Most of these are borrowed from Dialogue by Robert McKee (which I highly recommend and which I'm rereading at the moment). And some come from regurgitated stuff in my head—things I'd picked up from various sources over the years. You can argue that there is no such thing as perfect dialogue, but I'd argue back that as much as dialogue can be fluid and nebulous, it must have a form. It can fluctuate within that form, but without form it bogs down the narrative with melodrama (which stems from unclear character motivations) and other dialogue sins (info-dumps, on-the-nose talk, repetitiveness of arguments, inadvertent summaries, random interruptions, unfinished thoughts, etc.).
So. I created a cheat-sheet of sorts for myself which I'll share here with you and will bookmark for myself to return to when I feel like my dialogue sucks and I don't know how to fix it (which is almost every day).
1. ACCELERATE YOUR PACING VIA INDIRECT DIALOGUE
When there is a lot of mundane stuff to say ("I have walked the dog, and I have washed the dog, and I have fed the dog, and..."), have your characters say it via indirect dialogue in non-character narration. Meaning, you narrate what the characters said to each other: "And he told her all about the dog, and she didn't hear a word he said." Boom. Instead of having your character talk ad nauseam about the damn dog, you just reduced it to one line and accelerated your pacing. (Just so you don't confuse pacing and timing: pacing is sprinkling tidbits of information while timing is deciding when to sprinkle them.) This is a good technique to cut out the boring, bone-biting banalities that drive your readers up the wall. That is, if you can't cut them out completely. (Maybe the dog is important to the plot.)
2. WRITE THE WAY PEOPLE TALK: NOUN, VERB, OBJECT
Don't make the mistake of writing dialogue the way people actually talk. If you record two people talking and then play it back and listen to it, you'll hear how boring, banal, and repetitive it is. Fiction dramatizes dialogue to give us what we can't get in real life: insight into our humanity. Which means, layers. Which means, structure. Which means, apply not the words people speak (I mean, verbatim), but apply the pattern in which people speak. Listen to dialogue and pick up on the patterns. Here is one pattern. We usually speak in the following order: noun, verb, object.
"Hey, you know Fuzzy, Jimmy's dog? He died last night. Ate something poisoned, I hear. Poisoned meat."
Here is how the pattern works:
- NOUN: DOG. We start with the person or the thing we're talking about.
- VERB: DIED. We continue explaining what happened to the person or the thing.
- OBJECT: MEAT. We finish explaining by supplying what caused it all.
There is your pattern. One, two, three. Now open any book and see if you can spot it in dialogue. See how strong it sounds, and how weak it is when it's missing this step-by-step progression. (Of course, this is only a form, not a formula. So watch for patterns. Listen and read, and you'll start seeing them everywhere.)
3. USE NOUNS AND VERBS FOR KNOWLEDGE; MODIFIERS FOR PERSONALITY
If your character is a dog breeder, for example, he will know a lot of dog lingo that's not common knowledge but is common knowledge to him. So instead of generalities ("The female dog walked fast") he would be very specific ("The bitch pranced"). This gives your character authenticity. Anything that goes to make it pretty (modifiers—adjectives, adverbs, etc.) will help us glimpse his personality. "Look at that lazy bitch" vs. "Look at that languid bitch" gives you two very different personalities. Both dog breeders, but I bet you imagined two completely different people who'd utter these words, right? Same goes for active vs. passive voice. You can use it to express personality.
4. PLACE THE CORE WORD AT THE END TO MAKE DIALOGUE SUSPENSEFUL
Not all the time! Not in every single line! Or it'll get repetitive and boring. But about 75% of the time if you're writing a thriller, for sure. (It'll depend on how much suspense you want in your book.) The core word is the word that carries core information of the sentence. "Would you look at that..." What? Puppy? Gun? Cupcake? Idiot? We wait until the last word to find out what the character talks about. Very useful to make your readers read line after line (keeps them hooked).
5. IF YOU CAN SHOW IT WITHOUT DIALOGUE, CUT THE DIALOGUE OUT
This is counterintuitive. After all, we like to talk, so we think our characters like to talk too (and do we let them ramble on and on!). But dialogue shines when it's sparse. The best example I can think of is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Open it up and see how few lines of dialogue there are. Almost none in the whole book. And so we hungrily eat up every line. This scarcity makes us want more, and makes us pay attention to what's said. So if you can have your characters "say" things without actually using words, do so. Show it by exposition only.
6. USE FOUR LAYERS: PHYSICAL, SOCIAL, PERSONAL, PRIVATE
There are conflicts galore in your characters' lives, and they all come down to shit happening to them physically—broke a leg (1st layer), personally—wife walked out (2nd layer), socially—got fired from the new job (3rd layer), and privately in their minds—slid into depression (4th layer). Ideally you have to have your characters talk by using all four layer of conflict, so we can glimpse deep into their psyches. Sounds like an impossible job, I know, but with practice you'll learn (I'm learning too).
7. USE THREE LEVELS: THE SAID, THE UNSAID, THE UNSAYABLE
Now, on top of the aforementioned layers (don't kill me!), always be aware of the three levels of dialogue: there are things that are actually being said, things that are implied but not said aloud, and things that the character isn't even aware can be said (but we the readers guess them and rejoice in how smart we are). When I talk about dialogue on-the-nose, I mean writing the unsaid as the said.
"I know you want to leave me, Martha, and I don't blame you. I was acting like an asshole for the last five years of our marriage, but I beg you, stay. Please. Lets's give it another chance..." Blah-blah-blah. There is nothing hidden here. Boring as fuck. We will throw the book away in disgust. You have to bury this under what's actually said.
"Let me make you breakfast. Would you like breakfast?" Have Martha shoot an incredulous look at her husband, and fill us in on the fact that over the last five years of their marriage he hasn't cooked breakfast once. There you go. Now it's interesting. Now we know what's unsaid, and we're hooked into the guessing game. What will she say? And we can glimpse the unsayable. We can see that he doesn't need a wife but a mother, that he is a child who is trying to please mom, so she won't leave him. This is the unsayable. Before writing dialogue, start with the unsayable (what was my character's childhood like?) and work your way to what's actually being said. Then give it to us so it's transparent, so we can see through your character like through glass and see what he can't see himself. If we can't see it, we lose interest. The guessing game is over, and we close the book.
8. USE CONCRETE OVER ABSTRACT, FAMILIAR OVER OUTLANDISH, SHORT OVER LONG, ACTIVE OVER PASSIVE
Again, back to the dog breeder. Be very specific and concrete. This gives life to the characters, to their knowledge (and we think them credible, as though they really lived a real life and not a mere fictional one—it helps us suspend disbelief). At the same time, use familiar words over some crazy outlandish ones that no one uses. This will speed up the reading (don't you hate to stop reading to look up a meaning of a word?). Short words read better in dialogue than long ones, unless your character has a very specific way of annoying people with long words (I risked using this in Rosehead and haven't heard many complaints, whew). And active is better than passive. Always.
9. SHOW EMOTION VIA LENGTH OF WORDS AND SENTENCES
When we get emotional, we tend to use short, snappy words in quick, sharp phrases. ("I hate you! Asshole! Get out!") When we get logical, we tend to elongate both our words and sentences. ("I detest your mannerisms. So uncultured. I'd appreciate it if you left my house this minute.") At the same time, you can show the level of intelligence by varying the length of words and sentences. As you can see, the second example is more sophisticated as opposed to the first one that could be said any high school drop-out.
10. APPLY ON-THE-NOSE DIALOGUE IF YOU WANT LESS REALISM
Let's say you're writing an epic fantasy. To stay in genre, you would use words and expressions that often mean exactly what's being said, so the less realism you want (and the more fantasy), the more on-the-nose your dialogue will be. Why? Because you're already asking your readers to make a leap into a different reality. Dialogue becomes a conduit for that reality, so in a sense the genre itself becomes the unsaid.
"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door" is not a metaphor. It's not a jab. Not a joke. It doesn't have the unsaid behind it. It means exactly what it says. But why do we love it? Because this is danger that could never happen to us in reality, so we read on-the-nose dialogue in high fantasy or in horror genres, and feel tickled. We want to know exactly how dangerous that business is, because we know it's not real (so we're safe from it, while the characters are not).
11. USE THE THIRD THING TO PIT TWO CHARACTERS AGAINST ONE ANOTHER
Your two characters could be talking about dogs, but really they could be flirting. She says something about how she likes her dogs fast and dirty, lets them roll in the mud, and he says how he grooms his bitches every morning, brushes their fur, gives them bits of steak. The third thing here is dogs. The first thing is she, the second thing is he.
I'll explain. In every dialogue there are only two people in conflict. Sure, you can have more people talk aloud, but only two at any point in time are in direct conflict. When those two argue about something, instead of being explicit, bring the third thing to these two and have them express their personalities through it. She expresses her love for fast and steamy sex, and he expresses his love for almost surgical, clean precision and sophistication when it comes to lovemaking (feeding dogs steak??). But we, readers, will guess that they're flirting, and will read on with pleasure. (Oh, and use a the thing what your characters know very well, in this case, dogs.)
12. ALWAYS APPLY THE RULE OF OPPOSITES (AS A CHEAT)
To put it simply, what's being said it the opposite of what's being unsaid. Think about it. We like to hide our feelings. Our feelings are private. We rarely open up, and when we do, only to people we know well, and only under pressure. Which in a typical novel happens once, during climax. Until then the guessing game must go on, or we won't read the book. So. What does your character feel? Excitement? Have her say she's bored. We will guess she's excited. And so on. It sounds primitive when put like this, but this simple rule will help you stay away from writing dialogue on-the-nose, unless, of course, you're writing high fantasy.
13. HAVE EVERYTHING IN CONFLICT, AT ALL TIMES
Just so there are 13 points, for fun, here is another one, to sum it all up. At any time when you write dialogue, EVERYTHING MUST BE IN CONFLICT. Both characters must be in conflict. Their inner unsaid feelings must be in conflict with their said words. Their unsayable truths, in turn, must be in conflict with their inner feelings. On top of it, every line they say must be in conflict with the line that follows. Never, at amy point, let your characters feel relaxed in the scene, especially in dialogue. The moment they do, the tension is out the window, and we yawn. Do this enough times, and we will put the ebook down. So when in doubt, simply think, CONFLICT. Opposites. She told him this. What's the opposite of that? He answered this. What's the opposite of that? She said this! What's the opposite of that? And so on. Have it all at constant war, and you will keep your readers happy. (Sounds like we're horrible gluttons for blood, humans, aren't we? I know. Thanks goodness it's fiction).
Next I'll write a post by request, on how to write through painful memories without actually killing yourself in the process. So stay tunes. And share your dialogue secrets below. Onward.