I can’t end this blog project without once discussing what I try and achieve in my book’s dialogue. Okay, I have to say it although I’ve said this many times before. This is another important aspect of good books, but in all honesty, it’s not the most important. BUT bad dialogue can truly hurt a book.
You might be thinking you don’t need help in dialogue; after all, it’s only the words spoken by characters in your book. Wrong! You don’t believe me? Read these quotes. They’re from an actual book written by an author that self-published but didn’t understand dialogue. Although these quotes are by an indie author, many indie authors do understand dialogue. For the sake of not embarrassing the author, I’m not going to mention her name or the title of her book.
Female character: My mouth is farting.
Did you laugh? I paid $5.99 for the book when the author reached out to me on Twitter for support. I didn’t know her, but I thought, ‘Why not?’ because I like supporting other indies. The reason I added this small line is because the author actually took two pages writing about a widow and a male friend having a conversation about belching. No, I didn’t write that incorrectly. Two long pages that also included these lines:
“I have to belch again.”
“Yep. It’s the leftover food from Thanksgiving.”
“I hate leftovers.”
“Me too. Oops. There’s another one.”
Two pages of that. And guess what? The book isn’t a comedy. It’s about murder. The female character that’s doing the talking just lost her husband in a violent, bloody death. Does this sound like something a grieving wife would say? Because according to what the author wrote, this character is grieving badly. I used these quotes as an example because dialogue in fiction should move the book along, as well make the reader learn something they didn't previously know.
Did you know that good writers follow certain techniques when writing dialogue? That’s how important dialogue is in fiction. To give you an idea of how much readers like dialogue, several have contacted me on Twitter and Facebook, quoting their favorite lines from my books. One of my processes when writing dialogue is to find a different way of giving an obvious answer. For example. If a detective asked a killer, "Did you kill those people?" I try and find a witty or sarcastic or funny answer in reply rather than , "Yes, I did."
I’m going to list a quote from one of my books, as well as some from popular books and movies. The reason I’m including movie quotes is because movies are made from written scripts. Dialogue can be so important that fans actually have online groups that discuss the best dialogue in fiction. If I had to rank the most important elements in fiction, it will be:
All of the dialogue in a book doesn't have to be exceptional. But good authors love giving their characters unique voices.
Doc Holliday (Tombstone): I'm your Huckleberry.
Why: This is said after the fearsome Johnny Ringo is ready to kill someone and after Johnny asks a crowd of people who amongst them is brave enough to challenge him to a duel. Notice how not simply saying, ‘I’ll do it” or “What about me” you can see that the use of Huckleberry shows personality and it’s also a threat, a good one, and is appropriate for the language used in 1879 Tombstone, Arizona. I’m not sure if this is a factual slang word used during these times, but readers love learning something new. I have friends that use this passage in conversations as a joke. This shows you how readers and movie viewers retain what they’ve read or seen for a long time if the movie or book was truly good and worth remembering. This reply to Ringo's request also shows Doc Holliday as someone just as fearless as Ringo, someone just as willing to kill someone else. In that context, this answer is explosive.
Now, let’s look at an exchange between a FBI Special Agent and a serial killer in the book Silence of the Lambs written by Thomas Harris.
Clarice Starling: You see a lot, Doctor. But are you strong enough to point that high-powered perception at yourself? What about it? Why don't you look at yourself and write down what you see? Or maybe you're afraid to.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter: A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Hannibal could have answered her question with a lengthy overview of himself, but instead his reply is a true confession made by a serial killer. Creepy when you think about it, right? That someone can be this crazy? If you've read this book there are other moments like this that are chilling!
Now, let’s look at another exchange between Clarice and Hannibal.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter: Why do you think he removes their skins, Agent Starling? Enthrall me with your acumen.
Clarice Starling: It excites him. Most serial killers keep some sort of trophies from their victims.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter: I didn't.
Clarice Starling: No. No, you ate yours.
Notice how natural this exchange seems. Also notice how Hannibal’s use of the word ‘acumen’ hints at his extensive education and former career. And what does Clarice have to offer at the end of the exchange? Personality. She’s from a small town where manners mean more than anything. She doesn’t call him names or project on him what she thinks of him and she's never combative when he asks her questions, whether she wants to truly answer those questions or not. She stays true to her character by being polite. The reason the dialogue between Hannibal and Clarice are well received by readers is because Hannibal eats people he believes are rude, but Clarice is polite. That’s how he also seems himself, as polite, a person with good manners. Clarice is the only person that’s able to get to him, and get him to reveal things he has revealed to no one else after many failed attempts. Because he’s also polite, and he’s older, she sees him as a father figure without losing sight of what he truly is, but that doesn’t stop the romantic allure that transpire between them. If you’ve read both books, "Silence of the Lambs" and "Hannibal," you know how this story ends for both of them. But what you also learn from this example is a hidden message that's revealed later in the plot.
Sticking with Silence of the Lambs again, let’s look at an exchange between another serial killer and his imprisoned victim.
Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb: It rubs the lotion on its skin. It does this whenever it's told.
Catherine Martin: Please mister, let me go! My family will give you anything you want!
Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb: It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.
Catherine Martin: Okay, okay. (the character then does what she's told)
Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb: Now, it places the lotion in the basket.
Catherine Martin: Please! I want to see my mom! Please...
Jame "Buffalo Bill" Gumb: [yelling] Put the fucking lotion in the basket!
Why: Buffalo Bill is one crazy guy. Notice the way he talks. Also notice how he ignores his victim’s pleas. He gives instructions and after the victim complies, he gives more instructions. Then notice how upset he gets when the victim tries harder to get him to see her as more than ‘it’ and as a real person. She is the ‘it’ he is referring to. But what if this part hadn’t been written with him calling her ‘it’ and he said something like, ‘Okay, lady. Put this lotion on your skin.’ It wouldn’t hold the same weight, right? Buffalo Bill is staying within his character as a psycho killer and Catherine as a frightened to death victim. By writing this exchange like it is, the tone of this scene adds to the reader’s imagination and excitement. But here’s something else this block of dialogue does that all dialogue does. It tells the reader something they didn’t previously know. Can you guess what that is? The answer is an up close and personal view of how deranged this serial killer truly is, and when readers see that, it's chilling.
Here’s a quote from my book The Forbidden Lily. After reading it, you kinda get an idea what kind of man this is, right? What kind of temperament he has? But guess what? This is actually a loving guy that's been pushed over the edge by something his wife does and says. In this passage, the reader gets a glimpse of another side of him that's not seen unless he's very angry. In that context, when readers read this passage they have a whoa! moment, because shit just got real.
Julien Jennings: “Hussy, you have no idea what kind of man you married or the family you have married into. If you ever speak to me in that tone again, I’ll slap you to sleep. Permanently.”
Now that’s a different way of telling your wife that you will kill her.
Here are some memorable lines spoken by Tony Montana in Scarface.
1. I never fucked anybody over in my life didn’t have it coming to them. You got that? All I have in this world is my balls and my word and I don’t break them for no one. Do you understand? That piece of shit up there, I never liked him, I never trusted him. For all I know he had me set up and had my friend Angel Fernandez killed. But that’s history. I’m here, he’s not. Do you wanna go on with me, you say it. You don’t, then you make a move.
2. I always tell the truth. Even when I lie.
3. You wanna fuck with me? Okay. You wanna play rough? Okay. Say hello to my little friend!
That isn't a grammar error in quote 1. Tony speaks with an accent and English isn't his first language. Look at the last passage. Guess what his little friend is? A gigantic semi-automatic rifle that’s able to shoot grenades as well as bullets at the rate of a machine gun. Now imagine if he ended the last part of that passage with something like, “Look at my big gun.” In dialogue, it’s good to practice other ways of saying the same thing, and sometimes in a way that no one else would that stays in line with your character’s personality.
Am I saying that I find a different way of writing everything my characters are saying? No. It depends on the genre and if it’s a fast paced novel. Using simple sentences are well and good, but all dialogue should imply more than what’s being said. Look at this humorous quote from John Greene’s “The Fault in Our Stars.”
“Headline?" he asked. "'Swing Set Needs Home,'" I said. "'Desperately Lonely Swing Set Needs Loving Home,'" he said. "'Lonely, Vaguely Pedophilic Swing Set Seeks the Butts of Children,'" I said.
So what does this passage implies? That two children dying from cancer can still date, and fall in love, and take time out of their daily suffering to laugh. That's what good dialogue does. It gives mental visuals of behind the scenes happenings in your book. The reader is always going to see more than what's being said, and they're learning more about a character's personality, as well as more about the plot. My process is to always get straight to the point when writing dialogue and when possible, give the readers something they may want to remember.
Until next time, keep writing!