A Few Thoughts About Dialogue
July 20, 2010
I had a letter from a reader who asked me to talk a bit more about dialogue. It's hard, I'll tell you that. It's the hardest thing in writing. But it's also the thing that editors look at--as a sure gauge of a writer's level of accomplishment.
Pay attention to great dialogue. When you read a something that really works, bear down on yourself and ask, what's going on here? Analyze it like it's a boxing match. Who's up, who's down and how do you know? Who won? When did you know they were going to win, when would you have put your money on Character A vs. Character B? Get used to reading the subtext. That's dialogue.
Note the mix of landscape and voice, the cross loyalties. What's said and what isn't. The less said the better.
I guess the most important tip about dialogue is this:
Dialogue is only for conflict.
It's like a racehorse, it can't just carry any old thing, the pots and pans and old tires. You can't heap all your expository business on it, the meet and greet, all that yack. It's just for the conflict between one character and another. That's it.
So if characters agree, you don't need dialogue! If someone's just buying a donut, nobody needs to say anything. That's what narrative is for.
Also, great dialogue in fiction isn't screenplay. In fiction you can just tell us what people are thinking, they don't need to say the obvious. In fact, the most interesting fictional dialogue has people thinking one thing and saying another. That's what gives your scene dimension, and it's super fun to do.
The question in dialogue is always, who wins and who loses. Who is putting pressure on who, and how.
Dialogue works best in short bursts, three or five lines, then go back into the other tools of writing--landscape, internal thought, memory, observation, gesture and so on.
Keep it short. People don't generally speak in full sentences. And nobody gets to make a speech, unless it increases the tension of the scene--where I'm waiting to see if you're going to get me on that plane and don't dare interrupt your long story about your grandmother's prize apple pie.
No meet and greet. Start the dialogue when the conflict starts. The rest is easily covered in narrative. No "business." "Want a cup of coffee?" No. I don't. Ever.
Every person speaks differently, because every person is different, so their speech reflects their vocabulary, their rhythms, their interests, their age, their level of optimism or pessimism. We're physically different, we take a different breath. Some people are quick, they interrupt, they gush words, others are slow, they stop, they consider. Some are indecisive, they wander off.
Think of your characters as being played by the best actors in the world. Nobody wants to be the straight man. Give them all dynamite lines. Nobody should ever say, "What?" "What do you mean by that?" A line anybody could say is a line nobody should say.
And keep the world going. The world doesn't stop in its tracks as your protagonist speaks. You have to keep all the plates spinning.
Gesture is just as important a part of dialogue as the spoken utterance. Everybody who has traveled to a foreign country knows you can get along knowing not one word of Chinese or Hungarian. The gesture, vocal tone and facial expression is more telling than words.
Don't be afraid of silence. Whoever controls the silence controls the scene.
finally, remember that the reader is the recipient of all dialogue. So don't have one character tell another something we already know. Just summarize it in narrative.
There are so many components of good dialogue, so many subtle ways it works, I can only lay out a few tips here I hope will help you along your way.
Wish you good writing!