Today’s question (and the source material) comes from Sharmila.

Dialogue. Everyone talks about how to make it interesting, but give examples. Lots of them.

Okay, so not the easiest of questions. Whole books have been written in an attempt to answer it. But it’s always someone else’s dialogue. The examples these books give are too abstract, or too simple, or too academic, and not nearly practical enough to be useful.

Before we begin, a disclaimer. Those of you who have developed an ear for dialogue won’t need this article. Be my guest and read it if you like, but this article is for those of you who think their dialogue is… a work in progress, an acquired taste, a less than perfect rendition of how people talk, a sore point in your writing, or, if you’re a fan of plain talk, crap.

I will take a couple of such diamonds in the rough from Sharmila’s piece and improve on what’s already there. Today’s the first installment.

Example #1

This comes from an opening of a scene.

“What the fuck, captain?” Sargent McNamara slammed his fist on the table.

“Clean that mouth. You are on my ship,” said Marsh. Then he sat down across the table. “By now you know that we can’t make it to the new world, not on this leg of the trip. The ship is not equipped with enough of anything to keep us going.”

“We have tools on board and enough seeds to grow food." McNamara gestured toward the greenhouse garden.

“Yes, but not enough water or oxygen. Get your men to bring order by any means necessary without harming the ship, while my crew and I figure out a solution.”

“With what?” McNamara jeered his words such a way that Marsh knew that mutiny was almost certain.

“I’ll make sure that you three receive large properties on new world’s prime locations when we do get there. You’ll still be young enough to enjoy it.”

First of all, all the action beats in dialogue need to go. Let your reader’s imagination fill in the gaps. Every one of your readers is perfectly capable of playing out scenes in their heads using the cast of characters provided by the author.

After cleanup, the dialogue becomes leaner and easier to understand. And because it’s easier to understand, we can see there’s meaning missing from the piece.

“What the fuck, captain?" Sargent McNamara said.

“Clean that mouth. You are on my ship," Marsh said. “By now you know that we can't make it to the new world, not on this leg of the trip. The ship is not equipped with enough of anything to keep us going.”

“We have tools on board and enough seeds to grow food."

“Yes, but not enough water or oxygen. Get your men to bring order by any means necessary without harming the ship, while my crew and I figure out a solution.”

“With what?”

“I’ll make sure that you three receive large properties on new world’s prime locations when we do get there. You’ll still be young enough to enjoy it.”

Now, beat by beat.

”What the fuck, captain?" Sargent McNamara said.

The reader is probably wondering the same thing. Even with the slam of the fist on the table, the reason for the outrage is unclear.

“What, the fuck, do you think you’re doing, captain?” McNamara said gesturing to the greenhouse where all the prisoners were being escorted.

That’s enough for us to understand the reason for McNamara’s outrage. Next:

“Clean that mouth. You are on my ship," Marsh said. “By now you know that we can't make it to the new world, not on this leg of the trip. The ship is not equipped with enough of anything to keep us going.”

Opens well, but loses the bossy voice along the way.

“Clean that mouth. You’re on my ship," Marsh said. “We won’t make it to the new world. Not this time around. So it’s them or us.”

Shorter, harsher, punchier. The words of a commander. And there’s a threat and a source of tension hidden in the last sentence. Next:

“We have tools on board and enough seeds to grow food."

A reasonable argument, but lacks the zest of the opening statement.

“Bullshit. We have tools, and seeds to grow food.”

Shorter, punchier. You can practically see the desperation on McNamara’s face. Next:

“Yes, but not enough water or oxygen. Get your men to bring order by any means necessary without harming the ship, while my crew and I figure out a solution.”

Again, adjusted for a more decisive, commanding tone:

“But not enough water or oxygen. My orders are final. Now get this mess under control.”

Next comes a vague bit. Even with the “jeered his words such a way that Marsh knew that mutiny was almost certain.” it is hard to picture it as a threat of mutiny.

“With what?”

A threat needs… well, a threat. Like so:

“Yeah? And what if I refuse?”

Or, because the character may care more about the profits than the people:

“Yeah? And what’s in it for me?”

Which brings us to the last line:

“I’ll make sure that you three receive large properties on new world’s prime locations when we do get there. You’ll still be young enough to enjoy it.”

But would a commander reply in such a placating tone to an insubordinate sargent? Hardly.

“Get out of my sight and get it done, McNamara. I won’t ask again. Or have you forgotten about what’s waiting for us at the end of this? Eh? If we can get there alive.”

Which, if put all the pieces together, looks like this:

“What, the fuck, do you think you’re doing, captain?” McNamara said gesturing to the greenhouse where all the prisoners were being escorted.

“Clean that mouth. You are on my ship," Marsh said. “We won’t make it to the new world. Not this time around. So it’s them or us.”

“Bullshit. We have tools and seeds to grow food.”

“But not enough water or oxygen. My orders are final. Now get this mess under control.”

“Yeah? And what if I refuse?”

“Get out of my sight and get it done, McNamara. I won’t ask again. Or have you forgotten about what’s waiting for us at the end of this? Eh? If we can get there alive.”

An exchange between two characters that is now rich in meaning, subtext, and conflict. As all dialogue should.

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