My first drafts tend to be heavy on dialog and light on everything else. Early scenes may consist of nothing but dialog. Eventually, I go back and add description: expressions, movement, sensations, a setting. If necessary, I compose interior dialog. I consider theme. But for me, the story always lives first in what my characters say to one another.
Good dialog drives the story forward. It entertains. It explicates character. It demonstrates conflict. In a story, it always has a purpose.
Notes on Writing Dialog
Everyone has an agenda. Everyone who talks has a reason for being in the story, a purpose, or a goal they want to achieve. Some possibilities:
- To meet an attractive person
- To network or forward their business or career
- To try to convince someone of something
- To find out something
In this excerpt from Billy Goat Stats, Coach Rocker wants something from Billy, a new freshman basketball player, but he isn’t ready to explain himself, setting up the coming conflict. Not surprisingly, Billy flounders.
“I understand congratulations are due, and not just on your state win. Digger tells me you got MVP at your last game. What was it, 62 points and 18 rebounds?”
Digger, Billy gathered, was Assistant Coach Paulson. They’d met briefly at orientation.
“Yes, sir. But the other team’s point guard was injured. I’d never have made so many—”
“Hold it right there, young man. There are always circumstances. Great players know how to take advantage of them.”
“I’m really not that great—”
“At little humility can go a long way, Billy. You don’t actually want to convince people you don’t deserve your successes, do you? Tell ’em you’re something special and they’ll more than likely believe you. Muhammad Ali taught us that.”
“But he was a great boxer, wasn’t he?”
Coach Rocker showed Billy into his office and waved him to a chair. “So how’s your dorm? Getting settled in?”
Billy didn’t know if it was because he’d won a basketball scholarship, but he’d been given a room in a suite with two other athletes in Brookhouse, a dorm that was only a short walk from the Athletic Center and Basketball Coliseum. The truth was, he’d rather have been nearer the quad with it’s green lawns and shaded walks, but he wasn’t going to complain.
“Meet your roommates yet?”
“One of them. Jason Pritchard? He’s a catcher, I think, from Ann Arbor. On a baseball scholarship. The other is Mike Brooks.”
“Oh, yes, promising shooting guard.” The coach seemed distracted, his eyes flicking back and forth between Billy and the small TV mounted on the wall of his office as if he wanted to catch the scores. “I’m sure you’ll get along.” Coach Rocker’s eyes returned to meet his. “Tulane Sampson is over there too. Nice guy. You have a lot in common. You should look him up.”
Billy knew who Tulane Sampson was. Everyone knew Tully Sam. He was Hoosier State’s star center. Last year he’d led the league in scoring at twenty-seven per game. He was also a black kid from New Orleans, and more significantly, a senior. What in hell did Coach Rocker think the guy would have in common with Billy, a freshman and small-town midwestern white boy who’d played point guard in high school, but would be lucky to get off the bench at Hoosier State?
“Well, thanks for stopping by, Billy. We’ll look forward to seeing you at practice.”
Billy rose, wondering why he’d been summoned to speak to the coach, only to be dismissed so soon. Maybe the coach made a point of welcoming all the scholarship students?
“You be sure and introduce yourself to Tully—421 Brookhouse. Nice guy.”
Everyone is hiding something. We all have secrets:
- How we are feeling
- What we really think
- Our involvement in a crime, conspiracy, or infidelity
In this scene from The Door Behind Us, Jersey reveals more than he intends about his experience as a soldier. Frank’s blunt response is instructive.
“My mama, y’know, she picks at me ’cause she says I talk too much but don’t say nothing. She wants me to tell her about the war, because she’s got this fool idea that talking about it is gonna do me some good—make me less nervous or something. She read this story in the Current about a doctor up in Scotland who’s had some luck treating people with shell shock. They called it battle fatigue, but it’s the same damn thing. I keep telling her I’m not like the fellows she reads about, loud noises just make me nervous is all. Talk, she says. Like I’m gonna to tell her about Lieutenant Heiser getting his head sliced clean off by a machine gun. When she gets ragging on me particular hard, I think about telling her ‘bout that—just to shut her up.”
“Don’t do it.” Jersey, in his own world, was startled by Frank’s reply, and by his vehemence. He looked up to find Frank had stopped tossing fresh hay from the loft and was jabbing randomly at a fresh bale. “She won’t like it.”
“Okay, Frank,” he said, tossing off a ragged salute. “I won’t.”
Dialog is an opportunity to contrast what characters are saying with what they are thinking or feeling, this creates conflict and increases tension.
- Physical reactions may contrast with a characters words in order to create conflict
- Interior dialog may contrast with speech
In this scene, also from The Door Behind Us, Frank is questioned by Dr. Jones about how he came to fall off a freight train.
“You have not said how you came to be on that train or what happened to your friend, Jersey,” Jones prompted.
“The head of school, Mr. Underwood, found an address for me. My father’s parents. They were in Plainfield, but I lost the address. It was in my coat when it was stolen from me on the train. I had no money, and Jersey…chose to stay in Philadelphia, so I jumped the freight.”
The doctor’s eyes glinted from under gray eyebrows. “Did you and your friend have a falling out?” Frank had not realized he was so transparent.
“He wanted to stay at the school. There was a girl—I don’t know. He just wanted to stay. Why do you want to know about Jersey?”
“You talk of him warmly.” Agrippa opened a hand, palm up. “Then, poof, you are alone. Then you fall off train.”
“I was thrown off the train,” Frank said sharply.
“Of course, of course.” The doctor’s eyelids were half closed.
“You think I tried to kill myself.”
“No, I don’t. The idea crossed my mind. The sheriff’s too, I suspect.”
“Why would I try to kill myself?”
The doctor put his thumbs in the pockets of his vest and moved his belly gently as one would rock a baby. “There is the world as we would have it and there is the world as we find it.”
Dialog is a great opportunity—perhaps the best a writer has—to differentiate between characters. Some ways characters may contrast:
- Language or dialect
- Use of obscenities
- World view
- Class or education level
- Favorite topic or bet noir
- Verbal ticks
- Listening skills—or the lack of them
In this scene from Valentine Shower, Reuben has been pining over a misunderstanding with his closest friend. His sister Yaffa comes over to see what’s up. It was Yaffa’s first appearance, so it’s important the reader get to know her.
I swallowed. “Are you here to help me or insult me?”
Yaffa smirked. “Six of one, half dozen of the other….”
“Look, it’s nice of you to come by, but I really don’t need—”
“Oh no, bro. I’ve been waiting for this ever since you reached puberty—and nothing happened. I deserve this.”
Yaffa’s high school years had been marked by unreliable boyfriends, flying hairbrushes, and salty tears. Maybe she had a point, but I wasn’t about to concede it. I chewed.
Yaffa bounced in her seat. “Come on, what is it? Girlfriend trouble? Boyfriend trouble? An online gambling addiction? That would be boring even for you. Oh no, it’s not a porn addiction? Because that’s nothing—everyone’s addicted to porn these days. You can hardly escape from it.”
“It’s not porn.”
“You know it’s okay, right, to touch yourself? Everybody does it.”
I nearly choked on the omelet. “Jesus, Yaffa. Will you give me a second to get my thoughts together?”
“You haven’t had a thought out of place since you were eight. You can’t blame me for getting excited.”
“I resent it, you know, when you talk about me like I don’t have any feelings.”
Yaffa’s glee morphed into seriousness. “Sorry, bro.”
I wasn’t fooled. “Just because I don’t choose to wave them around like a set of great pompoms.”
“Wave what around? ’Cause you know these are natural, right? I can’t help that I was born with—”
“I was talking about my feelings, not your boobs.”
“Oh, right. Never mind me. I’ve been a little sensitive since Boom Boom was born.”
“Yeah, Jim started calling Jack that when he started on solid food and got the worst case of gas.”
“Wow, you actually acknowledge that I’m your sister. I suppose I ought to be grateful—”
I was certain it was part of the nefarious plan, but I was more than ready to spill my guts, if only she would stop talking. “You win! I’ll tell you what’s going on if you promise to not to say anything for ten minutes. Ten whole minutes. Promise, or I’ll throw you out and cut my wrists.” I demonstrated with a butter knife. It was a low blow, but the omelet hadn’t kicked in, and I was still light-headed.
Yaffa pursed her lips and stared for a second. “You’re going to talk about your feelings for a whole ten minutes? You know, it might actually be worth it.”
“Just shut up, would you?”
Yaffa reached for her coffee. “Okay, bro. I’m listening.”
Writing dialog is fun, but it’s also hard work. Done well, it may near poetry-like density of meaning.