I don’t usually take requests, but I’m as vulnerable to flattery as anyone else. That’s crap, actually. I’m a lot more vulnerable. This probably dates back to my childhood, when I hoarded whatever meager table crumbs of faint praise my parents happen to let fall on the floor among my seven siblings and myself, each fighting like starving, stray dogs for any minor sign of approval, no matter how offhand the remark.
“Chris, your grades aren’t as good as Wendy’s. You got an A- in physics.”
“But, Mom, I’m the only seven year old in the class.”
“Enough of your back-talk. Fetch the belt.”
After a relentless flogging, she eyed me cowering under the dining room table.
“At least you didn’t pass out like Charlie did yesterday.”
My heart fairly burst with pride.
One thing any novelist needs is to have a not very firm grasp on reality. I’m particularly gifted that way, in addition to being an only child of very supportive parents. Anyway, back to the request: this comes from a fellow novelist who, after reading my first novel, Trial of Tears, commented favorably on the dialogue. Well, she said the punctuation was O.K., but I knew what she was really asking:
“How do you write such crackling dialogue?”
Actually, proper dialogue punctuation has long been a thorn in my side and is still a constant source of correction and irritation in every draft. I pray that no errors make it into the final version of the manuscript, but Apostrophus, the Greek God of writing, rarely responds to my entreaties, so I’ll skip this subject entirely and focus instead on what works for me.
The first thing I’d suggest is to really get to know your characters well and ‘listen’ to them. If you pay attention to the way your friends relate to each other in a group, you can spot all the different cadences and rhythms in the way they communicate. If all you had was a typed script without character names assigned, you could still tell who was who. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t occasionally identify the speaker when writing dialogue, but in a two way conversation, it should be minimal, and done in a way that supports the scene by adding action and reaction, i.e. ‘Frank replied with a frown as he opened another beer’.
My editor made a valid point when he noted that I was giving all my characters very clever things to say. They can’t all be funny and erudite. Not that they can’t have their occasional moments in the sun, but some serve better as ‘straight men’ to which the more glib ones can riff off of, like a soloist having a good rhythm section to work with. To cure this problem, I broke out all the main characters’ dialogue into separate word documents to see how they were coming off and plainly saw what the editor was referring to. In addition to better parceling out the good lines, I was able to further tailor the rhythms, maintain consistency and individuality. Some people speak in short sentences, some use longer words, some pause when arriving at a point, etc. You can also spot superfluous dialogue that neither advances the plot nor defines character. However, you don’t want to do this too early on while writing, as it will prevent you from moving forward. This exercise becomes useful after a couple of passes through the finished manuscript.
One of my biggest sources of correction in later versions of drafts is overuse of certain words. I’m amazed at how these escape detection in earlier drafts, but I suppose I get pickier with each version, and use a finer grade of sandpaper to polish the manuscript. When I find what looks like an overused word, I do a search and word count in the document and am can be astonished by the amount of times it appears. It’s BYOT (bring your own thesaurus) time then, scanning the manuscript to find and sometimes change the offending word. However, if the word falls into a particular character’s dialogue with some frequency, I’m more inclined to leave it in. People have favorite words and expressions they use with regularity. I’m especially careful that it doesn’t land in the dialogue of different characters, though I’ve had fun in this novel by having different characters utter the same phrase, but in totally dissimilar contexts.
The best thing any writer can do after a couple of drafts (manuscript, not beer) is to read the whole story aloud. This is always good for narrative blocks, but especially useful in dialogue. You can spot stilted conversation quite easily this way. Dialogue, like music, has a rhythm to it. I’m not suggesting you can dance to good dialogue, but it can give you the mental equivalent of tapping your toes and I dig that funky punctuation.