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The Dialogue Pass

Nas Hedron, IndieBookLauncher.com—Updated 4 July 2017

Introduction

A “pass” is a technique in which you go through a text in order to analyze and polish one aspect of it without being distracted by other elements.

You might do a “character pass,” where you focus on ways to make each character unique and consistent, or a “story pass,” in which you look for ways to strengthen the plot, but by far the most common type is a “dialogue pass,” in which you focus exclusively on making the dialogue the best that it can be. The pass is a tool that’s most often used in screenwriting, but it can be applied just as productively to your fiction.

Here are some tools to help you hone your dialogue when you do a dialogue pass, and to generally improve.

1. Preparing by Listening

Many writing instructors recommend listening to real people in conversation in order to learn how to write better dialogue. It’s good advice, but what works even better is listening to a recording of a real conversation in which you are one of the people talking.

Why? There are several reasons.

First, the problem with simply listening to a conversation is that our brains are well trained to hear dialogue the way it’s intended rather than the way it’s actually spoken—we unconsciously edit out many of the ums, and uhs, and verbal tics (like someone who says “but the thing is” six times in a short conversation). We don’t notice much of what’s actually there.

Listening to a recording of a someone else’s conversation is an improvement over listening to live conversation. Your brain still tends to edit what you’re hearing, but less so than when you’re hearing people speak live. And—very importantly—you can listen to a recording several times, which reduces this unconscious editing even more.

Even more effective, though, is listening to a recorded conversation in which you participate. Suddenly you hear—loudly, clearly, and sometimes embarrassingly—all the bits of extraneous verbiage that your brain normally edits out. It’s much like the difference between how your voice sounds in your head when you speak versus how it sounds in a recording. The difference between how you think you use words and how you actually use them is instantly noticeable, because it’s you.

Listening to real conversation—especially recorded conversation, and best of all if you’re one of the participants—will give you an ear for how people really talk. Most smart phones include a voice memo function, which makes it fairly simple to record conversations here and there, whenever the opportunity comes along. Then you can listen to them later, whenever you have a few spare minutes. And here’s a bonus: you can listen to these recordings while doing something else, like household chores. (For more on making good use of this kind of time, see Finding Time to Write, in the section “Writing Without Writing”).

2. Preparing by Reading Good Dialogue

If you want to improve your own dialogue, take some time to read screenplays and teleplays (television scripts). Why? Because there’s so much riding on the words the actors speak in these media that you can find a lot of great dialogue there. Plus, screenplays have a minimum of non-dialogue. Unlike in a novel, there are rarely any long passages of description, which makes it easy to focus on the dialogue.

There are entire books that contain nothing but screenplays (I don’t mean novelizations, I mean one or more screenplays in bound form), and you can often get these from a public library. You can also find many screenplays available to download for free online. One great source is Simply Scripts, which includes both film and TV scripts. If you’re not sure where to start, here are few screenplays with notoriously good dialogue that you might want to try: Fargo (Ethan and Joel Cohen), Glengarry Glen Ross (David Mamet), Lethal Weapon (Shane Black), and The Martian (Drew Goddard).

Reading great dialogue, whether in novels or screenplays, will help train your ear to what it should sound like. There’s plenty of it out there, much of it available for free, so there’s no reason not to use it to your advantage.

3. Realism, not Reality

Now let’s look at what you’re aiming for when you write your own dialogue. You know that you don’t want it to sound wooden and stilted—you want it to sound spoken, not written. But do you want it to sound like real, spoken conversation? Nope, you don’t want that either. You want realism, not reality.

Try transcribing a little bit of your taped conversation from earlier and reading the transcript. What you’ll see is that real speech makes for a terrible read. Rather, you’re aiming for something in between—something that has the clarity and readability of written text, while “sounding” like real speech. You want to adopt some of the idiosyncrasies of the spoken word—the pauses and repetitions and mistakes and interruptions—but just enough that it feels real, not so much that it’s a pain to read.

4. Trash the Clichés

One area where you might particularly want to emphasize realism over reality is in the use of clichés. In reality, people use clichés when they speak, but they make for irritating dialogue and using them can give the impression that the author can’t think of an original way to express an idea, or can’t be bothered to do so.

Using the occasional cliché in your dialogue, especially if helps to develop the character who’s speaking, is fine. But bad writing often includes frequent clichés, whether in the dialogue, the narration, or both, so overusing them should be avoided. If you want a character to have a recognizable way of speaking, considering creating original phrases or speech mannerisms for them rather than having them use clichés—but even these should be kept fairly low-key so that they don’t become a problem in their own right.

Let’s say that person A is asking person B whether they were involved in something horrible that’s happened. First, the clichéd version, written in a hurry as you were getting the scene down on paper quickly.

A: Did you have anything to do with this?
B: In no way, shape, or form.

That’s terrible. So first you just get rid of the cliché.

A: Did you have anything to do with this?
B: I would never do something like that.

Well, that’s a lot better, but it’s uninspired. Besides, person B is really angry that their integrity is in question. And person B is really sarcastic when they’re angry—that’s the mannerism that we’re going to use to give this bit of dialogue a distinctive flavor.

A: Did you have anything to do with this?
B: Well, let’s see. If I did, I’ve repressed the memory. And then wiped my hard drive using a military grade algorithm. And then smashed the physical drive and set fire to the pieces. So I guess we’ll never know, will we?

It can still be improved, but at least now we have a sense of what person B is actually like. Their words actually help build their character, rather than being generic, and there isn’t a cliché in sight.

5. Say It Out Loud

This is one of the most common pieces of advice on writing dialogue, and there’s a good reason for this: it works.

My own view is that you shouldn’t just read your dialogue out loud, but actually recite it, as if you were an actor doing a scene in a film. Put emotion into it, hesitate when it’s appropriate, speak quickly or slowly depending on what the scene calls for, and so on. If the character is pleading with someone, or getting angry, or kidding around, read it that way.

If you find it hard to say the lines aloud in a natural way, then your dialogue is probably too “written” and not “spoken” enough. How do you fix it? Staying in actor mode, try improvising a new version of the line out loud and see if this new version feels more natural. If it does, cross out the old version and write in the new one—it may not end up being the final version of the line, but it’s probably heading in the right direction. Do this several times, coming up with different versions, and then pick the one that seems to work best. (This is another good time to use that smart phone voice memo function.)

6. On-the-Nose Dialogue

People very often don’t say directly what they’re thinking or feeling. They beat around the bush. They talk about something else and circle back to the topic that’s really on their mind. And they express their feelings about one thing by directing those feelings at something else.

In “on the nose” dialogue, characters don’t do any of that—they tell us exactly what they’re thinking or experiencing. A little bit of on-the-nose dialogue is fine, but a steady stream of it makes the characters seem wooden and the entire story feel unrealistic.

Let’s say a woman parks in the driveway of her home, comes in the front door, and sees her husband—he’s not doing anything wrong at that moment, but she thinks he’s been cheating on her even though she can’t prove it. Does she say “I’m angry with you because I think you’ve been cheating on me with another woman—have you?” Probably not. Maybe she says “You parked too goddamned close to my side of the drive again, Everett, dammit!” while slamming her car keys down. Or maybe she says nothing at all and just pushes past him to go up the stairs, refusing to even look at him (sometimes the best dialogue is no dialogue at all). Even if she comes near the real topic, she might just say “you bastard,” without explaining what she means, and then push past him.

When you’re doing your pass, watch for dialogue that’s too on the nose. Don’t replace every direct statement with something oblique, but try a few variations here and there. And this is a good thing to watch for in real conversation. Listen to your friends and family and keep an eye out for this kind of indirect expression. When do they do it? What are the different ways they do it? Now, use those observations when you write your dialogue.

7. Ban the Clones!

If you took a recording of my mother speaking, and then one of my father, and put both of them through a voice synthesizer so that the voices sounded exactly the same, I would still know which one was which without even having to think about it. People have distinct ways of speaking—different levels of vocabulary, different verbal tics, different amounts of hemming and hawing, and so forth. Fictional characters need this kind of distinctiveness, too, if they’re going to seem real and alive to the reader.

When doing your pass, especially when you’re reading your dialogue out loud, listen to see if your characters sound like clones of one another. Ban the clones! Think about ways of making each one distinctive. This one swears, while that one almost never does. This one gets right to the point, while another one beats around the bush. This one has a university degree in literature, while that one is a self-made millionaire with a grade ten education—and those backgrounds show in their word choices.

8. Be Careful With Tags, He Cautioned

Dialogue tags are the little bits of narration that accompany dialogue to indicate who is speaking and, sometimes, how they’re saying things. The classic dialogue tags are “he/she said” and “he/she asked”. Here are a few examples.

“Don’t do that,” she said.
“I don’t know,” he said, “I just don’t know.”
“What do you think?” she asked.

At some point you may get tired of writing “he said, she said, he said” over and over again and be tempted to use something else.

“Don’t,” she moaned.
“Don’t,” she chortled... or grunted, or gasped, or exulted, or rhapsodized.

Don’t do it. Just don’t. Or at least, do it very sparingly and only when you have a good reason.

When you’re writing, the constant repetition of “he/she said,” broken only by the occasional “he/she asked,” can seem annoyingly repetitive. But when someone sits down to read what you’ve written, all those “saids” just disappear into the background. The reader still understands them, but unconsciously—they become invisible, which is exactly what you want. In general, you want readers to be absorbed in the story you’re telling, not focused on the particular words you use to tell it.

When you insert an unusual dialogue tag, on the other hand, it draws the reader’s attention, taking it away from the story and onto the writing itself, which is exactly what you don’t want.

If you occasionally use a “screamed,” or a “whispered” or a “spat” to indicate that something was said loudly, quietly, or angrily, that’s fine, but when you do your dialogue pass, watch for unusual dialogue tags and ask yourself if they’re really necessary—very often the same information can be communicated in the rest of the narration, often more effectively. If someone says something angrily, instead of writing “he growled,” you might write that his face turned red or his hands clenched.

When you do use unusual tags, use them for a reason. One way to think of it is this: they are the equivalent of having your character make a dramatic gesture, like slamming a door—so use them about as often, and in the same kinds of situations.

One other way to minimize the repetition of “he/she said” is to omit it when it isn’t actually necessary. Very often, it’s quite clear from context who is saying what, especially if only two people are talking, in which case you can sometimes use no dialogue tags at all and the reader will still be perfectly clear on who is speaking each line. If the dialogue’s interrupted by some action, though, you may have to use a tag or two afterward in order to reestablish who is saying what.

On the other hand, you can also use tags to shape the rhythm of the dialogue, even where they’re not strictly necessary. A tag can be used to create a small pause in the back-and-forth or in the middle of a sentence.

Here’s a short example. Dr. Nasty has sent one of his minions to plant a bomb in a public place, and the minion has just returned. The first speaker in each of these examples is Dr. Nasty.

“Did you set the timer?” Dr. Nasty demanded.
“Well, you see what happened was...”
“Did you set the timer or not?”

Okay, we get the idea. Something happened to prevent the minion from getting the job done. Dr. Nasty can tell and isn’t going to wait patiently through any excuses. But a dialogue tag can introduce a pause that makes Nasty’s interruption more sinister.

“Did you set the timer?”
“Well, you see what happened was...”
“Did you,” Dr. Nasty said, “set the timer or not?”

In the first version, without the dialogue tag, Nasty’s question seemed quick, as if he snapped it angrily. We can tell this is bad for the minion, but the second version, with the tag, is worse. This time you can hear the threatening, slightly slower speech pattern that we’ve all heard at one time or another from a parent, or teacher, or other authority figure—an even more intimidating way of asking the question that tells us clearly that we’re in big trouble if we give the wrong answer.

9. Don’t Dump Narration Into Your Dialogue

In real life, people rarely say out loud what they’re about to do or have just done, nor do they tell other people things those people already know. If you find your characters doing this, you may be allowing your narration to seep into your dialogue, and it’s not going to come across as genuine speech.

Don’t have a character say “I’m going upstairs to take a bath” and then narrate that they go upstairs to take a bath, unless it’s for effect. For instance, you might have the character say what they’re going to do and describe them doing it when you want to emphasize that they actually went through with it: “I don’t care how much this damned sculpture is supposed to be worth—it’s cursed, and I’m going to destroy it,” he said, throwing it down and stomping on it with his heel.

Occasionally, this kind of declaration can be used instead of narrating the action. The character says “I’m going upstairs to take a bath”, and it’s implied that they do. Your narration forgets about them for a while and turns to the other characters.

For the most part, though, your characters shouldn’t say something and be described doing the thing they talked about.

10. Predictability Gets Boring After a While

Much of the time, real conversation flows fairly logically—it would be hard to make sense of the world if people were constantly going off on tangents. But people also, fairly often, say unexpected things, and fictional dialogue can become unrealistically logical—and, worst of all, boring—if that never happens.

When you’re first writing a scene, you probably write the dialogue in a fairly straightforward way. If you have two characters talking, it will be like a well-played tennis match, with each one skillfully and logically responding to what the other has just said. But when you’re doing your dialogue pass, look for ways to disrupt this. At a minimum, it can help keep the reader entertained, but if you do it well, you can also use it to build character.

Let’s say you have a guy asking a woman out on a first date. He’s wanted to ask her for a while, so he’s nervous. The usual version goes something like this:

“Listen, I was—I was wondering if you’d want to get a drink sometime. Or, you know, dinner?”
“Dinner, huh? When?”
“How about Friday?”
“Friday?” She smiled. “Well—I guess I could be free on Friday.”

Here’s a slightly different version that’s a bit less usual and predictable.

“Listen, I was—I was wondering if you’d want to get a drink sometime. Or, you know, dinner?”
“I don’t eat meat.”
“Um, okay. Well I’m sure we can find a vegetarian place.”
“And I can’t use chopsticks.”
“Okay, how about Greek food?”
“I like Greek food.”
“Was that a ‘yes’?”
She thought about it, then smiled.
“Sure. Okay. Let’s say it’s a ‘yes.’”

Now here’s another, still less usual version.

“Listen, I was—I was wondering if you’d want to get a drink sometime. Or, you know, dinner?”
“Do you like Paul McCartney better, or John Lennon?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“You know, from The Beatles.”
“Um, if we’re talking about old rock and roll I’m more of a Rolling Stones guy.”
“You’re not very good at asking women out, are you?”
“What? Why?”
“You asked me out. I’m trying to answer, but you’re not cooperating.”
“Well, if I have to pick I’d pick Lennon.”
“Oh, thank god. Okay, in that case, yes.”
“Because you like Lennon better?”
“No, because every time I go out with someone who likes Paul McCartney, they turn out to be a vegetarian, and if we’re going out to dinner I want a big goddamned steak.”

The first version gets the job done. The second version is more entertaining. The third version is entertaining and it gives us a little insight into the woman (and, since he’s attracted to her, into him as well). She’s playful, she’s doesn’t mind giving someone a bit of a hard time, and her cultural reference points are more 1960s than twenty-first century.

11. Strip Your Dialogue

If you have a scene where the dialogue just isn’t working, consider stripping out everything else, just temporarily, to help you focus. This can be a fair bit of work, but if you have a particular scene or chapter where you’re having difficulty, it’s can be worth stripping just that part of the text.

Let’s say it’s a chapter. Make a copy of the whole chapter in a new document—you’re going to mess with it, so don’t use your original. Now delete everything except the dialogue and try reading it out loud. You will often start to see things—both problems and potential solutions—that you were having trouble seeing before because there was just too much to distract you.

Go ahead and make any changes you think the dialogue needs, then take the new version of the dialogue and insert it back into your chapter, amidst all the surrounding text. Read it over again and see if your changes have improved things.

12. The Rainbow Tactic

Here’s one practical tip for how to go about doing your dialogue pass: Make it easy to highlight sections in several different colors. On paper, use markers—on a computer, use the highlight function. Choose one color for each type of problem you’re watching for, plus a spare color for miscellaneous issues that you might not have anticipated.

As you’re doing your pass, don’t try to solve each problem at the moment that you identify it—you’ll get bogged down and lose your momentum. If you see on-the-nose dialogue that you want to change, don’t start rewriting—just highlight it in green and keep going. If you spot a cliché, highlight it in yellow and move on. As you go, if you happen to get a good idea for a line, jot the point down quickly so you won’t forget, but don’t stop to rewrite. After you jot down your note, quickly get back to highlighting—try not to lose your flow.

Go through your text once this way, and then go back to the beginning. Now you can look at each highlight in turn, solve the problems you’ve spotted, and polish dialogue you’ve marked for improvement.

Conclusion

To make your dialogue come alive on the page, prepare by listening to real conversation and by reading good dialogue, write your draft, and then apply the dialogue pass, using the techniques described above.

If you come across a good technique that isn’t listed here, let us know—we’d love to include it in an updated version of this article.

—Nas

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