by Gar Anthony Haywood

“I can’t believe I did that!” Harry shrieked horrifically.

“I can’t believe it either!” Jane emphatically agreed.

“It was so stupid.  What was I thinking!”

“I don’t know.  Two thousand exclamation points, and seven hundred adverbs!” Jane cried.  “What are we supposed to do with two thousand exclamation points and seven hundred adverbs!”

“Don’t forget the twelve hundred replacements for ‘said’ and ‘asked’ the guy threw in for free.  I’m telling you, this was the telemarketer from hell!”

“I know what to do!” Jane exclaimed after a moment of thought.  “We could write a mystery, and use exclamation points in place of periods wherever the slightest bit of excitement needs to be conveyed!  Sometimes, we could even use them in place of question marks!”


“You heard me.  And instead of all those boring ‘saids’ when people speak—“

“We could use the replacements and adverbs I bought instead!” Harry chuckled gleefully.  “And what a great read our mystery will be.  All that emotion and drama!”

“Which we couldn’t possibly convey any other way…”

Okay, had enough?  I have.  In case you haven’t already guessed, the subject of my post this week is dialogue, and I’ve led off with an example of the worst kind imaginable.

In this author’s opinion, great dialogue, which both sings and moves your story forward simultaneously, has the following characteristics:

  • It sounds like real people talking.  Over-stylized dialogue may win Tony awards on Broadway, but all it does in fiction is take the reader out of your story.  Go easy on the clever repartee and only use as much ethnic or professional jargon as realism demands.  Otherwise, every time a character opens his or her mouth, your novel will read like a playwriting exercise in Theater 101.
  • It flows like fine wine.  Great dialogue hums with a natural rhythm, similar to a perfectly tuned car engine at idle.  To achieve this effect, it’s often necessary to rewrite an exchange of dialogue over and over again, until every note sounds just right.
  • It suits the situation.  I just read a thriller that was humming along just fine until a firefight broke out.  The two characters ducking for cover were facing almost certain death — and one was talking nonsense while the other was cracking wise.  Neither was saying anything befitting someone afraid for his life.  Clearly, the author failed to ask (and adequately answer) a critical question before he opened his characters’ mouths: “What would real people say to each other under these circumstances?”
  • It’s light on attribution and adverbs.  A simple “said” is fine here and there, if only to keep the reader straight on who’s speaking, but that’s it.  Anything else draws attention to yourself and what you’re attempting to accomplish.
  • It’s consistent with the people involved.  A character who drops her Gs and says “ain’t” instead of “isn’t” on page eleven shouldn’t abruptly start speaking like a Rhodes scholar on page 44.  Keep track of the speech patterns you assign every character and make sure they maintain them throughout your novel.
  • It’s lean and fast.  A long paragraph of unbroken speech coming from a single character isn’t dialogue—it’s a monologue.  And just as interminable, droning speeches cause your attention to wander in real life, so do they have the same deadly effect on someone reading a novel.  Ever hear of the KISS rule?  That’s “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”  Well, here’s a new rule for you, strictly pertaining to dialogue: KISSS (Keep It Short and Sweet, Stupid.)
  • It’s almost totally devoid of expository information.  Believe me, I know how hard it can be to deliver 10,000 words of crucial data in only 400 pages so that your plot will make perfect sense to the reader in the end—but that’s not your characters’ problem, it’s yours.  Charge the men and women in your book with the task of conveying the hows and whys of it through verbal exchanges and a reader will suddenly see them for exactly what they are: Not real people, but imaginary conduits for a writer struggling to lay the groundwork of his story.
  • Not everybody sounds alike.  Patterns of speech are one of the most powerful devices with which to differentiate the people in your novel.  If you’ve given them adequate color in this area, you should be able to eliminate all attribution in a stretch of dialogue and still know who is saying what to whom.
  • Not everybody sounds like you.  This is similar to the problem above, except that it’s worse.  Don’t ever kid yourself or anyone else who might ask: At least one character in every book you’ll ever write is going to be you, in one thinly veiled disguise or another.  I mean, we don’t invent the worlds we write about just so other people can walk around in them, do we?  So naturally, a character here or there is going to sound a lot like you when he speaks, and that’s okay.  What’s not okay is affixing this particular trait to your entire cast, especially if your pattern of speech happens to be jarringly distinctive.
  • Not everybody is a comedian.  There’s room for at least one smart-aleck in every story, especially if he or she is funny.  But invite more than one clown to a party and watch your guests start hitting the exits.  As noted in the previous two bullet-points, each of your characters should have their own set of personality traits, and among those traits should be a unique sense of humor (or total lack thereof).  Two people constantly trading wisecracks is a bore, but two people trading the same kind of wisecrack is both a bore and a crock.  Be careful here.
  • Exclamations are practically non-existent.  Anything less than total outrage or sheer terror is insufficient grounds for an exclamation point.  Try to use them only when your character is responding to something along the lines of having just accidentally sliced his thumb off with a steak knife.

Question for the Class: What authors do you most admire for their dialogue, in particular?

8 thoughts on “WORDS MATTER

  1. Jim Winter

    I generally make no apologies on using exclamation points, but even with my somewhat generous take on their usage, I try to avoid more than one per chapter, and only if one of the characters is prone to boisterous behavior.

    I never was a fan of dialog tagging. It was one of the reasons I did the Harry Potter books on audio. There are only so many times you can read Hermoine saying something brightly before you have to stop. Goes down a little smoother if Jim Dale or Stephen Fry is reading it aloud.

  2. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Damn good advice, Gar. And I concur with Wallace above, and throw in the addition of Jim Thompson. Dialogue is a huge factor for me as a writer and reader. I believe that studying music early in my life gave me an "ear" for dialogue, for both hearing what is there in the real world and seeing what it could and should be, in a musical sense. If you can lick dialogue you're more than half-way there.

  3. Dana King

    My two favorite Elmore Leonard rules for writing are:

    Only use "said" for speech attribution.

    "Never use an adverb in a speech atrribution," he admonished gravely.

    I used to take an entire draft for the sole purpose of looking only at each character's speech and movements, one at a time. (One pass just for Character A, the next for character B, etc.) I haven't done that lately, mainly, I think, because as I've gotten better at characterization, they speak to me in my head as they should.

    George V. Higgins, Elmore Leonard and John McFetridge pop to mind right away when I think of dialog.

  4. Richard Maguire

    Great post, Gar. Pages of adverbs pull me out of a story to the point where I stop reading. I can see the author is trying to impress, when in fact he/she has no sense of rhythm.

    What others have said about Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson. And George V. Higgins before his books became unreadable.

    But what about David? He writes great dialogue. And so does Stephen.

  5. Phillip Thomas Duck

    Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, George Pelecanos, Walter Mosley. Funny how some of my favorites in terms of dialogue happen to be favorites, period.

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