Guest Post: What’d he say? A key to good dialogue


Today I have a great guest post from  author Bobby Mathews.


Yesterday, my wife asked me if I wanted to go for a walk.

I didn’t. I never do. She knows that, but she asks anyway. I’ve become accustomed to this marriage thing, though—a lot of the time, what my significant other is saying is what she doesn’t say at all.

What my wife was saying was this: “We’ve both been busy lately, and I’d like some time with you and our son. The sun is out. Let’s get out of the office and house for once and enjoy this first blush of Spring together.”

Why didn’t she just say that?

Well, here’s a hint: People often don’t say what they really mean in real life. They don’t ask the questions they want answered. They hint, they hem and haw. They try conversational gambits. And if someone DOES ask a direct question, they’re often considered rude or uncouth.

You can use that in your fiction! Elmore Leonard does it all the time. (And there is no better American novelist from whom to learn.) Let’s try a quick scene. Instead of having a character ask for help, and the second character agreeing immediately, let’s watch these guys come at each other from oblique angles:

“I just looked at the bank,” Soames said. “One guard. Two cameras. Oughta be an easy job. In and out in five minutes.”
Billy Hatchett looked up from his plate, picked up the linen napkin from his lap, and patted his mouth dry.
“Can’t be that easy,” he said. “Or else you’d be standing here with the money.”
“No,” Soames said. “I’d be on the road outta town.”
“So you’re saying you need help.”
“I don’t know about need. I wouldn’t turn it down.”
Hatchett felt the weight of the gun in his waistband. It felt like it was five pounds heavier than when Soames walked in. The front sight dug against his belly, and he shifted around to get more comfortable.
“I could be talked into it,” he said. “If the price is right.”

You get a lot out of a passage there that’s mostly dialogue. First, Soames and Hatchett are thieves. I don’t have to tell you that Soames has sized up a bank—he’s doing it for me. Hatchett is a little different, a little calmer, maybe a little smartass.

He knows Soames is going to ask for his help, and it gives him a little power in the exchange. He can be a little coy.

But Soames is a pro, too—and he can concede that he needs Hatchett, after a fashion. A pro does what he needs to do to get the job done. If that means playing along with Hatchett, then that’s what it takes.

There’s a little exposition after that, Hatchett showing the dread he feels when Soames comes in the restaurant. He knows he’s gonna agree to help him, and that immediately puts a knot in his stomach. It’s important to show the impact of dialogue.

The last part is Hatchett capitulating, giving Soames what he wants: a partner to rob the bank. Will they get away with it? I don’t know. But I know the dialogue is good enough that I’d like to see where these two go.

Try it with some of your characters. They don’t have to capitulate and give one another what they want immediately. They can circle each other, look for weak spots. Real people do it all the time. Why should your characters be any different?

Writing dialogue like this can help infuse your characters with a sense of heightened reality. Remember that each character wants something. He (or she) isn’t just a cardboard cutout put there to do the main character‘s bidding. Characters get in each other’s way all the time, and good dialogue is one way to let them do that.


The Big Gamble:


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