by Joseph T. Shaw
from Writer's Digest June '39
Joe Shaw is the former editor of Black Mask and holds many
warm personal friendships with authors he coached in the years he worked with the
Warner Publications. At present Shaw is an agent, and does editorial assignments
for various publishers.
In a writing job, dialogue stands out the most; it is also the potent
element and certainly the most versatile. Excellent dialogue appears rarely, but
it then invariably commands its just reward; and for that reason it certainly deserves
your careful study and attention.
A cardinal rule in practically all writing is that the author should
keep out of it entirely and allow his characters to tell the story. Nothing weakens
or spoils even good dialogue so much as to have the author act as interpreter between
the quoted lines.
Bill swung around upon Ed.
“You blankety blank blank!”
And the eager author, while his readers await Ed’s comeback,
writes: “Bill was not smiling when he said this. He was angry. Moreover, he
wanted to make Ed angry, force him to make the first move, to reach for his gun.”
“Now, Bill, you just oughtn’t to use names like that.”
And the eager author again: “Ed was a mild-mannered man. He didn’t
relish a fight and he had a very wholesome respect for Bill’s speed on the
draw and the accuracy of his shooting. He obviously preferred to swallow the insult
than to risk the test.”
One must never even think of employing dialogue as a filler of space,
without purpose, to break the long run of descriptive matter. I’m sure you
have frequently seen stories where it seemed that the author, discovering pages without
a spoken word, has suddenly decided that there must be a bit of dialogue thrown in
here. Then comes the query, to himself: “Who shall I have talk? What will I
have them say?”—and the compromise, “Oh, I’ll give them a
half dozen lines about the weather.”
You are right. I’ve seen that far more often in manuscript than
in published form, unless, indeed, you want to go back to the older, traditional
English style with its inconsequential wordiness.
Dialogue should never be used without purpose, without a definite contribution
to be made. If it needs introduction—and it can itself introduce a story, even
a book—its most natural entrance is in the logical evolution of a situation,
where characters have reached a point when they must talk it out, where the story
demands it. Then let the characters you have portrayed tell the story you have set
up, themselves; not in your language and with your own expression, but in their own.
For, essentially, dialogue must be real. It can be smart, if your characters
are smart; it can be original, if your characters have that spark. But it must always
be in character, not only with respect to the personalities to whom you give speech,
but also with regard to the actual situation and its natural requirements. If it’s
real, it strikes you pleasingly; if incongruous, it hits you like a slap in the face.
Of course the attempt for realism can be carried too for. Several writers
have gained a measure of renown for their reproduction of what purports to be actual
speech; but what is good in one medium is not so good in another. Most people say
too much anyway, and are often repetitious. If you have to read every word they say,
even in a short dialogue, it grows monotonous and you easily lose the thread of the
discourse. Written dialogue should be edited, like everything else borrowed from
another medium. As a rule, it should be terse, with only significant expressions
The staccato form is often effective in stepping up the speed when
approaching a climax. Here, however, is an example of the reverse, and is given to
show not only how suspense is sustained right up to the instant action breaks—and
incidentally bringing the book to its peak—but also to indicate the calm steadiness
of the speaker who, facing a seemingly unbeatable opponent, a moment later very nearly
kills him with his bare hands. Moreover, in this instance, the ordinary short, sharp
speech would be insufficient, since the “I” character feels it necessary
before they fight to make absolutely clear to the third person, the woman, exactly
what the situation is, to which she in a way has contributed.
“I will tell you, my dear,” I said, smiling at her, “it
is because we are men and you are only a woman. And we are men in the raw, too, for
things have come to that pass where you are no longer to be wooed but only to be
won. Edward Leng, the Oriental barbarian, will have it so, and I, the Celtic one,
am no better. You have proclaimed your very splendid ideals and given us an unmistakable
dismissal, but the ultimate and lustful savage in us has no use for these things.
We are going to fight savagely for you, and notwithstanding ideals and dismissals,
you will be the chattel of the victor. Now, my pagan woman, if you will stand aside,
we will settle this small matter of ownership. You will be safe in that doorway,
or if you want to escape the victor for the time—only for the time—you
can flee while we struggle . . .”
Leng . . . was now laughing in grim merriment.
“You surprise me pleasantly, King,” he said. “You and I are the same man at bottom.
You have proclaimed my philosophy better than I could myself.”
“I know that,” I said. “It was your philosophy I proclaimed.”
“Come on then and throw me outside,” he said; and before he had finished speaking I was on
This is a rare passage. In the space of a paragraph it sets up the
whole situation, makes the purpose, of the antagonist, brutally clear, exposes his
character to the last fiber, and while extolling the woman, leaves no possible doubt
of what she faces in the event that Leng is the victor. At the same time, it shows
the high quality of King who, having found no other way to solve the situation, gives
himself willingly to the test. Needless to say, it is a passage from a very thoughtful
book, the sort we all hope to write someday.
Here’s another example of careful writing of a different type,
sharper, yet made more impressive by its restraint. Nick Charles tries to talk a
man away from an idea of using his gun.
Nora was saying: “He made me let him in, Nick. He said he had to—”
“I got to talk to you,” the man with the gun said. “That’s all but I got to do
I said: “All right, talk, but do you mind putting the gun away?”
He smiled with his lower lip. “You don’t have to tell me you’re tough. I heard
about you.” He put the pistol in his overcoat pocket. “I’m Shep Morelli.”
“I never heard about you,” I said.
He took a step into the room . . . “I didn’t knock Julia off.”
“Maybe you didn’t, but you’re bringing the news to the wrong place. I got nothing to
do with it.”
“I haven’t seen her in three months,” he said. “We were washed up.”
“Tell the police.”
“. . . But listen; what’s the law doing to me? Do they think I did it? Or is it just something
else to pin on me?”
I shook my head. “I’d tell you if I knew. . . . I’m not in this. Ask the police.”
“That’d be very smart. That’d be the smartest thing I ever did. . . . The boys would
like me to come in and ask ‘em questions. They’d like it right down to the end of their blackjacks.
I come to you on the level. Studsy says you’re on the level. Be on the level.”
“I’m being on the level,” I assured him. “If I knew anything I’d—”
Knuckles drummed on the corridor door, three times, sharply. Morelli’s gun was in his hand
before the noise stopped . . .
And here’s Nick and the copper, after Nick was shot:
“. . . How’d you people happen to pop in?”
The copper . . . said: . . . “Mack here sees this bird duck in, he gives us a ring and we
. . . come on up, and pretty lucky for you.”
“Yes, pretty lucky for me, or maybe I wouldn’t ‘ve got shot.”
“This bird a friend of yours?” “I never saw him before.”
“What’d he want of you?”
“Wanted to tell me he didn’t kill the Wolf girl.”
“What’s that to you?”
“What did he think it was to you?”
“Ask him. I don’t know.”
“I’m asking you.”
“Keep on asking.”
“I’ll ask you another one; you’re going to swear to the complaint on him shooting you?”
“That’s another one I can’t answer right now. Maybe it was an accident.”
These two bits are either side of a shooting, and one point of interest
is that both give practically the same impression of Nick Charles, cool, with his
wits about him and apparently unworried. In the first of the two scenes, Nick knows
very well that Morelli, a gunman on the dope, will shoot, as he does, on the slightest
suggestion that he is being crossed; yet there is nothing flurried or strained in
Nick’s talk; nor in Morelli’s either, which makes him a more dangerous,
deadly type than if he were hysterical or threatening. Nick admits that he “could
hear the blood in my ears and my lips felt swollen,” yet he holds the same
poise under the gun to mask his own action. It can be noted that the restraint of
this dialogue renders the action that follows, and the whole scene, more real and
The full effect of the action is accomplished because the emotion produced
by it is not anticipated, and therefore not spoiled, by exactly similar emotion being
exploited before it actually occurs.
I often have had reason to think that most dialogue is done too hastily.
It is possible that the writer has his mind preoccupied with the action toward which
he is approaching and, considering that it is the all-important part of the story,
gives divided attention to the buildup and particularly to the talk that introduces
Dialogue has practically all the properties which a story demands.
It can be both a story builder and a character builder. Of Mice and Men employed
the functions of dialogue to their fullest extent. A sparse word of setup—the
scene—a meager description of one big man and one small man, and dialogue supplies
all the rest.
“Lennie! Lennie, for God’s sake don’t drink so much. Lennie,
you gonna be sick like you was last night.”
“Tha’s good. You drink some, George You take a good big drink.”
“I ain’t sure it’s good water. Looks kinda scummy.”
Then Lennie makes ripples in the water. “Look, George. Look what I done.”
* * *
George looked sharply at him. “What’d you take outa that pocket?”
“Ain’t a thing in my pocket.”
“I know there ain’t. You got it in your hand. What you got in your hand—hiding it?”
“I ain’t got nothin’, George. Honest.”
“Come on. Give it here.”
“It’s only a mouse, George. . . . I don’t know where there is no other mouse. I remember
a lady used to give ‘em to me . . .”
“. . . An’ she stopped givin’ ‘em to ya. You always killed them.”
“They was so little. I’d pet ‘em and pretty soon they bit my finger and I pinched their
head a little and they was dead—because they was so little.” . . .
“Well, you ain’t pettin’ no mice while you walk with me. You remember where we’re
“I forgot again.”
“We’re gonna work on a ranch like the one we come from up North. Now, look—I’ll
give th’ boss th’ work tickets, but you ain’t gonna say a word. You just stand there
and say nothin’. If he finds out what a crazy bastard you are, we won’t get no job, but if
he sees ya work “ before he hears you talk, we’re set. Ya got that?”
“Sure, George. Sure I got it.”
“O.K. Now when we go in to see the boss, what you gonna do?”
“I . . . I . . . I ain’t goin’ to say nothin’. Jus’ gonna stand there.”
From even these few lines there can be no question of the characters
of the two men; in fact, the whole setup of the story is here, even to the planting
of the first indication that big Lennie is a killer, not through any “meanness,” but
because of his enormous strength, the feeble mind that controls his impulse to bear
down when the object of his petting resists. The work is open to criticism as a book.
It is to all intents a play presented in book form, for when dramatized, the descriptive
passages were used as stage directions. But it does show the extent to which dialogue
can be employed; for here, almost unassisted, dialogue not only makes characterization
brutally clear, but it also exposes the motive of the story, expresses thought, outlines
the action and carries on and develops the story. Such dialogue cannot well be broken
down or substituted by another type. This dialogue is the story.
While not so definite in characterization, another excellent example
of the employment of dialogue to forward the story is Octavus Roy Cohen’s popular
Collier’s serial, “I Love You Again.” And perhaps of more immediate
interest is the work of a writer who a few short years ago was a leader in rough-paper
detective fiction and is now pointed to by the smooth-paper editors for his outstanding
ability in story construction.
Now, if you analyze those older stories of Frederick Nebel, you will
observe that they are very close to ninety percent dialogue. Years ago, as it has
been suggested in the beginning of this paper, Nebel set himself definitely to study
and acquire command of the various functions of dialogue, and he was one of the first
of a particular group to use dialogue to develop his plot. That dialogue did not
show the studied effect of smartness but in other respects it can be taken for a
pretty safe model. For one thing, it was always in character. It was hardly necessary
for the text to point out that McBride said this, and Kennedy said that. Their respective
speech was unmistakable and reflected clearly not only the character of each man
but also his method of thought, mood and mannerism.
The talk between the two, and with the other characters, brought out
the story, built it up and then introduced the action climax.
Kennedy in his quiet way has been snooping, found the trail of guilt
leading to a man whom the blunt McBride has not suspected, and in place of telling
it to McBride, lets the man implicate himself:
Kennedy said quietly: “. . . Torgensen was killed by a .38. That phone call I just had was
from Headquarters. They’ve got the gun over there. I found it in a dump heap across the way
from the station. Haims at Headquarters says it checks with slugs found in Torgensen. A dealer down
in Beaumont Street told me how he sold it to Lewis Friel.”
Friel shouted: “That’s a lie!”
“You can’t prove it’s a lie.”
“Oh, can’t I,” snapped Friel. He pulled a gun from his pocket and said:
“There’s my gun and I’ll face that dealer and make him prove he sold me the gun you’re
Kennedy said: “Steve, take a look at his gun.”
McBride strode across toward Friel. Something snapped in Friel’s eyes and he jumped back. “Hold
on there!” he said.
McBride scowled. “Don’t point that gun at me.”
“I’m pointing it at you.”
Marcia said: “I’ve got them from this side, Lewis.”
Kennedy turned. Marcia Friel was holding a very small automatic.
Lewis Friel said to Kennedy: “You almost trapped me, smart boy.”
“What do you mean, almost?” Kennedy drawled.
And after the fireworks, McBride, lying in a hospital bed, said:
“Talk to me, Kennedy . . . What about that gun you had Haims examine?”
“I did find it where I said I found it, down near the station. Some jumpy guy must have tossed
it away. So when Haims told me over the wire that it didn’t check, I told Lewis that it did just
as a gag. He pulled his gun and I meant to have you take that and check it.”
All of the foregoing are samples of good dialogue, and an examination
of the fuller works, of which these are merely brief excerpts, will show clearly
the important part they play in establishing the quality of the respective stories.
If the dialogue was bad, in respect of being careless, out of character, faulty with
regard to situation and emotion, without significant meaning, these books would not
have achieved the success they did. And it should be borne in mind that the works
of the writers quoted are all of outstanding merit and made so in largest measure
because of the excellence of their dialogue.
A writer brought in a book-length script with the candid desire to
learn why it had not been accepted by one of the very publishers to whom it had been
offered. He believed his story was intrinsically a good one, and he was correct.
The dialogue was thoughtful and meaningful and at times smart; but an analysis showed
that the speech of his dozen or more characters had a notable sameness, expressing
the thought, the method of thinking and the philosophy, not of the respective characters,
but of the author himself.
Comparisons are odious; and it would not be in good part to reproduce
a passage of some published story and attempt to pick upon its dialogue weakness
and fault. But if your story does not sell—granted that essentially it is a
good story—or if it sells but does not hit, you might have a look at your dialogue
and see if it has taken enough part in the telling of the story, if it is in real,
true character—that is, if it reflects truthfully the character of the respective
person and the emotion of the particular situation—if it has significance of
meaning or is merely a wasteful jumble of words hastily thrown together; in short,
see if it correctly exposes characterization and develops the plot of your story;
see if it produces any of the varied emotions or falls flat.
Your writing of good, effective dialogue can be improved by study and
practice. First, you must know your respective characters thoroughly, just what sort
and type of men and women they are, how they will act and react in a given situation.
Of course you know your plot and just in what manner you want to develop it. Then
cast yourself into the character that is to speak and express the thought, the feeling
and the meaning that particular character would naturally express under the circumstances
and in his language and in his way of speaking.
Dialect in dialogue is not a short cut to characterization. It may
denote personality, whether a person be black or white, foreign or domestic, ignorant
or educated. It should never be difficult to read and understand unless, in rare
cases, the purpose is to cause the reader to pause in his running, to read slowly
and thereby to get the full gist of the passage. But as a rule it should not check
for a moment the run of the story and should be given in small doses. It can get
monotonous and annoying. Often a suggestion of dialect is wisest, especially if the
particular speaker has much to say. Its chief forte is color and glamour, when skillfully
handled. And again we take a bow to Octavus Roy Cohen:
“How come you ain’t usin’ yo’ muscle mo’ frequent,
“Is you incineratin’ I ain’t doin’ my share?”
“Well, you suttinly ain’t doin’ no mo’ than.”
“Ise expendin’ my full stren’th.”
“Says Ise puttin’ out my foremostest muscle. An’ don’t you like it, you can lump
“Life sho’ is queer, ain’t it, Frenzy?”
“Did I say it wasn’t?”
“You ain’t said nothin’. I jist ast you wan’t it?”