Take Your Dialogue Beyond “He Said, She Said”

June 2, 2012 § 3 Comments

Still from The Beast of the City (1932)One of the hardest lessons for me was learning to write better dialogue. I would get stuck in storytelling mode and focus on relaying “just the facts” needed to move the story along. In doing so, I’d completely forget how people actually talk. The resulting dialogue ended up being dry, boring, and/or stilted, and it stopped the story cold.

In this post, we’re going to take a chunk of dialogue that’s pretty bad and polish it until it shines.

Leonard’s Third Rule of Writing

Writing realistic dialogue takes some work, but I’ve picked up a few tips along the way that have really helped me punch up my characters’ conversations. Mostly, I learned from reading a lot of Elmore Leonard novels–so much so that I have to reign myself in to keep from copying his style sometimes.

I do try to adhere to Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, however, and Rule Three says:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled,” “gasped,” “cautioned,” “lied.”

In the first draft, we might use these kinds of verbs as shortcuts or little notes to ourselves to remind us of how we want the characters to sound when we come back for the rewrite. That’s okay, but they should never make it into the final draft.

So let’s take a look at a first draft bit of dialogue between two ex-cons:

“Jesus Christ,” Jack grumbled. “Can you believe that guy?”

“Jack, you haven’t been to war, so don’t say anything, okay?” Cullen snapped.

“What’s that got to do with it?” Jack asked.

“If you don’t believe there are people like Alvin Cromwell then you’re dumb, that’s all,” Cullen yelled. “They’re the kind of men that become regular army and are right there when the time comes and we have to fight a war. They are the ones that save your life.”

“Why are you mad at me?” Jack cried.

Pretty awful, huh. Now let’s see how it reads if we just use “said.”

“Jesus Christ,” Jack said. “Can you believe that guy?”

“Jack, you haven’t been to war, so don’t say anything, okay?” Cullen said.

“What’s that got to do with it?” Jack said.

“If you don’t believe there are people like Alvin Cromwell then you’re dumb, that’s all,” Cullen said. “They’re the kind of men that become regular army and are right there when the time comes and we have to fight a war. They are the ones that save your life.”

“Why are you mad at me?” Jack said.

It’s not great, but we can still hear Cullen’s anger and we get that Jack is first disgruntled, then perplexed and defensive. Plus, the writer’s nose isn’t quite as visible.

But perhaps you think it’s too dry. Maybe you want to stick a few adverbs in there to make it absolutely clear how the characters feel. That would be okay, wouldn’t it?

Leonard’s Fourth Rule of Writing

Now we come to the fourth of Elmore Leonard’s ten rules:

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.

Let’s take a look at our dialogue draft with a few adverbs thrown in:

“Jesus Christ,” Jack said. “Can you believe that guy?”

“Jack, you haven’t been to war, so don’t say anything, okay?” Cullen said shortly.

“What’s that got to do with it?” Jack said.

“If you don’t believe there are people like Alvin Cromwell then you’re dumb, that’s all,” Cullen angrily said. “They’re the kind of men that become regular army and are right there when the time comes and we have to fight a war. They are the ones that save your life.”

“Why are you mad at me?” Jack said defensively.

When we compare this to the second, adverb-less draft, we see that the adverbs really haven’t added anything. Worse yet, they’ve ruined the flow and pulled us out of the story. The writer’s schnozz is visible again.

Add a Little Spice

The second draft is still a bit flat, however. If I hadn’t told you Jack and Cullen were ex-cons beforehand, you’d probably think they were just two guys. Could be lawyers, could be tennis pros. So how do we make them sound like ex-cons?

Ex-cons come from a pretty rough environment, right? They talk tough, they use slang, they curse, and they don’t always use proper grammar. So perhaps that’s a way we could make Jack and Cullen sound a bit more authentic. Let’s try it:

“Jesus Christ,” Jack said. “Can you fuckin’ believe that guy?”

“Jack, you haven’t been to fuckin’ war, so shut the fuck up, okay?” Cullen said.

“What the hell that got to do with it?”

“If you don’t fuckin’ believe badasses like Alvin Cromwell exist, you’re a dumbfuck, that’s all,” Cullen said. “They’re the kind of guys become regular army and are right there when the time comes we gotta fight a war. They the ones save our ass.”

“Why the fuck you pissed at me, motherfucker?” Jack said.

Curse words and slang are like cayenne pepper; a little goes a long way. In the 88 words above, nine are swears and seven of those nine are variations of the f-bomb. That may be a little too much pepper.

Being too liberal with profanity and slang can quickly take your writing from realistic to laughable. Quentin Tarantino is the master of the f-bomb, but few others can pull it off without it seeming fake or forced.

If we want Jack and Cullen to be pale imitations of Vincent and Jules from Pulp Fiction, the draft above accomplishes that low goal. But what if we want them to be unique characters, or even a bit less thuggish, we’ve got to ease off the spice.

True story: I recently submitted a short story for an anthology that’s coming out in the fall from the Cincinnati Writers Project. My story involves a Mexican drug cartel and my main character is a real tough guy, so I thought he should talk tough. To that end, I dropped a barrage of f-bombs–26, to be precise. My story is 3,000 words long.

I received a polite reply from the editor, in which he said that they are aiming for a more family-friendly audience and “26 ‘fucks’ makes that a hard sell.” He didn’t have a problem with the other four-letter words in the story, but the “fucks” would have to go.

My first inclination was that it was just the way the character talked, and it wouldn’t be realistic without that kind of language. Before I replied to the editor, however, I took a look at the story with a fresh set of eyes and realized that I could cut back on the spice and still have a tasty tamale. I did, and the story was accepted.

Again, a little goes a long way.

He Said, He Said

Even if we remove the f-bombs, the dialogue in our sample still lacks a certain something.

“Jesus Christ,” Jack said. “Can you believe that guy?”

“Jack, you haven’t been to war, so shut up, okay?” Cullen said.

“What the hell that got to do with it?”

“If you don’t believe badasses like Alvin Cromwell exist, you’re dumb, that’s all,” Cullen said. “They’re the kind of guys become regular army and are right there when the time comes we gotta fight a war. They the ones save our ass.”

“Why you pissed at me?” Jack said.

The problem, in part, is the repetition of “said.” Yes, it’s not as intrusive as other verbs, but do we really need them? Let’s try taking them out:

“Jesus Christ, can you believe that guy?” Jack squinted into the sunlight as he felt for the sunglasses in his shirt pocket.

Cullen surprised him. “Jack, you haven’t been to war, so shut up, okay?”

“What the hell that got to do with it?”

“If you don’t believe badasses like Alvin Cromwell exist, you’re dumb, that’s all. They’re the kind of guys become regular army and are right there when the time comes we gotta fight a war. They the ones save our ass.”

“Why you pissed at me?”

Is it still clear who is speaking? Yep. Plus, we’ve added a little more detail to the scene that wasn’t there before: we know Jack is wearing a shirt with a pocket, that he has sunglasses, and that it’s sunny outside. We can even infer that Jack (and probably Cullen) have just come outside from indoors.

What Would E.L. Do?

If you haven’t already guessed, the sample dialogue we’ve been working with comes from Elmore Leonard. I figure if I’m going to quote his rules, I should quote his work, too.

It comes from Chapter 19 of Bandits: A Novel, and Leonard’s version goes like this:

When they were outside, squinting in the sunlight, Jack said, “Jesus Christ, you believe that guy?”

Cullen surprised him. “Jack, you haven’t been to war, so don’t say anything, okay?”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“If you don’t believe there’re people like Alvin Cromwell then you’re dumb, that’s all,” Cullen said. “They’re the kind of guys become regular army and are right there when the time comes we have to fight a war. They’re the ones save our ass.”

“What’re you getting mad for?”

“’Cause you think you’re smart. You think a guy like that’s square that believes in his country and is willing to lay down his life for it. Where were you during Vietnam?”

“I tried to get in, I told you.”

“Bullshit.”

“I didn’t go to Canada or burn my draft card. I got called and they turned me down.”

“And you were glad.”

“Well, of course I was. Cully, what’s the matter with you? All I said was, do you believe him?”

“I know what you said.”

I included a bit more than just the part I used as a sample, so that you could get a better look at the back and forth. You’ll notice there’s only one “said” and no other verbs or adverbs. Also, the characters names are only mentioned three times–once each at the beginning to set it up, and once in dialogue at the end.

Having one character call another by name is a way to keep it clear who’s speaking during long exchanges, but like f-bombs, use it sparingly. In real conversations, people rarely call each other by name. (One of the reasons I can’t get into the TV show Supernatural is because the main characters, Sam and Dean, address each other by name almost every time they say something. Seriously, watch one conversation between them and count how many times they say each other’s name. It’s ridiculous.)

Talk to Me

So we’ve looked at ways to polish dialogue and make it a little more interesting than a series of “he said, she said.” Is that all there is to say on the topic? Of course not. However, this post is getting a little long, and I’ve got some dialogue of my own to write.

In the future, I’ll post about how I use screenwriting to balance dialogue and exposition. For now, though, I want to hear from you. Got any dialogue tips of your own? Share them in the comments!

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§ 3 Responses to Take Your Dialogue Beyond “He Said, She Said”

  • […] Maybe you know of him because of his 10 Rules of Writing. […]

  • Pretty solid stuff. I write in the present tense so I use “says” and “asks” rather than “said” and “asks”, but the principles are the same. My first efforts committed every sin you (and Elmore) detailed in your post. Now, I am happy to say, I only commit about half of them. 🙂

    One thing I try to do is write “tight”. That is to say that I will go back and cut my dialogue down unless there is a specific reason for longer, flowery sentences. I find this results in faster flow and snappier interchanges between characters. Less is more. Except when it isn’t. 🙂 Damn it! Sometimes you do have to write long.

    • Have you read William Brohaugh’s book, Write Tight? I didn’t think to mention it in this post (and I don’t recommend how-to books in general), but Write Tight is a classic.

      I used to write in present tense, but it’s tough for me to sustain it over the course of a novel. I love books written in present tense, though. I just can’t seem to pull it off.

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