Writing Authentic Dialogue

As a burgeoning young writer growing up in the Boston area in the 1970s and 80s, I continually looked for inspiration around me. I grew up hardscrabble, Roman Catholic, trying to make my way in the world. College was a luxury, and while my parents didn’t help me financially, they supported me as best as they could. I worked on the docks of South Boston and drove a cab in order to pay for tuition. While I didn’t have the chops at that time to be a professional writer, I was inadvertently storing a vast amount of experiential data in my head that could someday be used to write the kind of stories I someday wanted to tell. But I knew of no great novels that took place in the Irish Riviera—Boston’s South Shore. I hadn’t discovered any great characters who talked like I did.

Then I came across Robert Parker and his Spenser novels. While I loved Parker’s sense of place and characterization, his tightly woven plots, the thrills and chills that Hawk and Spenser provided, the dialogue didn’t speak to me in any kind of meaningful way. Not that I was searching for it back then. I was young and still trying to reverse engineer the novel’s I admired. I’m not sure I even believed that a novel’s dialogue could move me in any meaningful way. Dialogue, I believed, was merely a vehicle to move the plot along.

Then along came George V. Higgins’s and I was blown away by he was trying to do. The literary structure he utilized was revelatory. Not only did V. Higgins write dialogue relevant to the milieu that I grew up in, but the way he structured his novels was unlike anything I’d ever read. His novels were practically devoid of exposition, primarily because he allowed his characters to tell the story and fill in the plot gaps. In fact, his stories were mostly comprised of long passages of conversational dialogue, and it was this amazingly authentic dialogue that propelled the intrigue. Not only had he nailed the blue collar Boston accents that I was used to hearing on a daily basis, but he knew all the esoteric terminology of our idiom. He wrote speech in the clipped, informal manner that wise-guys and small time criminals actually used. Here’s a quote by V. Higgins on dialogue.

Many of my critics seem to feel that they have to say, or strongly imply, that my gift for dialogue is all I have; or that writing dialogue is not the most important attribute a novelist can have . . .  A man or woman who does not write good dialogue is not a first-rate writer. I do not believe that a writer who neglects or has not learned to write good dialogue can be depended on for accuracy in his understanding of character and in his creation of characters. Therefore to dismiss good dialogue so lightly is evidence of a critic’s incomplete understanding of what constitutes a good novel.

I grew up in Quincy, just south of Boston. Quincy is separated from Boston by the murky Neponset River. It was where many Dorchester and Southie refugees landed when desegregation became the law of the land in Beantown. It meant that the students in these rough-and-tumble neighborhoods got bussed to other, more hostile, neighborhoods. Black students got bussed to Southie and white students bussed out to schools in Roxbury, and the result was often explosive, violent and chaotic. Because of that many Irish-American families fled across the river to the suburbs of the South Shore—the Irish Riviera.

The Boston dialect back then varied from neighborhood to neighborhood, and from town to town. It changed from one street in Southie to the next. Quincy and the South Shore had their own particular way of speaking, although to someone from the Midwest we might have all sounded similarly pedestrian and provincial. Somewhere in our long heritage we managed to drop the letter R from our alphabet.

Higgins absolutely nailed the way people from my neck of the woods spoke. He grew up in the Boston area. He went to college in Boston. Worked as a prosecutor there, too, and knew the way criminals, cops and lawyers spoke. Not only was his writing fresh and exciting, but it spoke to me in a deeply personal way. Prior to reading him, I took my accent for granted, never really knowing that our way of speaking would become fodder for parody. V. Higgins took our strange dialect and elevated it to high art. In later years, to my hilarity, it seemed everyone wanted to talk like me. I moved to the West Coast and it was as if I was speaking a foreign language to the people there. Hollywood tried to teach their biggest stars how to talk with a Boston accent, but it always sounded silly and laughable to me. Mastering the Boston accent, it seems, takes years of immersion and intense study. Words and phrases like ‘whiffle’, ‘bang-a-uey’ and ‘jimmies’ were part of the jargon. The sports teams were referred to as the Celts, Sox and the Bs, and the Bs played in the Gahden where Orr, Espo and Cheesy were legends.

V. Higgins novels forced me to re-examine language and writing, and how dialogue could be written in a meaningful and powerful way to tell very personal stories. Who knew that you could structure an entire novel in such a conversational manner, and a crime novel to boot. Like a linguistic historian seeking to save a tribe’s dying dialect, V. Higgins encapsulated a time and idiom in Boston’s history that is long gone and ain’t coming back. V. Higgins was ‘wicked pissa’ in Boston parlance—and here I’m falling into a bit of cliche, but that’s okay.

Here’s a sample of V. Higgins work.

“Count your fuckin’ knuckles,” the stocky man said.

“All of them?” Jackie Brown said.

“Ah Christ,” the stocky man said. “Count as many of them as you want. I got four more. One on each finger. Know how I got those? I bought some stuff from a man that I had his name, and it got traced, and the man I bought it for, he went to MCI Walpole for fifteen to twenty-five. Still in there, but he had some friends. I got an extra set of knuckles. Shut my hand in a drawer. Then one of them stomped the drawer shut. Hurt like a fucking bastard. You got no idea how it hurt.”

I discovered many other writers after that, although none as good as writing dialogue as V. Higgins. There was William Kennedy and his Albany based novels. Elmore Leonard. Ken Bruen and his wonderful White Trilogy. Martin Amis, who I loved, and who accomplished similar results with his London-based novels, although he never relied on dialogue to carry the full load of his tales. No novelist that I can think of used dialogue as effectively and strategically as V. Higgins. He wrote crime novels that were not centered as much on crime, as they were on the criminals committing these crimes, and then sitting around talking about it.

Getting dialogue right in your writing is tricky and often a double-edged sword. Overuse of a particular accent in a novel can get tiresome to a reader, sapping valuable energy from the plot’s flow. If not used properly, regional accents can become repetitive, reducing your characters to nothing more than stale cliches. Once that happens, the novel immediately loses credibility and the characters become one-dimensional stereotypes.

Writing authentic dialogue is hard and consuming work. An author must really understand who their character is and pay close attention to their history. It takes skill and patience to create lively, memorable dialogue for the various characters in your story. Endowing characters with their own, unique speech patterns takes subtly and considerable sleight of hand. Writing from the opposite gender’s perspective also presents challenges. Ask most men and they’ll unabashedly tell you that they’ll never understand women (joke).

I love writing dialogue but like a lot of authors I also struggle at times following my own advice. I’m like a therapist who needs therapy. Every word out of a character’s mouth should pop and crackle with intensity. Every line should be compatible with the particular character speaking it. Some writers like to read their dialogue out loud after they’ve written it. I’m not one of those writers, but if it works for you I say go for it. I tend to time the speech patterns in my head and listen to the rhythms and pacing. As far as ethnic characters go, I try not to go too overboard with their accents, choosing instead to use a light hand. In that regard, subtly and nuance can often go a long way when developing a character’s speech patterns. The key is to avoid cliche and stereotyping as much as possible.

I guess the best thing to do is study the way people talk and look for unique and fresh phrases. Read a lot. See how experienced authors handle dialogue in their own work. Dig for deeper meaning in speech rather than just the words and phrases. Realize that what people say is not always what they actually mean. All dialogue should contain at least some contextual ambiguity so that the reader might reach their own interpretations. This tension between what’s being said and what the character actually means can bring much-needed tension to your story, as well authenticity. And authenticity is always far more important than getting the accent pitch perfect.

So good luck with your writing and reading. Think I’ll go grab some chowdah before stahting on my new book.

About joesouza

I am a writer of crime novels
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8 Responses to Writing Authentic Dialogue

  1. kaitcarson says:

    Thanks, Joe. This post is like a master class.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Excellent post, Joe. Enjoyed it so much. Curious about your use of V. Higgins. Does the George traditionally get dropped? This reminds me I should spend more time with cops. Learning to pay attention is something I always stress with my students. Pull out the damn ear buds or whatever is pumping stuff into your head, and listen. We don’t all sound alike.


    • Anonymous says:

      Hey, Kate.

      Glad you liked it. I‘ve always just used V. Higgins and I suppose It’s to distinguish him from Jack Higgins, as well as the other Higgins writers out there. I struggle with cliche in my dialogue and need to practice more what I preach. It’s funny because I can talk with someone—actually listen—and know instantly that they are from Massachusetts by the words they use. Of course you know all this. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of it, even if it’s reminding yourself.

      Thanks, Kate!

  3. Well done. Reminds me of a conversation with an editor a couple years ago when she questioned my using ‘Wound up tighter than a teddy bear” in a short story and I had to reassure her it was used all the time when I was in high school.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Yeah, you have to fight for these nuggets sometimes. I’ve had the same conversations with editors. Like putting jimmies on my ice cream cone. Oh, you mean sprinkles, he replies.

    • Julianne Spreng says:

      Nope, they’re jimmies just as you stated. Sprinkles refers to anything you drop on top of an ice cream cone. We always called the tiny colored sprinkles ‘faerie balls’.

  5. John Greco says:

    Great and informative post, Joe.

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