Dialogue must do three things:
- Advance the plot
- Provide action
- Enhance characterization
If your dialogue doesn’t do these three things–cut it. Or find another way to move your story forward. Personally, I don’t find dialogue that difficult. It’s a matter of listening to your characters even when you as the writer don’t want to. Here are eight example from authors who I believe write great dialogue (FYI – there is some profanity below):
1) Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Vintage Books, 1992, pg. 5)
We found a table. Nora said: “She’s pretty.”
“If you like them like that.”
She grinned at me. “You got types?”
“Only you, darling—lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”
“And how about the red-head you wandered off with at the Quinns’ last night?”
“That’s silly,” I said. “She just wanted to show me some French etchings.”
2) Ernest Hemingway’s Farwell to Arms (1929. New York: Scribner, 1957, pgs. 22-23). I despise his writing style, but I understand why people try to copy it.
“It’s not really the army. It’s only the ambulance.”
“It’s very odd, though. Why did you do it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “There isn’t always an explanation for everything.”
“Oh, isn’t there? I was brought up thinking there was.”
“That’s awfully nice.”
“Do we have to go on talking this way?”
“No,” I said.
“That’s a relief. Isn’t it?”
“What is the stick?” I asked. Miss Barkley was quite tall. She wore what seemed to me to be a nurse’s uniform, was blonde and had a tawny skin and gray eyes. I thought she was very beautiful. She was carrying a thin rattan stick like a toy riding-crop, bound in leather.
“It belonged to a boy who was killed last year.”
“I’m awfully sorry.”
“He was a very nice boy. He was going to marry me and he was killed in the Somme.”
“It wsa a ghastly show.”
“Were you there?”
3) Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob (New York: Dell Publishing, 1991, pgs. 4-5).
“Dale , he’s put more offenders on death row than any judge in the state.” That shut him up. “What I’m trying to tell you is be polite. Okay? With this judge you don’t want to oiss him off.”
Dale was shaking his head, innocent. He said, “Man, I don’t know,” in a sigh, blowing out his breath, and Kathy turned her face away. “you gonna tell him how you see this?”
“When the judge asks for recommendations, yeah, I’ll have to say something…”
“Well, that’s good. Tell him I’ve been drinking since I was fourteen years old and I know how, no problem. Listen, and tell him I’m still working out the sugar house. Have a good job and don’t want to lose it.”
“That’s all I can think of.”
“Just lie for you?”
“It wouldn’t hurt you none, would it? Say I’m working? Jesus.”
“You think I’m on your side?”
“Well, aren’t you?”
“Dale, I’m not your friend. I’m your probation officer.”
4) James Cain’s Double Indemnity (1936. New York: Every Man’s Library, 2003, pgs. 124-125).
“I haven’t any reason. He treats me as well as a man can treat a woman. I don’t love him, but he’s never done anything to me.”
“But you’re going to do it?”
“Yes, God help me, I’m going to do it.”
She stopped crying, and lay in my arms for a while without saying anything. Then she began to talk almost in a whisper.
“He’s not happy. He’ll be better off—dead.”
“That’s not true, is it?”
“Not from where he sits, I don’t think.”
“I know it’s not me, I don’t know what. Maybe I’m crazy. But there’s something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I’m so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out when I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness… Walter, this is the awful part. I know this is terrible. I tell myself it’s terrible. But to me, it doesn’t seem terrible. It seems as though I’m doing something—that’s really best for him, if he only knew it. Do you understand me, Walter?”
“But you’re going to do it.”
“Yes, we’re going to do it.”
“Straight down the line.”
“Straight down the line.”
5) E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003, pgs. 310-11)
“Here are the keys,” said Margaret. She tossed them towards him. They fell on the sunlit slope of grass, and he did not pick the up.
“I have something to tell you,” he said gently.
She knew this superficial gentleness, this confession of hastiness, that was only intended to enhance her admiration of the male.
“I don’t want to hear it,” she replied. “My sister is going to be ill. My life is going to be with her now. We must manage to build up something, she I and her child.”
“Where are you going?”
“Munich. We start after the inquest, if she is not to ill.”
“After the inquest?”
“Have you realized what the verdict at the inquest will be?”
“Yes, heart disease.”
“No, my dear; manslaughter.”
Margaret drove her fingers through the grass. The hill beneath her moved as if it was alive.
“Manslaughter,” repeated Mr. Wilcox. “Charles may go to prison. I dare not tell him. I don’t know what to do–what to do. I’m broken–I’m ended.”
6) James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1990, pgs. 12-13)
Kinnard ran out, tripped over Rudolph. Bud cuffed his writs, bounced his face on the pavement. Ralphie yelped and chewed gravel; Bud launched his wife beater spiel. “You’ll be out in a year and a half, and I’ll know when. I’ll find out who your parole officer is and get cozy with him, I’ll visit you and say hi. You touch her again I’m gonna know, and I’m gonna get you violated on a kiddie raper beef. You know what they do to kiddie rapers up in Quintin? Huh? The Pope a fuckin’ guinea?”
Lights went on—Kinnard’s wife was fussing with the fuze box. She said, “Can I go to my mother’s?”
Bud emptied Ralphie’s pockets—keys, a cash roll. “Take the car and get yourself fixed up.”
Kinnard spat teeth. Mrs. Ralphie grabbed the keys and peeled a ten-spot. Bud said, “Merry Christmas, huh?”
Mrs. Ralphie blew a kiss and backed the car out, wheels over blinking reindeer.
7) Diane Gabaldon’s Voyager (New York: Delcorte Press, 1994, pgs. 220-1)
“Stop you?” I said. “What should I have done? Steamed open your mail and waved the letters under your nose? Made a scene at the faculty Christmas party? Complained to the Dean?”
His lips pressed tight together for a moment, then relaxed.
“You might have behaved as though it mattered to you,” he said quietly.
“It mattered.” My voice sounded strangled.
He shook his head, still staring at me, his eyes dark in the lamplight.
“Not enough.” He paused, face floating pale in the air above his dark dressing gown, then came around the bed to stand by me.
“Sometimes I wondered if I could rightfully blame you,” he said, almost thoughtfully. “He looked like Bree, didn’t he? He was like her?”
He breathed heavily, almost a snort.
“I could see it in your face–when you’d look at her. I could see you thinking of him. Damn you, Claire Beauchamp,” he said, very softly. “Damn you and your face that can’t hide a thing you think or feel.”
There was silence after this, of the sort that makes you hear all the tiny unhearable noises of creaking wood and breathing houses–only in an effort to pretend you haven’t heard what was just said.
“I did love you,” I said softly, at last. “Once.”
“Once,” he echoed. “Should I be grateful for that?”
8) Jayne Krentz’s Family Man (New York: Pocket Books, 1992, pg. 58-9)
“You upset her,” Justine said after a moment.
“Yes. She’s normally very calm. Quite unflappable. She’s also extraordinarily cheerful most of the time. Justine frowned thoughtfully as she picked up her cup of tea. “I’ve often wondered how she does it. It doesn’t seem quite natural somehow. Nevertheless, she’s rather a delight to have around, actually.”
“Is that why you’ve kept her? Because she amuses you?”
Now, you can read all the craft books you like. Try to emulate the greatest writers every day of the week. But in the end the best way to master dialogue is to listen and practice.
And practice A LOT.