Here's a great read from an author who surely knows how to handle dialogue!
Young Attorney Brooke Wheeler searches for a truth buried under the surface and suppressed by long held secrets. She has been in love with the wealthy heir, Jeremy Wright, who has long been suspected of killing his high school girlfriend, Lindsey. Years later, those suspicions deepen when his wife, Cassie, suddenly dies.
Question from the e-mail: Years ago when I was your student, you gave me a handout on how to write dialogue. Might you still have a copy. I've lost mine.
Answer: Sure thing! See below.
Pay attention to the way people talk. Listen to their speech patterns. Then pare them down to the bare essentials. That’s dialogue. Avoid vernacular, or overuse of vernacular, anyway. With dialect, less is always more. We are a nation of poor readers. Dialect can be very difficult to write well. This is a lesson I learned – reluctantly I’ll admit – in a workshop with Diana Gabaldon.
She wrote a book about a group of 17th century Scots, and English Outlander. (Watch for this on coming up as a new series on Starz!) No dialect is a thick as that of Scotland. Diana said she listened to old Scots ballads sung in English and in Gaelic to absorb the rhythm of the speech. There’s a great deal of difference between the speech of the Scots and the Englishwoman, and among the Scots, depending upon their station in life and educational level. But nobody said, “Hoot mon!” She changed didn’t to didna, and wouldn’t to wouldna, and added some dated terms like “foxed” for drunk. But most of it was shown in the rhythm of the language. Because of the sentence construction, English sounded different when the Scots spoke, but their meaning was never obscured with a lot of missing commas.
Avoid anachronisms and use very little slang, unless it’s some you make up yourself. I read a story set in Biblical times where characters said things like “okay.” Okay is a slang term that didn’t come into use until the 19th century. It wouldn’t have been said in Biblical times. Any time you are uncertain when a term came into use, you can check it in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Slang gets dated and slang terms may change in meaning. Avoid cliches, too. In a 1940 edition of Nancy Drew, Girl Detective, it was fine to describe her father as a “gay man about town,” even though it was a cliche. At that time it meant he was lighthearted and very social. You wouldn’t use that term today, because the word “gay” has taken on a whole different meaning.
Good dialogue should sound natural, but not too much like people really talk. Punctuating dialogue is tricky. First, never let two characters talk in the same paragraph. Commas and other punctuation go inside the quotes. And you must paragraph each time a new person speaks. Finally, Everything a person says at one time (even if they change the subject) goes in the same paragraph. I can't stress too much how important it is to punctuate dialogue correctly. Editors know immediately if it's done wrong, and they also know it will take them a lot of extra work to fix it. It's never a good idea to make work for your editor.
Never put small talk into dialogue, it just slows everything down. The important thing in dialogue is to leave out stuff that is unimportant and get right to the point.
Here is an example of BAD dialogue the way it might go in real life:
“Hi, Harry. How are you? And how’s your mother?” Mary said, to her neighbor.
“Hi, Mary. Good to see you this morning. She’s better thanks.”
“Oh, good. I’m glad to hear it.” Mary admired the way Harry cared for his aged mother. He was so good to her. Mary wondered if Harry had heard the news about John. “Say, did you hear about John?”
“No. Did something happen to him?”
“John Smith, who lives across the street? You’re kidding. Right?”
“No, I’m not kidding. John’s dead.”
“Really? What happened?” Harry asked.
“The postman smelled exhaust coming from the garage. He called the cops from my house. It took them 20 minutes before they showed up! Then they had to call a locksmith to get in his house, ” Mary said.
“Wow. That’s interesting. Which locksmith did they call?” Harry asked, again.
“Brady’s – the one over on Biscayne. Anyway, the car was still running and John was dead when they found him. But they called for an ambulance anyway. It took them another twenty minutes to get here. Then they took him to the hospital.”
“Hospital? I thought you said he was dead,” Harry said.
“He is dead. But they had to go to the hospital, it’s the law,” Mary said. “The paramedics said he was dead all right, but they took him in the ambulance anyway.”
“Gosh. I can’t believe John’s dead. What was it? Suicide?” Harry asked.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you. He’s been so depressed, ever since Evelyn left him,” Mary said. “But the cops found a bruise on his head. So they weren’t really sure if he killed himself or if it was murder. You know, John had a lot of enemies.”
“Yes, he did. That Evelyn of his, for one. Not to mention her new boyfriend.”
Notice all the “saids?” Here's a neat little technique you can use. If you show a character in action within the same paragraph as their speech, the reader will assume the character who moved was also the one who spoke. This little trick can get rid of a lot of repetitive language (the saids), and it forces you to insert an image. You only have to be careful to make certain that the person who speaks and the person who moves are the same. If you want to show another character's reaction to the speech, change paragraphs, even if they don't say anything. Treat the movement just as if it were a dialogue reply.
In good dialogue, you only put the important stuff:
“Harry, did you hear? John Smith’s dead.”
“No! How did it happen, Mary? Suicide?” Harry’s face looked stunned.
Mary shook her head. “They’re not certain. Could be murder.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me – that ex-wife of his always said she’d kill him one day.”
“You think it was her?”
“He had a lot of enemies, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she did it.” Harry’s eyes narrowed. “Her, or her new boyfriend of hers.”
Do you see how 25 lines of dialogue were condensed to seven making the pace much faster? And yet all the important information was relayed to the reader.