Thoughts on writing dialogue

During my monthly perusal of the writing titles in the Library’s magazine room the other week, I came across this terrific line, in the July/August Writer’s Digest, from writing coach Jessica Page Morrell:

“Dialogue is not conversation, it is conversation’s greatest hits.”

I’m tempted to put that reminder at the top of the aspiring writers’ basic commandments for writing dialogue. You’ve heard most, if not all, of them before. Such as:

—Eliminate any meet-and-greets, hesitations, etc.

—Avoid direct question-and-answer Ping-Pong between characters.

—Avoid fact-laden quotes, a.k.a., information dumps, too.

—Use “said” as the verb when a character speaks, even if in your mind you hear your character exclaim, or intone, or state, or mutter. I also prefer to use “said,” rather than “ask,” when a character poses a question. Why? Because the question mark at the end of the quote stands in for the verb “ask.”

—Don’t modify “said” with –ly adverbs. A good alternative, if you are a skilled enough writer to do it, is to employ a physical gesture, on the part of the speaker or the listener, in place of an adverb. Not only do you, the writer, convey how the words were spoken, you also show the reader some action.

—Be careful with dialects and accents, unless you are heir to the likes of Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe or Larry McMurtry.

Did you know, by the way, that this summer marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of McMurtry’s magnificent Lonesome Dove? The milestone is celebrated in Texas Monthly’s July 2010 issue cover story—a wonderful oral history of both the novel and the subsequent TV mini-series. After reading the Texas Monthly article, I pulled down my hardcover of Lonesome Dove to renew acquaintances with two great characters in American literature, the practical, no-nonsense, taciturn Captain Woodrow Call and the fun-loving, romantic, playfully argumentative Captain Augustus McCrae. I re-read Chapter 42, in which Call and McCrae go to San Antonio to find a new cook for their cattle drive and McCrae roughs up a young bartender who doesn’t show proper respect to the pair of legendary Texas Rangers.

I decided to see whether the dialogue of a renown writer like McMurtry adhered to the basic rules. The chapter, in my edition, is 9½ pages long. Nine different characters speak, by my count. Four of the direct quotes are tagged with the verbs “suggested,” “warned,” “remarked” or “informed.” Nine times, a speaker’s question is followed by the verb “asked.”

Seventy-six times, a character’s direct quote is tagged with the verb “said,” and, of those, only two are followed by –ly adverbs: “the young man said loudly” and “Tobe said cheerfully.” A few other “saids” are modified by phrases of feeling—“straining to be polite,” “appalled at what he was hearing,” and “growing more alarmed,” for example—or specific physical action—“whirling on Ned” or “with an insolent look.” Otherwise, McMurtry lets “said” carry the dialogue on its own.

Recently, another interesting notion about dialogue writing came via Mike Roer, a member of our Saturday morning writers’ group, who attended a workshop at the North Branch of the Bridgeport (Conn.) Public Library given by thriller writer Steve Berry (The Paris Vendetta, et al.) Berry, Mike said, recommended that you put your index and middle finger together and lay them sideways on a passage of one speaker’s dialogue on your manuscript page. If the quote is deeper than those too fingers, it’s too long. It’s a speech, not dialogue.

Just for fun, I applied Berry’s two-finger test to a few of the longer quotes in the Lonesome Dove chapter. One clearly exceeded the depth limit.

Was this a flaw? Absolutely not. McMurtry was following another time-tested principle of writing dialogue.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, describes the principle this way: Dialogue “brings characters alive through their speech.” And the dialogue passage I measured in Lonesome Dove was spoken by one of the truly unforgettable talkers in fiction, Augustus McCrae.

There are times when the rules of dialogue, like most other rules, are made to be broken. When you create a character like Captain Augustus McCrae, you owe it to your readers to let him talk.

—Alex McNab

Published in: on July 16, 2010 at 1:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

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