Dialogue is one of the most important parts of a story. Readers will skim through everything else, but rarely will they skip over dialogue. It’s engaging, it’s fun, it brings a story to life. Plays, movies, radio are all constructed around speech.
Turning functional dialogue into something more, something that rivets and entertains, is difficult. It would be great if we could just listen to people talking and naturally condense it into sparkling dialogue—and some people do have that facility—but for most of us it takes a bit more effort.
The following three areas are key to good dialogue. You can ignore them all and still write engaging dialogue, but it’s a lot easier if you keep them in mind.
1. Saying exactly what you mean is boring.
2. People agreeing makes for terrible conversation.
3. What you say is more important than how you say it.
1. Saying exactly what you mean is boring
As the writer you know what a character is trying to say. You know how they feel, you know what their concerns are, so the obvious thing would seem to be to just have them say it. While you might easily grasp that telling someone you love them can be a difficult thing to spit out, it may not be so obvious why you lose if someone says, “Can I borrow your car?” if he wants to borrow the car.
And the truth is you don’t lose anything. But you don’t gain anything either. The whole point of dramatic fiction is to build. Whether that’s tensions or suspense or emotion or curiosity or whatever. What you don’t want is a very long wall that’s only one brick high, you want to put the bricks on top of each other, and you can do that quicker by giving characters less simplistic dialogue.
— Can I borrow your car?
— Why the hell would I let you anywhere near my car?
The first line is set up. It doesn’t get interesting until the second line. As opposed to:
— Hey, your car’s looking dirty. Want me to take it to the car wash?
And already the suspiciously helpful offer is raising questions.
The problem is that not saying what you mean can feel counter-intuitive. And if you do try to make things less straightforward you can end up just making things vague or confusing.
2. People agreeing makes for terrible conversation
Conversations come alive when the people talking hold different viewpoints and are able to express themselves. Two people on the same side turns into a monologue, which can still be entertaining, but it’s much harder work.
An uneven pairing is also dull. This happens a lot with political views where one person has all the best lines and makes a lot of sense, and the other is a moron. Fun to write, not much fun to read (unless you completely share the author’s beliefs).
One person telling another facts and info, getting the occasional prompt to continue (“Uh-huh, and then what happens?”) demonstrates a lack of skill and technique. It’s important to get certain information to the reader. Regurgitating it in dry text-book fashion isn’t necessarily the best way to do it.
The three types of conversations I’ve just outlined as not very interesting can totally be used to good effect if you’re a skilful dialoguist. But a lot of that relies on you being able to judge what makes a good topic for conversation.
— I just got Mike to propose marriage and I made him think it was his idea.
— How did you do that?
— I just got a job at the cardboard box factory.
— How do they make cardboard boxes?
But if you have the characters on different sides of the conversation, you immediately raise the level of interest, both for the characters and the readers.
3. What you say is more important than how you say it
The secret to good dialogue is simple. You want to be able to evoke whatever emotion, tone, mood, attitude through what people say.
Just by reading the dialogue, you should be able to tell who’s thinking what.
You could just state it in the narration.
“Can I talk to you?” asked James, his usual pushy self.
“Okay, come in,” said Sally, obviously not happy to see him.
Or you could dress it up a bit by adding description to the scene. Instead of telling the reader Sally wasn’t happy, you could show it through her actions and facial expressions. But all that would still be poor writing.
“Can I talk to you?” said James. “Just ten minutes, I swear.”
“You’ve got two.” Sally looked at her watch. “Starting now.”
The key isn’t in how someone speaks, it’s in what they say. This is quite a tricky thing to learn. The obvious way to put emotion into speech is to use language the way we hear it.
“Mr Smith, where were you the night of the fifth?”
“The fifth? Oh, er, let me think. The fifth ... the fifth... hmm.”
And so on. The problem with that kind of writing, apart from it being bloated and very easy to get carried away while convincing yourself your writing is ‘real’, is that it’s tedious to read (imagine the guy above stalling for a full page). It’s not that bad to hear, in a movie or play, where an actor is selling it to you in the guise of characterisation, but on the page it’s deathly dull and longwinded.
Trying to figure out what someone could say that would both make it clear to the reader what tone you’re going for while still being subtle and interesting is difficult.
“Mr Smith, where were you the night of the fifth?”
“I didn’t kill no one.”
“Who said anything about—“
“You can’t come in without a warrant. I know my rights.”
That’s not say you can’t add physical actions, facial expressions or speech patterns to make the scene more vivid, but a conversation is only going to have real impact on a reader if what’s being talked about has more relevance than general chit-chat or banter.
The best way to develop an ear for this sort of dialogue, I’ve found, is to read screenplays. Specifically, screenplays to movies you haven’t seen so you aren’t swayed by the actors’ interpretation. Obviously you want to read the scripts of good movies, but it’s relatively easy to find that out. It doesn’t really matter about the genre or even the age of the script. You aren’t reading to find out how people speak, you’re reading to find out how you convey emotion through dialogue.
When you read an exchange between two people and you feel something—sadness or fear or whatever—look closely at how the conversation started, how it built, and at what point it transcended information and became emotion.
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