Of the many technical skills needed to write fiction, dialogue is probably the hardest to master. You either have an ear for it, or you don’t. I’ve heard this. I’ve read this. I believe it. At best, the majority of us aspiring writers will learn to write good dialogue. Those blessed few who have the ear for it may go on to write great dialogue.
I think there are two reasons why writing dialogue is difficult. First, a lot is demanded of written speech. Linda Seger, in her book Creating Unforgettable Characters, presents a succinct list of what is required of competent dialogue:
• Good dialogue is like a piece of music. It has a beat, a rhythm, a melody.
• Good dialogue tends to be short, and spare. Generally no character will speak for more than two or three lines.
• Good dialogue is like a tennis match. The ball moves back and forth between players and represents a constant exchange of power that can be sexual, physical, political, or social.
• Good dialogue conveys conflict, attitudes, and intentions. Rather than telling about the character, it reveals character.
• Good dialogue is easily spoken, because of its rhythms. It makes great actors of us all.
The second reason dialogue is difficult relates to the first item on Seger’s list: the beat, rhythm and melody distinguish one character’s voice from another. Without these musical elements, all characters sound alike, and since music is the most abstract of the art forms, writing dialogue that approximates a piece of music can be difficult. So, where does that leave those of us who are tone deaf? The craft books are full of good advice, but as I’ve said before, to fully understand something, observe it in action. Study the masters.
And one of those masters is Elmore Leonard. He writes dialogue. Everything else on the page exists only to support what the characters are saying to each other. When starting a new project, if a character has nothing interesting to say, or does not have a compelling voice, he or she gets the ax. While writing the story, Leonard strives to remain invisible, to show rather than tell. He wants the characters to speak for him.
For this post I will use examples from Leonard’s novel Glitz to illustrate not only his mastery of written speech (including summary, indirect speech, and dialogue), but also the principals outlined in Linda Seger’s list.
The story opens with the protagonist, Detective Vincent Mora, staring down the barrel of a mugger’s handgun. He subsequently gets shot through the groin, shoots and kills the mugger, takes medical leave in Puerto Rico and ponders his future while falling for a prostitute. During a conversation with Lorendo Paz—good friend and detective with the Puerto Rico Police Department—we are given insight into Vincent Mora’s current state of mind:
Lorendo made his face look tired, without effort, and told Vincent he was making a career out of Iris Ruiz because he needed something to do that was important to him and concerned a person’s life, not because Iris was a special case. There were a thousand Iris Ruizes in San Juan.
Vincent narrowed his eyes at him.
And Lorendo raised Iris’s rating. All right, there was no one like her. Okay? Fantastic girl. Her looks could stop your breathing. She had style, class, personality and she made sure a doctor looked up her every week without fail.
Vincent shook his head.
And Lorendo said, “What you’re doing we’ve both seen, how many times? The cop who has a feeling for a whore. He wants to be her savior, change her, make her like she used to be, uh? Before she found out that little fuzzy thing she sits on can make her money.”
“That’s not nice,” Vincent said.
“Oh, is that so? What is it attracts you to her, her mind? Her intelligence?”
“I don’t know what happened,” Vincent said. “Ever since I got shot I’ve been horny. It started, lying in the hospital looking at nurses. What is it about nurses? Almost every woman I look at now I take her clothes off. Not all women, but more than you’d think.”
“Who doesn’t?” Lorendo said. “Man, you don’t have to get shot.”
“It’s like I’m starting over again, looking at girls.”
“It’s your age. How old are you, forty?”
Vincent said yes, and then said, “Forty-one.”
“Sure, it’s your age. Maybe getting shot, too. You see you aren’t going to live forever, you don’t want to miss anything.”
“Maybe … You ever been shot?”
“No, I’ve been lucky.”
“It can happen,” Vincent said, “when you least expect.”
In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway describes different methods for presenting fictional speech: “Speech can be conveyed in fiction with varying degrees of directness. It can be summarized as part of the narrative so that a good deal of conversation is condensed. It can be reported in the third person as indirect speech so that it carries, without actual quotation, the feel of the exchange. But usually when the exchange contains the possibility of discovery or decision, and therefore of dramatic action, it will be presented in direct quotation.”
The first two paragraphs of the exchange between Mora and Paz are written as indirect speech. We are told what was said without direct quotations. This gives us the feel of the exchange, while moving more quickly into the dramatic dialogue. Leonard uses summary and indirect speech throughout his novel. With these techniques, he is able to seamlessly condense much of what needs to be said without losing meaning or interrupting the flow of the narrative.
William Sloane, in The Craft of Writing, says of dialogue, “It must do more than one thing at a time or it is too inert for the purposes of fiction.” As a whole, the above passage accomplishes a number of things. First, it characterizes the relationship between Mora and Paz. Second, it gives us insight into Mora’s state of mind and establishes his motives for future actions. Third, it gives us the age of our protagonist without resorting to some obtrusive trick or moving outside the character’s head, even if just for a moment. In addition it has a nice beat, rhythm and melody. The lines are short and spare. It conveys conflict, attitudes, and intentions, and reveals character. It is easily spoken and rings true.
Later in the story, not long after the protagonist and antagonist have their first physical encounter, Vincent Mora confronts ex-convict Teddy Magic. With the help of a couple of Lorendo Paz’s men, Vincent tries to intimidate the ex-con. He tells Teddy to stop following him and leave Puerto Rico the following day:
Vincent said to him, “I know where you’ve been, what you learned in there, how to make a shiv, how you settle your differences. I know what a sly little back-sticking motherfucker you are and I know what you feel like doing.”
“You know everything, ’ey?”
“I know I’m not gonna walk backwards for the rest of my life,” Vincent said to him, “worry about a freak who wants to get even. You understand what I’m saying? Nod your head, I don’t want to hear any more from you.”
This short passage also meets all the requirements for good dialogue. Repetition and parallelism give it a musical quality. It is short and spare. Vincent’s first paragraph is two lines, his second is three. Taken in context with the surrounding pages, this section resembles a tennis match, two men opposing each other, one trying to intimidate the other, the other trying to hide his fear. It conveys conflict, attitudes, and intentions, and further characterizes these two characters in a manner that shows rather than tells. And because of its rhythm, it is pleasing to the ear when read out loud. It would make a great piece of movie dialogue.
Interweaved among Leonard’s masterful dialogue is equally well-done internal monologue. Even though we are in a third-person point of view, the internal monologue takes us deep into the character’s head, giving the story the feel of a first-person perspective. In this scene, Teddy Magic cons his way into a prostitute’s apartment, the same prostitute for whom Vincent is falling.
It surprised him that a Puerto Rican girl would be so cautious. He usually got into apartments with the old survey routine. “Hi, I’m with International Surveys Incorporated”—show the phony card—“We’re conducting a study to learn what young ladies such as yourself think of current trends in…” the price of bullshit. You could tell them almost anything.
He palmed the C-note as she closed the door to release the chain and that was that. It was dim and quiet inside, the way he liked it. With just faint sounds out on the street. It smelled a little of incense, or perfume. She held her silky green robe closed, then relaxed, yawning, and let the robe slip open before pulling it together again, though not in any hurry. She was wearing little white panties under there, no bra. He sat down in a sticky plastic chair without waiting to be asked. Shit, he was in now. Reaching into the camera case he almost began to recite his International Surveys routine. (If I might ask what your husband does … He’s at work, is he?)
Taking out the handicraft parrot wrapped in tissue paper he said, “I don’t have a box or anything to mail it in, either.” Fool around for a minute, make sure they were alone. One time a big hairy son of a bitch had come walking out of the bedroom in his undershirt …
Ten pages earlier, Teddy shot a taxi driver between the eyes. Up to that point he’d been characterized as nothing more than a dorky tourist. The contrast was jarring. Now, ten pages later, we are privy to his thoughts as he cons his way into the girl’s apartment. He still seems dorky, but we know what he is capable of, and his reference to past schemes has us wondering if he is a serial rapist or even a serial killer. The contrast creates tension, and the tension builds as we consider what he might do to the girl.
Just like good dialogue, good internal monologue accomplishes multiple things at the same time. The passage above further characterizes Teddy by adding another layer to his personality (and psychopathology), while moving the story forward and further ramping up the tension.
Elmore Leonard’s novels each offer a clinic on how to write dialogue. Not only does he provide a useful model for the formatting of dialogue and the use of tag lines, he seamlessly integrates summary, indirect speech, dramatic dialogue and internal monologue. Through word choice, punctuation, and alterations in syntax, he is able to give each character’s dialogue (and internal monologue) a certain beat, rhythm and melody, and thus a unique voice. His dialogue shows instead of tells. It conveys conflict, attitudes, and intentions. And he accomplishes all this while remaining invisible to the reader. His dialogue is easily spoken and sounds good on the big screen, thus the reason so many of his books have been made into movies.
As I’ve said before, if you are a writer, read and study those authors who excel at a specific area of narrative craft. For dialogue, you can’t go wrong with Elmore Leonard. Go through your craft books, learn the basics, then pick up any Elmore Leonard novel and see how a master gets it done on the page. If you have a favorite author or how-to book that has helped you with your dialogue, please leave a comment.