Monday, September 1, 2014

Wordcraft -- ‘You talkin’ to me?’: writing better dialogue

“I have a character development class at Collin County College,” author/teacher Scott Morgan says, “and somebody always says, please tell us you’re going to talk about dialogue.”

So he obligingly gives the Writers’ Guild of Texas members who gathered recently a chance to hear him talk about talking¾ in fiction. Because as anybody who’s eavesdropped at their local coffee shop or tried to transcribe audio tapes knows, real talking isn’t something most of us want to spend pages and pages reading.

“Real talk is a lot of um’s and uh’s,” Morgan says. “Real talk is pointless. Real talk is spinning wheels. Dialogue is not real talk. Dialogue sounds like people talking but it’s not. You will never hear people say the things people say in Quentin Tarantino movies. Or if you do, you know they’re film students.”

Instead of being a transcription of reality, dialogue in fiction has to seem real but accomplish in a few lines or a few pages what would otherwise take weeks, months or years to do in real talk. The first step, Morgan says, is to understand the purposes of dialogue in fiction.

“You’re trying to explain something, you’re trying to move the plot, or you’re trying to develop character,” Morgan says. “If writing doesn’t do any of these things, it’s not dialogue. Don’t put quotes around it. All those other factoids that people want to put in dialogue, you can leave out.

“The main reason people talk (in fiction) is to explain something. Typically, the expository stuff comes from the expert, so you have people ask them questions. You want the answers to be purposeful. The key to dialogue is compression, the relevant details.

Most writers are taught to skip explaining things to a listener who already knows them, but we’re often baffled about how to convey information to readers without turning a page gray with vast swathes of exposition. Morgan has a spin on that issue as he moves
into the plot-moving and character development aspects of dialogue.

“If your characters have a common body of knowledge, the way to get them talking is to have them disagree about it. Because my memory lane is not your memory lane.

“Dialogue is action and conflict. The best form of action in dialogue is arguing. Have an argument with your character. If one of your characters cheeses you off, you’re doing a good job. Give your characters opinions. Have them say things that you don’t necessarily like, because you will know what to say to them. If you have an argument, you can mix and match your conflict.”

Got all that? Then add something else¾ remember to make all this craft invisible. Nobody should notice the writing itself. As Morgan says in one of his favorite examples from film, “I love Martin Scorese, but he can be so good with his camera work that you find yourself noticing the camera instead of watching the film.”

Which leads to a final caveat. “I’m going to yell about something,” Morgan says, “accent and dialect. Do not write accents. Do not write dialect phonetically. I hate that so much I want to die. You are not going to get it right. Being from New Jersey, I can tell you, nobody in New Jersey says, ‘Joisey.’ You are going to insult people and throw them out of the story. What you want to write are patterns of speech, not accents.

“The key is to keep your ears open and listen to what people are talking about. I never heard anybody say, ‘I tell you what’ except in Texas. If I were going to write a Texas character, I’d write ‘I tell you what.’”

Want to know more about Morgan and his own writing? Visit him at Or take his class at Collin County College, where his next session starts in February. And for more about the Writers’ Guild, meeting the third Monday of each month in the Richardson, Texas, public library, see

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