“You talkin’ to me?” Now there’s a famous line of dialogue. Robert De Niro uses it several times in the movie, “Taxi Driver,” turning it into a pop culture catchphrase, alongside such other memorable dialogue as "Round up the usual suspects,” and “Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.”
The dialogue in your novel is as important as plot, character and setting. It can literally make or break a book. Here’s what it should do:
1. Define the character.
2. Reveal the character’s emotions and temperament.
3. Stir up conflict.
4. Convey subtext, the layer of meaning beneath the surface of the words.
5. Move the story forward.
Let’s look at these elements individually.
1. Define the character. A common flaw in a novel is that all the characters sound alike. And yet if you think of any two people in your own life, they aren’t the same. They have different personalities, mannerisms, quirks, appearances, backgrounds and levels of education and intelligence. One person may have a soft southern drawl while another has the deep, full voice of a radio announcer. In my first novel, The Starlite Drive-in, one sister is quiet, tentative and fearful. The other is bossy, outspoken and, because she has allergies, frequently honks into a red bandanna. One is an introvert, the other an extrovert. One dresses in pretty shades of teal, the other in bib overalls. If you’re really good at defining your character, at making them distinctive, you often won’t need a tag. We’ll know who’s speaking.
2. Dialogue is a great way to convey a character’s emotions and temperament. Scarlett O’Hara is a marvelous example. After only a few pages of her dialogue, we know she is vain, spoiled, melodramatic and conniving. Nothing she says is bland or spiritless. She is what I call an extreme character, one that is so unique and unconventional we remember her 76 years after the book’s release.
3. Show conflict through dialogue. The following passage shows how dialogue accompanied by action can create conflict and tension as well as reveal emotion and temperament. In the novel, the man has just learned his sister-in-law bought his daughter new shoes.
"Dad set his lips together as tight as chimney bricks. ‘Your sister didn’t have to buy the most expensive pair in the whole god-damned store, did she?’
Mom didn’t answer.
‘Well, did she?’
I stood there motionless, not sure whether I should stay or try to slip away. I knew better than to open my mouth.
Mom’s eyes clouded. ‘She offered to pay for them.’
He banged his fist on the table. ‘And how do you think that makes me feel?’
She was silent. My throat tightened.
Dad straightened to his full height. ‘Well, I’ll tell you. It makes me feel like I can’t even put my own kid in shoes.’"
4. Convey subtext. Subtextual dialogue separates unskilled writers from the professionals. Through layers of meaning, subtext takes your novel to a higher, deeper level. Dialogue without subtext is considered “on the nose” and amateurish. In Get Shorty, Elmore Leonard, a master of dialogue and subtext, uses short, crisp sentences that are so packed with substance it would take several pages to analyze them properly.
"Karen felt the bed move beneath Harry’s weight. Lying on her side, she opened her eyes to the digital numbers in the dark, 4:12 in pale green. Behind her Harry continued to move, settling in. She watched the numbers change to 4:13. ‘Harry?’
'Oh, you awake?’
‘What’s going on?’
‘It’s late—I felt you wouldn’t mind if he stayed over.’
‘Harry, this isn’t your house.’
‘Just tonight. I put him in the maid’s room.’
‘I don’t have a maid’s room.’
'The one back by the kitchen.’
There was a silence.
'I don’t get it.’
‘This guy—what’re you doing?’
’He’s got some ideas, gonna help me out.’
'Harry, the guy’s a crook.’
‘So? This town he should fit right in.’
Harry rolled away from her, groaning in comfort. ‘Night.’
There was a silence, the house quiet.
‘What’s going on?”
‘I told you.’
‘You want me to call you a cab? You and your buddy?’
She felt Harry roll back toward her."
Notice Karen never says “I’m angry” or “Get out of here,” but she means it, and Harry is practicing avoidance, leading to escalating tension as the scene progresses. Although the characters don’t seem to recognize the humor in their conversation, the reader certainly can. Sarcasm, innuendo, irony, satire and parody in dialogue all convey subtextual messages.
5. All dialogue should move the plot forward. Dialogue is not conversation. It should serve multiple functions. It can reveal character, change the direction of a scene, convey hidden meanings, further your characters’ agendas and add drama. It can deliver information but it should never be an info dump or lengthy exposition.
It should flow naturally, with cadence if possible. If you use dialect, keep it to a minimum and make sure the meaning is perfectly clear. Keep it sharp and short. Less is more. Use a zinger when you can. How about this line from the film, “As Good As It Gets”?
"When you first came into breakfast, when I first saw you, I thought you were handsome. Then, of course, you spoke."
It takes a lot of practice to create memorable dialogue like that, but follow these tips and someday people may be quoting lines from your novel.