Writing Good Dialogue (4)

The Dude: Walter, what is the point? Look, we all know who is at fault here, what the fuck are you talking about?
Walter: Huh? No, what the fuck are you… I’m not… We’re talking about unchecked aggression here, dude.
Donny: What the fuck is he talking about?
The Dude: My rug.
Walter: Forget it, Donny, you’re out of your element!
The Dude: Walter, the chinaman who peed on my rug, I can’t go give him a bill, so what the fuck are you talking about?
Walter: What the fuck are you talking about? The chinaman is not the issue here, Dude. I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude. Across this line, you DO NOT… Also, Dude, chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian-American, please.
The Dude: Walter, this isn’t a guy who built the railroads here. This is a guy…
Walter: What the fuck are you…?
The Dude: Walter, he peed on my rug!
Donny: He peed on the Dude’s rug.
Walter: Donny you’re out of your element! Dude, the Chinaman is not the issue here!

One of the best dialogues ever written was the three way conversation between The Dude, Walter and Donny in The Big Lebowski. How the Coen brothers ever came up with a script like this is a mystery for the ages. In most movies, fans are shocked to learn that their favorite lines were ad libbed by the actors on the set. But fans of The Big Lebowski have expressed shock upon learning that almost none of the lines in the movie were spontaneous, the reverse of the usual reaction. This is because so much of the script sounds spontaneous. It is a testament to how well the screenplay is crafted that practically the entire movie looks and sounds like a string of spontaneous dialogues.

Each person has emotional character. The Dude is laid back, Walter is always angry, and Donny is slightly confused. Each has a point of view, each has position, and each is clueless in his own way.


If ever there was an example that proves dialogues in screenplays and dialogues in novels need to be crafted differently, this is it. You simply cannot transplant this dialogue into a novel. The characters cannot get to the point of their own arguments because they are distracted by their own thoughts mid-sentence. (I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude. Across this line, you DO NOT… Also, Dude, chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. ) This sort of twist and jump cannot be communicated to the audience without a good actor delivering it. However, other elements of the dialogue do operate on the same basic principle that makes good dialogues good in novels.

The Dude: It’s like what Lenin said… you look for the person who will benefit, and, uh, uh…
Donny: I am the walrus.
The Dude: You know what I’m trying to say…
Donny: I am the walrus.
Walter: That fucking bitch…
The Dude: Oh yeah!
Donny: I am the walrus.
Walter: Shut the fuck up, Donny! V.I. Lenin. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov!
Donny: What the fuck is he talking about, Dude?

Walter says Lenin, Donny hears Lennon. The ensuing miscommunication is hilarious.

A dialogue exposes character and moves the plot. A dialogue is as much about miscommunication as it is about communication. A dialogue tells a backstory by showing what kind of expressions, associations or sensitivities each character expresses.

One of the most difficult things a writer must do is to resist the temptation to explain. The part we do not explain is what gives the story depth.

Here is an excellent piece of dialogue I was lucky enough to come across in an internet discussion completely by accident. I am definitely going to use it in a novel sometime.

“There are a lot of very attractive women in this group”
“That was creepy”

The first line, though seemingly innocuous and well intentioned,  can come off as inappropriate in numerous circumstances. The second line, quite honest and understandable, is still a curve ball that can pull the rug from under the first speaker. It also hints at a lot of backstory. What are the possible motivations of the first speaker that crossed the listener’s mind, and what was it that impressed the second speaker as creepy?
As an alternative, consider this:

“There are a lot of very attractive women in this group”
“Thank you for the compliment”

That does not knock anything askew. It does not expose the cluelessness of the first speaker. It does not make the reader uncomfortable and most readers are likely to skip right past it. A good line knocks some coffee out of the cup like an unexpected speed bump.

But more importantly, the two characters talking must have different mind sets behind their words. One says Lenin, the other must hear Lennon. When one says “attractive” (with innocent intentions) and the other hears “creepy”, the former is only trying to put a smile on the listener’s face, but the latter is automatically on guard for a potential sexual approach, or being evaluated on their appearance alone. Each person is an inhabitant of a different mind set. This is what we want to see in a dialogue.

If the speaker had said, “There are a lot of ugly bitches in here” and the listener was offended, it reveals considerably less, because you are supposed to be offended by a line like that. When the speaker says “attractive” and the listener is offended, it illustrates that the two people see the world differently. The inciting words must seem innocuous.

“What the fuck is he talking about?”

The most important element is that your characters should be able to say “What the fuck is he talking about?” in the middle of the dialogue and the line can fit in naturally. The characters should wonder what the other person is talking about. But the reader should never be left wondering.

I previously talked about the “random guy at Starbucks” dialogue.

Random guy at Starbucks: Doing homework?
Me: No, writing a novel.
Guy: O.O really? When is it going to be published?
Me: Oh, it’s just for fun. (insert brief explanation of NaNo here.)
Guy: But…you’re like…hot.
Me: *smh/facepalm* what does that even mean? (reinsert headphones here.)

Two people are totally baffled at each other, but it is very easy to understand what is happening. This is what dialogue is all about. Which brings me back to this:

“There are a lot of very attractive women in this group”
“That was creepy”

Two completely different perspectives in two simple lines. There is a seed of a story here. In fact, this is a pivotal dialogue from which a whole novel can grow. I do not know how native English speakers will respond to this dialogue, but I cannot get over how lucky I was to stumble over this example. Quite frankly, I am obsessed with it.

These two lines makes me want to dig deeper. What kind of a man would say the first line, and in what setting? What kind of a woman, with what history, would immediately respond with the second line? If this was how they met, how will their relationship grow? Good dialogue should make you wonder. And if the dialogue you have stirs your imagination, you just might have something there.


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