by Cynthia Ruchti
What’s “zinger dialogue” in a novel or creative nonfiction?
It’s dialogue that:
reaches its target
and engages the reader to be
drawn deeper into the story
and more deeply connected to the characters.
Many beginning writers struggle with creating effective dialogue. More experienced writers may find their narrative compelling and their dialogue stilted. Others discover familiar words showing up in critiques or contest remarks:
“Work on making dialogue more natural, less stiff and formal.”
“Dialogue is not distinct between and among characters.”
“Use more dialogue to communicate these points.”
Is writing good dialogue an “either you have it or you don’t” skill? Is anyone born knowing how to create good dialogue?
All verbal communication–which in the case of books is verbal communication in print–is a learned skill. We learn both effective and ineffective methods of communicating by hearing it at work around us. An infant might naturally babble. But he or she will not form recognizable words without having heard them.
A writer learns good dialogue skills by reading great dialogue, learning from experienced instructors, and observing the dialogues of life.
Don’t include anything that can be left out. And make it fit the tone of the moment. In casual conversation, we fall into speech patterns that don’t translate well onto the page.
“Hello. Is this Joe?”
“Why yes, it is. I’m Joe.”
“Well, I’m with the fire department.”
“Yes. We’re outside your home right now. You might want to come join us outside. There’s black smoke billowing from your roof.”
“There is? I can’t thank you enough for informing me. Why don’t I hang up and make my way out to the front yard. Yes, I see the flashing lights now. Did your department recently replace some older equipment? That truck looks brand new.”
“Your tax dollars at work, as they say.”
That would be about as awkward a stretch of dialogue for a scene like this as a reader could imagine. But the reader would likely have set the book aside before finishing that short section.
Here’s something that might work:
Eliminate space fillers that occur frequently in oral communication.
Even though you’ll find evidence of the following in many pieces of dialogue, and you’ll hear it in conversation, space fillers are only valuable if they are used sparingly. Experiment with deleting space fillers. See if your dialogue doesn’t flow more smoothly.
“Well, I, um, you see . . . I can’t always predict how this engine will react in cold temperatures. So, you know, it may or may not start.”
“I, uh, understand your dilemma. So, if you don’t mind, I guess the only way I can find out for sure–in light of what you said–is for me to take it for a test drive, wouldn’t you think?”
Consider this alternate version, still real but less cluttered:
“Can’t always predict how this engine will react in cold temperatures. It may not start.”
“I guess the only way for me to find out is to take it for a test drive.”
If it’s important to show hesitation, consider using action beats for that purpose:
“Can’t always predict how this engine will react in cold temperatures.” Carl lifted his grease-stained cap and repositioned it over his equally grease-stained head. “It may not start.”
Study how rhythm and precise word choices distinguish characters from one another.
As you read good books, you’ll notice how even without a speaker attribution, the author manages to make each character’s “voice” distinct.
“But Mrs. Larson, I can’t hardly walk that far with this leg of mine giving me fits every time I think too hard about it, much less carrying that sack ‘a groceries too.”
“That’s your issue, not mine, Muley. You pleaded with me to come along on this excursion. You pledged to carry your part of the load. I expect you to honor your commitment.”
Make judicious use of subtext (the unspoken).
Careful listeners soon learn that in normal conversation, it’s not a question-followed-by-answer or statement-followed-by-statement exchange. We often respond with a line of dialogue that seems unrelated to the question or statement, or says much more by what’s left unsaid.
“How soon is dinner?”
“As soon as it’s ready.”
“I need to know when. Mom just called.”
“I didn’t hear the phone ring.”
“She’s been after me to help her fix the drain pipe on the gutter in the front of her house.”
“I think next week I’ll hire someone to do ours.”
“Elaine, don’t be like this.”
She turned off the stove burner and walked out of the kitchen, calling over her shoulder, “Dinner will be ready just as soon as you get done fixing it.”
Without knowing much more of the story, we can already tell that the husband and wife aren’t communicating smoothly in the marriage. The wife is frustrated with her husband’s inattentiveness to their home’s needs and her requests, but feels compelled to take care of his mother’s needs. The wife is tired of the expectations placed upon her to flex around Mama’s demands for her husband’s time. None of that was said directly with words, but with what wasn’t said and what the reader reads between the lines.
Keep lines of dialogue from becoming monologues.
Few things tire a reader more, and signal that the author has moved from storytelling to expressing live action on the page than dialogue that reads like a monologue. Dialogue, but nature, is an exchange of conversation.
“Tell me about your trip to Paris. That must have been fascinating.”
“Our flight was delayed by two hours, so we weren’t sure if we’d be able to make our connecting flight in London. What a mess. Honestly, you have to wonder where the airlines are spending their money if they can’t keep to a simple flight schedule. But we did manage to make the connecting flight with ten minutes to spare. I’ll never do that again, allow my sister to book our flights for us. She’s been like that since we were kids, always cutting it too close for my tastes. And the taxi ride from the airport was a story in itself.” (Could go on for pages.)
Realistic dialogue moves–and moves along the story’s plot and character development–more like this:
“Tell me about your trip to Paris. That must have been fascinating.”
“Our flight was delayed by two hours, so we weren’t sure if we’d be able to make our connecting flight in London.”
“A whole ocean crossing of time to worry about that, I imagine.”
“What a mess. Honestly, you have to wonder where the airlines are spending their money if they can’t keep to a simple flight schedule.”
“Weather delays don’t abide by schedules. But, yes, it can be frustrating sometimes.”
“We did manage to make the connecting flight with ten minutes to spare.”
“What a relief!”
“I’ll never do that again.”
“Allow my sister to book our flights for us. She’s been like that since we were kids, always cutting it too close for my tastes.”
“I have a brother like that.”
Are you ready to go write zinger dialogue?
What’s a dialogue technique you’ve found effective–either in your reading or your writing?
What’s one dialogue angle you hope to work on in the coming year to improve your writing?