It’s unfair to highlight one aspect of writing, whether non-fiction or fiction (in any of its many flavors) when there are so many such factors to choose from. But one thing is certain, bad dialog can derail an otherwise good story. A great plot won’t save it, nor will superbly drawn characters. At least, not these days. Examples of crappy dialog by well-known authors abound, but most of them achieved their fame a long time ago. Today’s market isn’t as forgiving, especially for those whose books don’t occupy an all but hereditary spot on the bestseller lists.
So, what makes dialog good, and why is it a powerful tool? If done right, dialog can go a long way in helping a writer in the “show, don’t tell” game. What characters think, do and say shapes them in a reader’s mind. How they say things is just as important.
“Good” dialog is nothing like real-world dialog. For one thing, it tends to be smarter and sassier with few, if any, uhms and uhs. It rarely incorporates a listener’s name in a verbal statement, and it takes full advantage of action tags which will also help to portray a character’s outlook, proclivities, and mood. (Full disclosure: I had a proclivity once, but I had it removed.)
Rather than continue to preach, I’ll simply provide a modest exchange between two people who meet in a bar. The original version of this arrived in my email one day and consisted of about ten short paragraphs leading to a punch line. I’ve revised it to include all the issues mentioned above.
Jake nodded, yes.
“How many beers a day?” she asked.
“Usually about three,” he said. “Sometimes more, sometimes less. It depends.”
“On how I feel. Sometimes I’m really thirsty, sometimes I’m not.”
“That’s reasonable,” she said. “And how much do you pay, per beer?”
“Here? In this bar?”
“Five bucks, but that includes a tip. I appreciate good service.” He winked at their waitress.
“That’s commendable,” Wanda said. “And how long would you say you’ve been doing all this beer drinking?”
Jake tilted his head, stretched, and let out a sigh. “About 20 years, I guess.”
Wanda whipped out a pen and did a quick calculation on a napkin. “If a beer costs $5 and you have three a day, that puts your spending each month at $450.” She scribbled through another short equation and smiled at the answer. “In one year you spend about $5400 on beer. Does that sound right?”
“I suppose,” Jake said. “I don’t see anything wrong with your math.”
Wanda worked through one last problem then sat back, feeling satisfied. “If you spend $5400 a year on beer — not accounting for inflation — you’ve spent something like $108,000 over the past two decades.”
Jake shrugged. “If you say so.”
“Do you realize that if you didn’t drink so much beer, you could have put that money in an interest-bearing savings account. And, taking into consideration compound interest for the past twenty years, you could have gone out today and bought an airplane?”
Jake thought about that for a moment and then drained his glass. “Do you drink beer?”
“Why, no. I don’t,” Wanda said.
Jake smiled. “So, where’s your airplane?”
Notice there’s a mix of long and short paragraphs, as well as long and short sentences. The first half is strictly dialog, then the action tags kick in. This helps to keep dialog from sounding sing-song and stilted. Characters react, both orally and visually, which keeps the scene moving.
Just for practice, the next time someone sends you a joke or some other cute bit of dialog, see if you can improve it to publication standards.
PS: I’m taking a little time off for the holidays, but I’ll be back in January. See you then!