Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

So What Makes Good Dialogue Good Anyway?

Yowsa. 532 entries so far! Please continue to enter until 5:00 PM today in the preposterously magnificent original thread. Also, if you are having trouble locating your entry, please keep in mind that Blogger has instituted a new system for long threads. At the top and bottom of the comments threads you'll see links that say "newer" and "newest." You'll need to click through those to see the comments that have been entered most recently.

Please please take care not to enter more than once. When I'm reading I don't realize it's a repeat until I'm part-way through, and then, that just makes the reading time that much more lengthy.


So what makes good dialogue good anyway?

I'm beginning to have some concrete ideas about that question, but first, my client Jennifer Hubbard (author of the forthcoming BLACK MOUNTAIN ROAD) has a really awesome post about dialogue that I highly recommend.

One of Jennifer's key insights (I'm paraphrasing) is that dialogue does and doesn't sound like actual conversation. I think that's spot on. If you were to transcribe an actual conversation between two people it would be full of stops and starts, missing words where people simply know what the other person means... conversation is messy. Good dialogue on the page, on the other hand, is something a bit different.

So the "Wait, what's?" and the clarifications and the back and forth rhythm of actual conversation should be, in my opinion, used very very cautiously.

Jennifer also points out that dialogue can sound forced when it carries too much exposition. Also good advice!

The other thing I'm noticing about dialogue is that it is most effective when it is very clear it is the voice of a very particular character or characters saying the words, rather than words that could be said by anyone. Everyone has their own way of speaking in real life, but with dialogue on the page it seems even more important to counter expectations, to avoid cliches, and to make it sound original.

But hey -- don't take my word for it. What do you think makes good dialogue good?


Adaora A. said...

I completely agree with her (and I guess that means you too!)

I think whatever works for the story is what should be there. It slightly peeves me off when folks will say 'this or that' doesn't belong in YA because it's too edgy or not edgy enough. I sometimes find myself noticing how concrete rules are.

P.S I deleted my first post in the contest entry because it (thanks to the orginal decription), exceeded 250 words. Then I reposted later. This doesn't count as two entries does it?

Geez that was so hard to type with my messed up space bar.

Tanja said...

I think, dialougue is subjective novel to novel. Sometimes the naration (be it first, third person etc.) has more power to navigate the reader. In general(in my humble opinion), I like to read and write dialogue as natural as possible.

sarah said...

Hi Nathan! I've been lurking here for a while, and your little exercise here has outed me.

I like what Jenn has to say. Another aspect of good dialogue that I enjoy is indirectness--two people are talking to each other, but they're having two different conversations.

When writing this kind of thing I try to focus on each character's goal, and put them at cross-purposes. This usually adds some conflict to the exchange, regardless of what the characters are actually saying.

That's my $0.02

Oh, and I have a formatting question. How should one format a fictional epigram?

Thanks again for the blog and the contest. I've already wasted hours here today ;-)

Caryn said...

There are so many things that make for good dialogue. One thing, though, is that it should be easy to read aloud without stumbling or sounding too awkward -- unless that's the intention, of course.

Heidi said...

I think one of the main roles of dialog is to reveal the character. By the words they choose and the length of sentences reveal cultural background, moral character, attitudes, education, etc.

It also gives information, but it shouldn't feel like it's giving information. There are some legal thriller books that rely on the courtroom scenes just a tad too much, so that I am so aware during the cross-examination that the entire point is to explain to the reader.

It should feel natural. If it isn't what someone would say in real life, than it belongs in the narrative.

My writing prof used to slash my dialog mercilessly. I am so thankful now, because I think terse works best most of the time. It keeps things moving. If I have a long conversation I try to break it up by the narration. I know I talk up a storm in real life, but frankly I'm not sure people are that interested hearing my long dissertations, let alone have the attention span to read a character rambling on like that.

Yanno - unless the rambling reveals his character! :)

Caryn said...

Oh, yes. And if grammar check has no problem with your dialogue, you might want to re-think it. People speak in fragments. They trail off. They begin sentences with conjunctions. They use contractions.

David said...

Anthony Trollope has a fair amount to say about writing dialog(ue) in his autobiography. In particular, he talks about not writing it the way people actually talk, in stops and starts and with corrections and backfilling, but also avoiding having characters deliver overly polished speeches.

His autobiography should be read by every reader. Of course, that also applies to everything else Trollope wrote.

Jessica said...

For me, good dialogue is made better by what surrounds it. So, those entries that read like screenplays (and they may well be screenplays, for all I know) aren't doing it for me. I don't think it's a lack of context necessarily, as I have been loving some of the wacky, random scenes that are most assuredly context-free. A conversation is more than words. It's a combination of words and actions, reactions, gestures, expressions. Those entries that have been my favorites so far have been those with great dialogue and great narrative supporting the dialogue, bringing the whole conversation to life. After all, the rose window in Notre Dame wouldn't be nearly as beautiful if it wasn't held up by the walls of the cathedral.

Betty Atkins Dominguez said...

For me, great dialog reveals the character, but it also should be moving things along. I dislike dialog that is paragraphs long... but even there, sometimes long dialog can be needed... WOW, this is a wishy-washy post. But sometimes that's how I talk as well. ;-)

Tracey S. Rosenberg said...

Sparing use of dialogue tags, she said hopefully. It's just really annoying, she noted, when every line is described, she pointed out angrily, tossing her hair.

I'm always fascinated by competition selection processes, so I'll ask: are you choosing finalists as you go and then paring down that list, or what?

And many many thanks for running this. I look forward to seeing how the finalists succeeded in tackling this ever-tricky dialogue thing.

Mike Harris-Stone said...

Good Dialogue should...

1) aid characterization by revealing how the characters feel about each other and about what's going on. It can reveal the type of person through their diction, etc.

2) Advance the plot. Even in the film, "My Dinner with Andre" the dialogue advances the ideas the film is about.

3) Only be used when needed. Like all the other elements of fiction, it needs to be subservient to the whole effect of the work.

All I can think of right now! :-)

Anonymous said...


In reading through the entries I found I skipped over many of the ones that had too much surrounding (non-dialogue) observations. Of course, this could be because of the sheer volume of entries.

But to answer Nathan's post -- Most important for dialogue for me would be the rythm.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nathan Bransford said...

Please enter in the original thread. I deleted to avoid confusion.

Kate said...

Good dialogue makes me forget that I'm reading it. But, then, that's true of good writing in general, I think--that as a reader one becomes immersed and loses self-awareness--so I'm not sure I've really answered this question.


Kevin said...

Good dialogue, to me, is dialogue I'm so dropped down into I forget that I'm reading. You know it's good when you think for a minute that you're actually listening. I like thick dialogue like that of Salinger, or Chabon in Wonder Boys. Good dialogue compliments the rest of the story and the people in it. It unlocks to the reader who the characters really are. Anyone can describe a character... but dialogue is something that comes from within that character. That's what tells us the most about the character. When it's done well, that's what dialogue gives us... character insight.

Sheila said...

I think you may be straining your system. I tried to post twice in the original thread, but it didn't take (I didn't get that little confirmation note that usually pops up on the top bar). And I checked "newest."

I'm posting here to see if it works.

Oh, and I think good dialog can be better than description at showing us a character's personality. It feels real, even though it is pared down significantly.

Sheila said...

Never mind my last post. I figured it out. Sorry. And good luck!

brittanimae said...

I'm just going to go completely off the wall here and say: good dialogue--really really good dialogue--should make me laugh.

Scott said...

Dialogue is action. Like any action there should be conflict.

Sol Stein wrote that each character should have his or her own script. Every character wants something and, as in real life, has only a limited knowledge of the other character's goals, which don't really matter because each character, like most people, puts his own needs and wants first.

Understanding this helped me think more about subtext. When a character talks, there should be more to it than what is said. Each character is trying to achieve his goal, which makes dialogue a great kind of action because you can see each character trying to maneuver toward what he wants.

Characters trying to achieve their own individual goals naturally creates conflict, even if the characters are on the same "side." Conflict is action and action is plot, so the dialogue should move the plot like a fight scene or any other kind of action would.

Bad dialogue conveys information without action. It is often stilted. It can be boring. It doesn't move. It's not action.

One thing that drives me nuts in bad dialogue is the sense that there's no movement. The characters become nothing more than talking heads, locked in place, doing nothing but talking. There's no sense of place, movement, gesture. It's like statues talking about the weather. How long would you want to watch something like that?

Sometimes a writer realizes there's no movement, so suddenly a character will move for no reason, like a young drama student badly following the director's blocking instructions. Move to mark. Say line. Move to mark. Doing two things at once is apparently hard. The result is stiff.

If each character has a goal, everything characters do should move them toward that goal or reveal character while moving the characters toward the goal. Every word, movement, gesture, and silence should be related to achieving the goal.

This is getting long.

Basically, everything in a dialogue scene should show each character in the scene trying to achieve his own goal. Static characters destroy dialogue.

Kimberly Lynn said...

I’m the biggest fuss bucket when it comes to dialogue.

It drives me absolutely insane when I get confused as to which character is speaking and when. I also think dialogue is more interesting when a writer tags their lines with actions and reactions versus traditional “he said and she said.” SHOW me something . . .

One other note, writing a character’s thoughts and being a tad spare on dialogue is probably far more insightful to the reader. (In other word, some dialogue is overdone.)

Hhmmm . . . I do tend to spell things out more for younger readers however.

Eegads! What the heck do I know?

Polenth said...

I like dialogue where the characters are distinct (though it might be that means they talk in similar ways, if they're close family members or the like). I tend to skip overly long chunks of text or infodumping about the world. If one character is explaining something to another, it had better be relevant and something the other character doesn't know (not an "as you know Bob, we're both wizards").

For actual stories, I'm easy about the amount of padding. If it works it works. Some stories have lots of padding and some have none. In the case of this contest, too much padding counts against my vote. I'm expecting the dialogue to set the scene in these extracts, not the padding.

Kathleen said...

One thing that none of you have mentioned is the placement of the tags. Where they are placed (and how often they are used) can make a major difference in how well the dialog reads.

Natural conversation has places where it pauses and places where it's a rapid-fire back-and-forth. Tags should always be put where those pauses naturally occur, and should NEVER be put where the characters are doing the rapid-fire thing. This means that you might use more tags than are absolutely needed during a slower conversation... but you can use those tags to offer hints about what is going on in the minds of each person (which is probably why the conversation is slow). On the other hand, when people aren't thinking... just reacting quickly... you have to make sure that the reader can follow along with who said what with very few tags.

So to me, you've got to kind-of be an actor... put yourself inside the mind of every person in the conversation, and know what they're thinking, as well as when they're thinking and when they're reacting. Only then can you properly use tags (and the lack thereof) to pace the conversation in a natural way.

Vieva said...

I think dialogue should draw you in. If it doesn't have you leaning forward in your chair, waiting to see what happens next, the conversation needs work.

Then again, I really prefer books that keep moving the whole time, so I don't catch my breath until the end.

But there has to be conflict. Either in the conversation, or a conversation about the conflict.

Other Lisa said...

Good dialog:

Gives the illusion of realism without necessarily being realistic.

Speaks in clear voices.

Bernita said...

I wonder if tags are particularly useful when a new character is introduced. To acclimatize readers until they become familiar with that character and his/her patterns.

Lupina said...

For me, good dialogue portrays a necessary interaction between characters that also moves the story forward or reveals important information. One of my personal biggest book-killers is dialogue that exists only to make characters (i.e. the author) look clever. It's like getting stuck in the lunchroom with the office boor. Good dialogue sings and is never boring.

Anonymous said...

what isn't being said

Kristin Laughtin said...

I believe most heavily in balance, and it's especially true when it comes to writing. Make it too stiff, too realistic with the "umms" and "likes", use too many tags, use so few tags that it's impossible to tell who's speaking-- all these are bad, but put them together in the right mixture and the dialogue improves. It's about finding the right flow of words. I also agree that good dialogue is that in which each character has their own voice, or something unique or identifiable about their speech, and each line helps the story, either by revealing a facet of the character's personality or motivations ("Every character should want something, even if it's just a glass of water"), or by moving the plot forward.

And I absolutely second Kathleen regarding the proper placement of tags. If the dialogue is supposed to be moving quickly, it's best to avoid tags unless they're absolutely needed to establish who is speaking (in back-and-forth rapidfire dialogues between two people, it should be fairly easy to keep track of the speakers, but if you have three or more people talking, or someone cutting in, it can get more complicated). If the dialogue is slower, with more pauses, tags can be used to great effect in establishing that rhythm. A "he said" at the end of the sentence may seem useless or annoying, but putting it in the middle of a line of dialogue, where the speaker would pause, really helps get the sound of the line into the reader's head.

I love dialogue. It's sometimes tricky to make characters sound believable and anything but stupid, but it's my favorite thing to write.

V L Smith said...

Good dialogue is tight, revealing and emotional.

The character's words flow naturally. If I'm writing the dialogue, I'll say it out loud to make sure it sounds right. I'll ask myself if it rings true for that character and the situation.

The dialogue reveals information - about the character, the plot, the setting, something. If not, I get rid of it.

Good dialogue also accelerates the emotional investment the reader has in a scene. Action is described, but when the villain and hero connect, the two lovers, the father and the long lost son, the dialogue has to rise to the occasion.

Katie Alender said...

Good dialogue avoids being "on the nose." People in real life rarely speak their point exactly as they mean it.

Subtext, subtext, subtext!

Also, watch out for wacky attributions... she groaned, he sighed, she whispered, he chuckled.

Of course if someone needs to whisper, let them go ahead, but most things are "said" or "asked".

Kirsten said...

I think good dialogue should put the reader right in the action. I agree entirely that each character should have his/her own way of speaking, (and thinking, and acting). Good dialogue needn't encompass amazing subject matter (it can, of course), but I think it just needs to feel authentic; to be what those characters would say to each other in that situation, period. Obviously dialogue needs to fit into the flow of the story, but nothing is worse than when the characters all speak like the narrator/author. (But now I'm talking about bad dialogue.)

Anonymous said...

Ideally, good dialogue should advance the story while at the same time illuminating character (not just of the one speaking, either--dialogue is a great way to reveal things about other characters who are being spoken about).

Also, and I'm coming from a thriller viewpoint, all dialogue should have tension, "micro tension" I've heard it said as. Even if it's something simple, like:

"I got you a Coke for the trip, you'll want something, it's gonna be a long ride," he said.
"I don't like Coke, I want Pepsi," she said.
"This is all they had, and we have to go."

Instead of just having her accept the coke because it's a long ride.

Word, to the nate-dogg!

JES said...

Anonymous @3:12 - Oooooh, that's good!

One feature of dialogue that drives me crazy (sorry about the slight shift in topic): overdone dialECT. I spent the first 40 years of my life in NJ, the most recent 15 in N. Florida [listens to sound of mental calculators grinding away], and The Missus is a native Southerner. It has always made her nuts -- and now it does so for me, too -- when writers hammer at a Southern accent in a way that makes you wonder if they've ever really heard one.

She has quoted Lee Smith (I think) to me on this subject: she said that when writing in dialECT, you start out by including obvious touches to place the character in the reader's mind. But you gradually crank it down, until the exaggerated vowels etc. only pop in here and there -- sort of as a reminder.

That sounds right to me.

Oh, and I do love Elmore Leonard's dialogue.

Lisa Marie Wilkinson said...

It's good when you read it and hear it in your head as conversation.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

One more hour. Can we make 600??

Kimberly Lynn said...

I hope for Nathan's sake that there are not writers posting several entries under different anonymous names. That would be SO cruel!

Lane said...

There are a lot of good posts here.

For me, I think dialogue should be a conversation we might strain to overhear from the next table over if we are sitting in a crowded restaurant.

It must be lively, revealing, honest (even when lying), and titilating.

Good dialogue takes a two-dimensional image and gives it depth.

Just MHO.

superwench83 said...

I think good dialogue is tight and clean, just like anything to do with writing. (And I probably broke my own rule in my entry, because what I entered was only first draft.)

Also, while I definitely agree that good dialogue doesn't imitate real conversation, to learn to write good dialogue, it's good for an author to listen closely to real conversation. Not to the words, but to the nuances, to the tone. Because these are the things that make good dialogue. These are the things that help you capture conversation's essence.

Will Entrekin said...

In one of the workshops I took at USC, our professor (who shall remain nameless, even though you'd soil yourself if you knew the name) listed something like 27 characteristics of good dialogue. Stuff like, "It's like Wimbledon" and such.

However, not once did said professor mention exchange of information.

Dialogue begins because a character wants (or needs) to know something. It is active on one side or the other (either the character wants to know something, or another wants to reveal something).

All characterization (and all story, really) begins in motivation: what does the character in question want? This is not just in the sense of action but also of information.

Good dialogue, then, I think, is revelation. Of character, of plot, of motivation, of story, and of scene. Just like story has to fire on multiple cylinders (character, plot, action, etc.), so too does dialogue.

Linda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linda said...

Er, uh, great dialogue here.

Seriously, I've learned a lot from reading folks' insights.

Myself, I prefer natural sounding dialogue interwoven with meaningful beats or actions. It's super when those actions 'go with' the dialogue, so together they uniquely build the character.

By natural, I don't mean the 'ums' and 'ers'; rather, I mean the words and style chosen don't feel forced relative to the character speaking them. Also, the tone and words of the dialogue need to stay consistent to the character and his/her story throughout the story.

What turns me off is dialogue crammed with bon mots and wit. Overly clever convo often smacks of the author's 'voice' rather than the character's. Ditto if I am constantly pulling out Merriam's to fathom the meaning.

Bravo to the writer who pens a conversation without any tags and without confusing me as to who is speaking... that talent goes a long way with me as a reader. Peace, Linda

Dave F. said...

Jennifer is right about dialog (a) sounding real and (b) giving the character a unique voice.

Dialog should also reveal something about the speaker -- Poirot speaks to reveal the killer --.
It should move the reader forward in the story.
It should pull the reader into the conversation.

That's a lot to do with a few words.

Anonymous said...

I have to thank Nathan and everyone out there.
I have been working on my novel everyday and THIS dialogue about dialogue has been helping me tremendously to be a better writer.
Thank you!

jerzegurl said...

I like natural dialouge... I hate reading dialouge with words I cannot pronounce, accents, or slang, that it's hard to understand.

If I have to reread a piece of dialouge I lose interest in it.

I also think dialouge should move the story forward and not just be dialouge for the sake of dialouge....

Bethanne said...

People make the dialogue good. Without people, there'd be no dialogue.

SPMiller said...

Maker's Mark.

I do not envy you at all, Nathan. There are some really good snippets in there and I'd hate to be the one stuck picking the best.

I don't have much to add other than to parrot what others have said: if the dialog doesn't advance plot or reveal character, then it should probably be eliminated--no matter how good the exchange may be in isolation.

Murder your darlings.

Simon Haynes said...

One of the things I do each time I run through yet another draft is this: for every four lines of dialogue (to a fro between the same characters), attempt to condense them into two: one to, and one fro.

Then, on subsequent passes, keep condensing four into two.

Long, rambling passages of dialogue with back-and-forth, back-and-forth can be tightened up with this technique. You'll also distill the characters' speech into the essential bits.

Whirlochre said...

If you could peel the words from the page, good dialogue would have a person under it. With bad dialogue, it's only paper.

nymeria87 said...

Good dialog makes me get to know the character by their choice of words, sentence structure, even accent.

When I'm writing dialog, I usually focus very much on the individual character, trying to describe their emotions as they talk in an indirect way. Good dialog gives away a lot about the character and their relationship to others.

And of course it has to sound like something they actually would say, but that again goes hand in hand with the fact that good dialog simply has to be 'in character'

I'm absolutely agreeing with caryn btw: If Word doesn't give you all kinds of red and green lines in your dialog section, then there's something wrong with it ;)

Also seconding Jenn's statement that dialog shouldn't be overloaded with exposition, it gives it a lecturing touch and that makes me cringe.

Thanks again, Nathan for hosting this contest :)

nymeria87 said...

Thank you, Nathan for hosting this contest :)

Good dialog needs to be 'in character'. It describes how the character interacts with other people and their relationship to others implicitly.

And of course it needs to sound like genuine dialog, even though I agree that 'real conversations' are another matter and can often be misleading or confusing when written on paper. Still, written dialog has to have its edges, maybe sometimes even ambiguity, if it furthers the plot or character development.

I absolutely agree with caryn btw.: If word doesn't give you all kinds of red and green lines in your dialog section, you should look over it again.

Also seconding Jenn's opinion about too much exposition in dialog. It gives the conversation a lecturing touch and that frankly makes me cringe.

Beth said...

Good dialogue doesn't always give direct answers to direct questions, but slides away and does a flanking maneuver instead. This creates tension.

Good dialogue is loaded with subtext.

Good dialogue is like artful swordplay, with feints and jabs and pinks and sometime a fatal thrust that no one saw coming, least of all the reader.

Beth said...

At the top and bottom of the comments threads you'll see links that say "newer" and "newest."

Ummm, I don't see these. Anywhere. Anyone else not see them? Is it just me?

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