Okay, here are some examples (good ones) of dialogue from some of my favorite writers. First up, Elmore “Dutch” Leonard from his novel, “Unknown Man #89.”
“What do you call what you do?”
Mr. Perez was coming back with his whiskey over ice, taking his time.
“My title? Well, my card says I’m an investment consultant. How’s that sound?” Mr. Perez smiled easily. “I suppose you’re a lawyer, too?”
“Why do you suppose that?” He lowered himself carefully, holding the lowball glass in front of him, and sank down in the chair. “I guess I just assumed you were.”
“You hire lawyers,” Mr. Perez said. “You don’t have to be one. Thank God.” “Can I ask, how do you happen to know Jay Walt?”
“I don’t know him. Least I didn’t,” Mr. Perez said. “I used him once before, he was all right. You see, locating people, a very good way to find out about them is through their credit rating. So I generally use somebody in the business. I believe he was the first or second one in the Yellow Pages, Allied Credit something or other. Let me ask you, are you a friend of his?”
“No,” Ryan said.
“You don’t care too much for him either.” Ryan didn’t say anything.
“I have kind of a negative feeling myself,” Mr. Perez said. “Man talks out loud in elevators. I was thinking, there’s not much reason to keep him around. That’s if you’ve got something to tell me”
“A few things,” Ryan said. “But I don’t know what I’m into yet. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Brian’s commentary: Typical Leonard; nice, easy flow. Short sentences. Approximates actual language. This is a good sentence…
“You see, locating people, a very good way to find out about them is through their credit rating.”
An ordinary writer would do it this way…
“You see, when you’re trying to locate people, a very good way to find out about them is through their credit rating.”
A subtle difference, but an important one. People don’t speak in complete thoughts; most of what we say isn’t grammatically correct. If we write dialogue the way they taught us in school, it sounds stilted, artificial.
Something else: Try not to make all your characters sound alike. You can differentiate them by the way they speak; upper class, poorly-educated, ethnic (although this is tricky if overdone), whatever. I just finished a book of short stories called, “Take Your Legs With You.” It’s about a Las Vegas boxer, an ex-champ, on the comeback trail. While the writer, Darrell Spencer, is a fine craftsman, all of his characters sound exactly the same, as if they fell out of a Damon Runyan book and
wound up here in Las Vegas. A small quibble on my part but one that got in the way of the story.
Leonard also uses the word “said” almost exclusively when identifying which character is speaking. No gimmicks here. Again, nothing to interfere with the enjoyment of the novel.
Next is a passage from Carl Hiaasen’s “Stormy Weather”:
He found her sitting up, the covers pulled to her chin. She was gazing at the wall. “I thought it was a dream,” she said.
“Please don’t be afraid.” “Are they real?”
“Friends send them to me,” Augustine said. “From abroad, mostly. One was a Christmas present from a fishing guide in Islamorada.” He wasn’t sure what Bonnie Lamb thought of his hobby, so he apologized for the fright. “Some people collect coins. I’m into forensic artifacts.”
“Not fresh ones — artifacts. Believe it or not, a good skull is hard to come by.”
This was the line that usually sent them bolting for the door. Bonnie Lamb didn’t move. “Can I take a look?”
Brian’s commentary: Hiaasen, who also writes for the Miami Herald, is another author with a gift for making dialogue sound natural and effortless. “From abroad, mostly,” helps the rhythm of Augustine’s thought. As a journalist, Hiaasen has most likely conducted hundreds of interviews, which is reflected in his work. In the above exchange, Hiaasen also uses dialogue to set up and reveal a small mystery.
Confession time. I’ve been known to read (and enjoy) Dean Koontz. One of my guilty pleasures. The man knows how to write a page-turner. His work is wildly uneven, but “Watchers” and “The Bad Place” are nicely done. With Koontz, though, you have to overlook some clunky dialogue. He tends to give his characters long speeches that sound just a little out of whack. Is it just me, or is this a bit artifical?
“One way we’re different but complimentary is our motivation. This line of work suits me because I get a kick out of helping people who’re in trouble through no fault of their own. I like to see good triumph. Sounds like a comic book hero, but it’s the way I feel. You, on the other hand, are primarily motivated by a desire to stomp the bad guys. Yeah, sure, I like to see the bad guys all crumpled and whimpering, too, but it’s not as important to me as it is to you. And, of course, you’re happy to help innocent people, but with you that’s secondary to the stomping and crushing. Probably because yo’re still working out your rage over the murder of your mother.”
Not terrible. I’ve certainly read much worse. In fact, I can’t quite put my finger on the problem, but it seems wrong to me. Any thoughts? Feel free to weigh in. Also, if you send me some of your favorite examples (good and bad), I’ll be sure to include them in future posts.
Thanks for listening, er, reading.