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The Reviewer's Corner - Dialogue 101
Posted: Thursday, December 10, 2015 1:43 PM
Joined: 5/12/2015
Posts: 41

Background note: I've recently joined a structured review group, which puts me in the position of seeing a lot of self-published books being offered. Group policies prevents us from posting reviews for titles receiving a personal rating of less than 3-stars (using the Amazon system). Since only about half the books coming my way receive a “3”, I think it’s useful to point out some of the trends I’ve noticed. Your mileage may vary — but at least there might be a few remarks here worthy of your attention.


There are a lot of mysteries out there, of different styles, but there’s no mystery about effective dialogue — because the ambitions of literary dialogue are simple:

1) To “sound real” — the texture of actual conversation.

2) To advance the plot, convey information, establish mood, define a relationship between characters.

3) To sound “better than the real thing” — pungent, memorable, witty, accelerated.

Virtually all the books I see have dialogue that agrees with #2. Some reach the standard of #1 + #2. But only a favored few include all three of these requirements. It appears to be difficult for writers — especially beginning writers — to get that extra level of zest and economy that makes reading fictional dialogue enjoyable.

What can you do to improve? You can do a Google search, first of all. Many other people have addressed this issue. But you can also try these suggestions:

1) A Billy Wilder marathon. Cue up: Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, Double Indemnity, and Some Like It Hot (finishing on a lighter note). The dialogue in a Billy Wilder script sounds “real” — and yet these are things that no actual person has ever said. It’s conversation that’s an improvement over real life.

2) Use contractions. Someone who is not using contractions is like someone who is wearing a shirt inside out. It is an indication that something is wrong somewhere — and I always take note because it always sounds robotic — and the producers of Star Trek TNG must agree: since the only android on the ship does not use contractions, either.

3) Read your work out loud: just as if you are recording an audio book of your novel. If you have a brave friend — someone who’s willing to say “this part sounds like robots talking” — include that person in the reading.

4) Understand that getting dialogue right takes practice and ambition. No one comes out of the womb knowing just how to do it. But you can’t have a book about people without people talking.

Until next time....

Posted: Monday, December 14, 2015 9:59 AM
Joined: 9/28/2015
Posts: 1



Thanks for the great information. Your comments and examples are wonderfully pithy and informative. Great example of using Billy Wilder. There are not a lot of great examples of dialog now days. Tarantino writes and films great dialog, if crime is your thing; of course Elmore Leonard was the master at the minimal "street level" dialog. 


Thanks again for the posts.

Posted: Monday, December 14, 2015 12:43 PM
Joined: 5/12/2015
Posts: 41

You're welcome. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to live in a world where Tarantino got two Oscars for screenwriting — but I’m probably not going to jump off a building, either. He would be less of a big deal if his films didn’t make so much money, since basically all he’s done is pioneer the use of the “F-bomb” as every part of speech in virtually every character dialogue.

The thing about great dialogue is that it’s not terribly conspicuous. Ineffective dialogue stares out at you — page after page — as you say to yourself “Nobody talks like this!”. And yet, the good stuff, it’s “just people talking”. But clever people, with interesting things to say.

Woody Allen used to be very good at this. And, on the literary side, Ross MacDonald has always been my model.


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