extremes to compare. Contrast is where magic is born. Choose one or the other and stick to it.
Have you got a kind person? Find out what made her capable of seeing only the good in people. Then when you believe in the genuine goodness of her personality and can feel it, let her talk without any editing or self-consciousness about words.
Have the courage to use this “over-the-top” stuff you’ve written. It’s probably your best dialogue, but if necessary, it will be easier to tone it down later than to add life to something dead.
Dialogue echoes if you reach across time with famous dialogue ringing in your head. Use the “Great Dialogue” program, or something like it.
Dialogue echoes if the 3-D details and feelings of a character’s world are fresh in mind before you let him speak.
Your dialogue will echo if you write loudly and fearlessly, as if no one were watching you dance.
M. Talmage Moorehead