Let’s Talk Dialogue – Part 1

Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

Imagine that you take a little trip to New Orleans. Now, gather together a large group of master chefs from the most prestigious and popular restaurants in this fine, old, southern city. As Master of Ceremonies, you want to start a lively discussion among the meeting’s attendees, so you ask:

What’s the best way to make Gumbo?

A short while later, the police arrive to break up the brawl. And yes, you may sneak out the backdoor if you don’t want to be identified as the instigator of the festivities!

The Best Dialogue
There are as many opinions on dialogue as there are writers (and perhaps chefs) on planet Earth. A simple search of Amazon books using writing dialogue returned 10,529 results. Using the same search term on Google: ~187 million results. It seems that everyone knows how to write crisp, dynamic, emotionally charged\coherent\evocative, witty, clever, fresh, effective, dazzling, expressive…

Wait a second! I just want my character to be able to talk and engage my readers. A little humor would also be nice.

So, we can skip the dialogue writer’s brawl?

Sure, why not? There’s actually a simple way to write good dialogue:

  • Read the advice of numerous writing gurus.
  • Take an eclectic approach, selecting the ideas that will work well for you.
  • Conscious of the best ideas, study well-constructed and effective dialogue in every available medium. (Face it, there aren’t a lot of mimes in print, stage or film.)
  • Now, write dialogue that works for you and your characters incorporating what you’ve learned.
  • Repeat as necessary.

Will everyone then praise your dialogue?

Well, did everyone choose the same best Gumbo?

Look Who’s Talking
Dialogue is recording the voices of your characters, but it is also an expression of that unique writer’s voice that every author strives to acquire. When your characters speak, they are the dummies to your ventriloquist.

You have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have. – J. R. R. Tolkien

Writing appropriate dialogue for a scene requires more than a few decisions. Who will speak? What information will this dialogue impart to the reader? How does this move the plot along? Is this the best spot to place that information? Is this dialogue appropriate for this particular character? If I don’t like what my character has to say, can I kill him in the next chapter? Add a big ETC.

That may sound like a lot of decisions, however putting words in your character’s mouth is really not difficult.

Open wide!

The difficulty arises in making your character’s speech crisp, dynamic, emotionally charged\coherent\evocative, witty, clever, fresh, effective, dazzling, expressive…

It’s déjà vu all over again. – Yogi Berra

And we’re right back to our eclectic approach to the TONS AND TONS of advice on writing good dialogue. However, if you look carefully, you will find one thread that’s more than a little bit common with most of the dialogue gurus: The author’s (hopefully unique) voice should be transparent.

If you’re not letting your characters speak for themselves in their own unique voice, it’s time for a rewrite. Everything else is arguable.

The Best Funny Dialogue
There is a tendency to equate funny dialogue with the witty remark or the clever turn of phrase, requiring the genius of a William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward. If this were true, we’d never laugh at dialogue again because they’re all dead.

“What would you like in your coffee?”
“Vicodin, please.”
    – Sexual Evolution, Jay Cole

Cover image: "Sexual Evolution"Much more realistic (and useful!) is the simple fact that funny dialogue is dependent on the same facets as any other dialogue.

No matter how you or your favorite writing guru dissects dialogue, every facet (and nearly every word) is capable of producing a laugh. Like dialogue itself, humor arises from character, situation, plot, theme, emotion, text, subtext, and pretty much anything else that you’d like to add to the list.

In Part 2, we’ll begin looking for examples of good dialogue.

Parting Funny: When you go into court you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty.Norm Crosby
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4 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Dialogue – Part 1

  1. Hi Jay,
    Your point about characters having their own voices is crucial. In fact, in a long dialog (or even trialog, if that’s a word) the reader should be able to tell who’s talking, without dialog attribution tags. The cool part of unique voice, especially with funny novels, is that the voice can provide the jokes (even when not in dialog) . For example, in The Urban Legion, I have a car salesman describing a Graceland look-alike as having “oriental floor mats, stained glass side mirrors,” etc.


    • For the most part, I agree, Dave. However, dialog attribution tags can become crucial simply due to the constraints of normal speech. For example: If multiple characters are speaking and someone pops in a ‘Yes’ in simple agreement… Who said, “Yes?”

      Overall though, I agree that the very best characters have a unique voice unto themselves.


  2. I agree, I’ve lived all around the world, and one thing I have seen, everywhere treats language differently. It’s interesting to learn the different turns of phrase that are used even between the states here in the U.S.


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