Still Life with Dialogue

I do love to eavesdrop. It’s inspirational, not only for subject matter but for actual dialogue, the way people talk.” —Lynda Barry, cartoonist and author


Dialogue is important to your story. You can write an entertaining story without using dialogue, but usually you want your characters taking to one another. Dialogue can add life to your characters, furnish plot information, amplify tension, provide description, reveal emotions, or create a transitional bridge from one scene to another. Dialogue is also useful when you need comic relief. So, if you want to tell (write) an entertaining story, you need to master dialogue.

Although dialogue in fiction is not an attempt to accurately record speech, one way to become a skillful dialogue writer is by listening to people talking. Any chance you get, spy on unsuspecting people as if you are from another galaxy here on an assignment to gather information on how earthlings casually talk to other earthlings. Dogs, cats, and parrots are earthlings too; you can learn something by paying attention to the way people interact with their pets.

Listen to the people you know, listen to people you’d like to know, and listen to people you really do not want to know. Listen to people while shopping at a supermarket, entering or leaving a movie theater, riding a bus, or walking down a hallway heading for a classroom. If you see a traffic accident, squeeze into the crowd of gawkers and listen to their comments. Pay close attention to how the cops talk to one another and question people involved with the accident. Take note of the cop’s body language and facial expressions. And remember the tone of voice when she says, “You folks need to move along! There’s nothing to see here.”

I can’t remember not being interested in the way people talked. I grew up in an extended family, and my relatives spoke Creole French and Black Southern English. Our family didn’t have rules for having a conversation: more than two people could be talking at the same time, and they’d have no problem understanding one another. Many of our neighbors would switch from Spanish to English and back to Spanish during a conversation. By listening to them, I learned a lot of Spanish. Whenever I’d go to Grand Central Market in downtown L.A., I’d hear Filipino, Chinese, Italian, and other languages I couldn’t name then or now. Some of those languages sounded musical. Not understanding the lyrics didn’t stop me from feeling the rhythm.

I still like listening to people. Anytime I pass strangers on the sidewalk, I absorb snippets of their conversations, not knowing or caring about the context. While eavesdropping at the supermarket, I pretend to be reading the label on a package of frozen peas or comparing prices of dog food. I haven’t had a dog in a long time, but I overhear interesting chit-chat in the pet section of markets. When I used to ride the city bus a lot, I’d pretend to be reading a newspaper or a novel while tuning in on passengers’ gossip and small talk. Over the years, I’ve developed a skill for knowing what people say, how they say it, and what they look like while making words come out of their mouths. I also observe silences. Some people can say a lot by saying nothing when others in the room are running their mouths.

Sometimes while working on an early draft, or while editing someone else’s fiction, I’ll search through my archive of the small talk I’ve appropriated over the years. I’ll usually find something to help me figure out if a character sounds right, if a character is saying more than necessary, or if a character shouldn’t be saying anything at all. I’ve learned more about dialogue from listening to real people than I’ve learned from reading fiction. But reading good fiction gives you an idea of how to integrate dialogue with other elements of narration. Reading novels and short stories can help you learn how to punctuate dialogue.

My suggestions about dialogue writing are not restricted to any particular genre. But because I love well written crime stories, I’ll use examples from crime, mystery, or detective stories. In some future post I might use examples from science fiction, horror, or general fiction (whatever that is to people who are not publishers).

If there’s a don’t when it comes to writing dialogue, it is don’t try to learn dialogue by watching movies or TV shows. In the TV crime fiction genre, The Wire and True Detective are the two best for authentic dialogue, with Breaking Bad close behind. Some TV crime show scriptwriters try for authentic dialogue. Even with the best film scripts, you can’t always rely on the authenticity of the jargon or the slang. Nobody notices when you get dialogue right, but some people will notice when you get it wrong.

In Ten Rules of Writing, the late Elmore Leonard said, “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” When it comes to dialogue, Leonard was a master. That’s one reason his novels are easily adapted to movies and TV. The scriptwriters for the TV series Justified emulate Leonard’s style, with his approval. Elmore Leonard started writing fiction in the 1950s; I doubt that he made regular trips to the big house to see how much the jargon has changed over the years. And once in a while a character in Justified will use prison slang no American prisoner, ex-convict, or prison guard has said in the last 50 years, other than in TV shows. Maybe the scriptwriters decided to go with the formulaic criminal slang most TV watchers are used to hearing.

Putting the True Detective plagiarism controversy aside, I’m sure that Nic Pizzolatto did field research on Louisiana’s criminal culture. For example, in one scene a prisoner being questioned by the detectives says, “Yeah, I shared a house with [another character]….” Sharing a house is what prisoners call living in a cell with another prisoner. The formulaic TV term is cellmate, as in “Big Joe was my cellmate in San Quentin.” A prisoner or ex-con might say cell partner or cellie, but not likely cellmate. For one thing, most male criminals are a lot more homophobic than the average American homophobe, and cellmate sounds too intimate. I know, I’m being judgmental, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. I’ve known way too many ex-convicts from California, Texas, and Louisiana not to have an informed opinion. Of course, if you’re a crime writer, you might do research and find that in some states prisoners do use the term cellmate.

Guess it’s time to move away from TV crime stories. As fiction writers, we have the privilege of altering history or ignoring physics, but we are still bound to a few rules if we want others to appreciate our stories. If you write horror, sci-fi, or fantasy, you might invent a language, and you’ll need to translate the narrative and dialogue into something your readers understand. If your story takes place in an apocalyptic world, your character need to sound like they’re living among chaos and destruction, not in 21st Century Beverly Hills. Learn how to write dialogue and you’ll have your characters saying whatever they’re supposed to be saying.

Maybe you think I’m nitpicking, but authenticity matters. You might be familiar with a few cultures and subcultures. But it’s difficult to be current with all the ever-changing variety of American slang, jargon, and dialects. You want your dialogue as authentic as practicable. You want it to give readers information about the setting and the characters in your story. You want the dialogue to move the story forward. More important, you really don’t want your readers pausing for a few seconds to decide if they should forgive you. So, be careful about what you research online. Listen to real people.

If you never become the Supreme Master of Dialogue, don’t worry about it. I’ve read entertaining and thought-provoking novels that didn’t have the best dialogue. Learn enough about dialogue to make your particular story as good as it can be. And when you pay attention to your dialogue, you’ll pay attention to the other details that will liven up your story. The more you know about dialogue, and the other components of fiction, the easier it will be to tell when you need an editor to help you fix problems.


Keep your characters’ vocabulary and manner of talking true to who they’d be as real people—not as reproductions of formulaic TV characters speaking canned dialogue. Besides listening to people, do research when you don’t know a lot about a culture or a subculture. That goes for religious cults, social movements, ethnic groups, or whatever segment of society your characters inhabit. Knowing that you have a fixable problem will make it easier for you to accept your editor’s suggestions.

I’m already over my post budget of 600 wds. As Mark Twain said about brevity, “I didn’t have time to write a short [post], so I wrote a long one instead.” In a future post, I’ll write about dialogue tags and action tags.

Good listening, good writing, and good living to you.


, ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge