|Elmore Leonard, one of the true craftsmen of dialogue|
Monday, October 8, 2018
Breaking the Rules With Dialogue
In a previous post about giving characters their own voice, I mentioned one of my shameful speech habits and how it made my voice stand out – for better or worse. That’s a helpful tip when it comes to writing dialogue, but it’s just an appetizer. Notes on dialogue make up a full seven-course meal with two desserts.
The late Elmore Leonard offered this simple line among his famous rules: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” A more honest line has never been spoken when it comes to dialogue. A beautifully written, grammatically perfect, razor-sharp piece of dialogue will usually stand out from the rest of the page – and not in a good way. Crisp, clear writing is usually the opposite of dialogue.
Some writers go to a park or a Starbucks, grab a seat, and just people-watch for hours to gather insights into writing more descriptive, realistic characters. The same thing works for dialogue – just with the ears. Listen in on conversations in the elevator, on the train, in a park or at Starbucks, and key in on all the little nuances of the spoken word. Listen to the bad phrases people use (“irregardless,” “taken for granite,” and “I could care less” are just some examples) and how they interject filler words everywhere. Listen to all the “well,” “like,” and, “sorta” that people use. People stutter, stammer, stall on phrases, and make all these tonal changes. Speech is not perfect, though including all these missteps is not a good idea.
(I used to record conversations on my phone so I could listen to them later and target little nuances of dialogue. I later deleted them – it started feeling a little too stalker-ish – but the lessons stayed.)
Before you throw everything possible into the dialogue of your next character, keep in mind the importance of moderation. In real life, when someone speaks with their bad grammar and verbal miscues, we compensate for it by reading their body language, following their change in tone, and occasionally asking questions. No such luck with written dialogue. Your writing is the only tool, so it has to incorporate spoken-word miscues but still be readable at first pass. Otherwise, a very elaborate speech still loses the reader’s interest.
One of the more educational endeavors I ever made into dialogue came as a contributing editor to Newton Berry’s Bughouse Square. The main character was Lester Lusker, a young man in the 1950s, moving to Chicago from his home state of Mississippi. Lester had a southern drawl, some significant issues with the rules of grammar, and he talked way too much for his own good. Oh – the book was also in the first person, so his narration had the same defects. Yes – I had the privilege of editing this.
Aside from learning the Mississippi twang and all the different euphemisms that came along with it, I learned how to moderate the dialogue. Certain words were tag phrases for Lester, so they stayed at all costs. Some phrases needed context to make sense, others made for good filler, and too many of them created lines that made no sense to the mainstream reader. And they all made Lester Lusker a clearly defined character, with a way of speaking that still rattles through my brain.
On a final note, don’t be afraid to read your dialogue aloud. Not in your head, but aloud, preferably in your character’s voice. Record it if you want, but listen for the little cues and notes you throw into it, the parts you add in when you read it like a script. Sometimes you will say words that aren’t on the page just because they naturally flow when you are going through the process. Trust your voice at that point, and include those parts. Include everything that you hear when that voice feels natural. It should sound like dialogue at that point.
And if it sounds like writing, rewrite it.