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How to write dialogue I

Walter: Castor beans.

Jesse: So, what are we going to do with them? Are we just gonna grow a magic beanstalk? Huh? Climb it and escape?

Walter: We are going to process them into ricin.

Jesse: Rice ’n Beans?

Walter: Ricin. It’s an extremely effective poison.

Breaking Bad

Dialogue is something that many writers struggle with. If you sit in a cafe and transcribe a
conversation you’ll see that people don’t talk the way they do in books and films. They are not eloquent, they have accents or dialects, they use slang, jargon; their speech is repetitive, circular, they stick in redundant words like like, you know, I mean; frequently they don’t say what they mean or what they truly want to say. Quite often they’re not listening but waiting for a gap in the conversation to speak or are simply talking over the other person. Equally, you don’t want to write dialogue that’s stilted or reads as if it has been written down, rather than spoken but you do want to capture the essence of how a particular character speaks. It’s tricky!

So how do you write convincing dialogue?

Jesse: Dude, you scared the shit out of me. When you say its contamination. I mean, I’m thinking like… an Ebola leak or something.

Walter: Ebola.

Jesse: Yeah, it’s a disease on the Discovery Channel where all your intestines sort of just slip right out of your butt.

Walter: Thank you. I know what Ebola is.

Breaking Bad

Richard Skinner, author of Fiction Writing: The Essential Guide to Writing a Novel, says that dialogue is, ‘an impression of speech’, which is an apt description. And screenwriter John Yorke, author of Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey into Story, says, ‘Good dialogue doesn’t resemble conversation – it presents the illusion of conversation, subservient to the demands of characterisation and structure.’

If you’re struggling to create great dialogue

  • As an exercise, I would listen and transcribe people’s conversations and then tidy them up. You are trying to capture the essence of their speech.
  • I’d note how people speak in movies. Breaking Bad has excellent dialogue: the characters never say what you expect them to, but what they do say always reveals something important about the protagonists’ desires and what they wish to conceal or reveal.
  • Make sure you don’t write pages of dialogue.
  • Ensure your dialogue isn’t a speech or a soliloquy – or if it is, that it’s broken up with descriptions and the listener’s reactions.
  • Think about the subtext: what your characters are really thinking, feeling; what they want and what they are seeking to hide.

 Walter: I have spent my whole life scared, frightened of things that could happen, might happen, might not happen, 50-years I spent like that. Finding myself awake at three in the morning. But you know what? Ever since my diagnosis, I sleep just fine. What I came to realize is that fear, that’s the worst of it. That’s the real enemy. So, get up, get out in the real world and you kick that bastard as hard you can right in the teeth.

Breaking Bad

The three most important components of dialogue are chracterisation, exposition and subtext, according to Yorke. Skinner has a checklist of 10 points: each speech should cover most if not all of these.

  1. Characterise the speaker, and perhaps the person addressed.
  2. Be idiomatic, maintaining the individuality of the speaker, yet still blend with the story.
  3. Reflect the speaker’s mood.
  4. Often reveal motivation, or attempt to hide motivation.
  5. Show relationship of character to other characters.
  6. Be connective; in other words, grow out of the preceding speech and lead into the next.
  7. Advance the action.
  8. Sometimes carry information or exposition.
  9. Often foreshadow what is to come.
  10. Be clear and comprehensible to the audience.

And obviously, sound good and be realistic!

In my next News post, I’ll describe the dilemma I had with my dialogue in Sugar Island – and the solution I found. Let me know how you get on with writing your own dialogue.

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