Monday, December 8, 2014

Let’s Talk about Dialogue

Before there was writing, there was talking.

Dialogue is the most trusted and most human aspect of story.  Sure, we love the action and the conflict, but what we seek in a story in order to make it real for us is what the characters actually say to each other.  We skip to that part because we find it the most relatable part of any story. It’s what we most naturally connect with. Dialogue is the vital part of every narrative.

Without it, all you have is description.

As a writing instructor, I spend an extensive amount of time going over the dialogue in my student’s work. . . . because dialogue IS tough.

Common questions are:

·         “How do I make it sound less like writing and more like talking?”
·         “How do I decide what need to be said and when?”
·          “How to I manage the subtext?”
·         “Is that where I put in all the exposition? Because I’m good with that!”

What’s important to note is that these are all issues which plague writers at every level.  Getting the dialogue just right is the difference between a story that grips the audience and one that allows readers to lose interest and slip away.

But exactly what is dialogue’s role?

Let’s start with what I think is the single most important tool you can have on the subject:

The Purpose of Dialogue is not is to TELL the story.

Because dialogue is really the vehicle for character, theme, mood, plot conflict, mystery, and tension.

Instead of using dialogue to try to spin your tale, we talk about dialogue as the way to:

·         Deliver the character: We learn more about a character by what they say and how they say it than anything other aspect other than their ACTIONS. Dialogue fills in the sketch of whom these people are and why we should care about them in the first place. Perhaps the most important decision a writer makes is not just what the individual characters say, but also when they say it and whether they should say it at all.

·         Entertain: Think about the last book you read or movie you watched.  I know I often skip past to the dialogue when I find myself losing interest in the writing.  It is a chance, at each word, for the reader or viewer to RECONNECT with the story. Dialogue is how we hear the humor and the angst, the way we access the emotions, the way we gauge tension, and understand the level of conflict at any point.  All these things add to our enjoyment of the story. Dialogue is the equal partner to action; it is the way we fill in the blanks about the characters we long to understand.

·         Point to subtext: Dialogue hints and insinuates.  It informs and enlightens.  It persuades and sways. It whispers the secrets to our willing ears. And it confirms or denies our judgments about what we’re reading in a more powerful way that action ever could.

·         Create anticipation: Dialogue is one way the audience is made to “work for their supper”.  No story wants to give the reader everything.  Mysteries, clues and innuendos are so often first offered through dialogue. And that keeps the audience guessing about what’s coming next.

So, I have my students keep in mind the following:

·         Each bit of dialogue must have a mission and a goal within the scene. If it’s not doing one of the four points above, CUT IT!

·         Less is truly more.  You need to learn how to make your words powerful.  Chose just the right word at just the right moment and you’ve made that important character/audience connection that will keep your fans coming back time and time again.

·         Dialogue should seem easy and natural, but “easy” isn’t the same as simple.  It takes much more workmanship and craft to write a short, potent passage than a long one.  If more writers understood this, we’d probably have less mediocre trilogies and more powerful individual novels and screenplays.

·         Always make it accessible: write “said” and “asked” most of the time, instead of using hissed, begged, stammered and the like, and use the accompanying action to reinforce your meaning. It will make a much greater impact.

·         In screenwriting, never overdo stage or actor directions: if it’s not clear from the context of the moment, get back in there and fix it.

·         Dialogue often controls the pace of the story.  Just as shorter narrative sentences produce a sense of urgency, short dialogue moves the story along. Short dialogue also increases the tension in the same way that mystery and suspense can be produce by drawing out the conversation – it’s another way of making the audience work for the experience. Dialogue can be your story’s gas and brakes – use them to your best advantage. 

·         Exposition is like cinnamon.  In small amounts, cinnamon is a delightful little spice.  But did you know that, in large doses, cinnamon can be a deadly poison! Treat exposition in the same way. Don’t let one character carry the exposition ball.  Toss it around and let it be truly conversational.  Your characters should never be eager to give their precious information away in one speech.  Remember: a little can go a long way.

·         On-the-nose dialogue – where the character says exactly what he feels and exactly what he wants – is the antitheses of subtext and can ruin a story. Meaning should always exist just beneath the surface.  Each time one of your characters speaks, there are always these twin questions:  

o   What did he mean to say?
o   What did he really mean?

Good dialogue is almost always more about what’s not being said than what is.  And the best use of character is revealed in what the character DOESN’T WANT TO SAY versus what he is willing to reveal – what vital tidbit is he keeping from us? Remember: what the audience really wants to know is EXACTLY what the character doesn’t want to discuss.

·         Character is also exposed to the reader by the manner in which one character talks to another.  The relationship and the depth of characters should always be at stake within these individual exchanges.

·         You can always learn a great deal about the character being spoken to by the way s/he is being addressed. It tells you what the speaker thinks of the other person, and that informs you about their relationship.

·         Each line of dialogue contains the voice and personality of the speaker, just as in real life. Clipped phrasing, poetic vernacular and stylized presentation - and not slang or phonically displayed dialects – will give the reader the information that they crave on that vital subconscious level.

·         Let you characters carry the theme – since theme is always important to them in one way of another. Often, the writer doesn’t really understand the theme of his/her own work in the first or even subsequent drafts.  When you’re lost about theme, go back and see what arguments your characters are making. Are they advocating for something, challenging a stance or just espousing a position outright? Each story is an argument of a sort, and the different characters often represent different aspects of that argument.  Let them talk– and learn from them.

·         While dialogue itself is not action, the act of speaking is. And all characters are undertaking some kind of action while they’re speaking. They’re kicking the dog, sharpening a knife, pointing a sword, looking shiftily at the floor or staring deep into the other character’s eyes!   Use that to inform, punctuate, re-enforced or even deny the truth of what’s being said;

·         Remember: Each character, in his or her own way, demands to be heard – and everything voice contributes something to the story!

·         As the prolific writer Chuck Wendig reminds us, Story has its own secret laws.  One of them is that dialogue needs to be authentic but not necessarily real.  Dialogue must sound real -  genuine, and convincing  - but is never like the way that people actually talk - with their long pauses, hems and haws  and “you know what I mean”s.

·         Regardless of whether you are a novelist, short story writer or a screenwriter, every work you create is essentially a conversation that YOU are having with one person at a time.  Write like you’re talking directly and honestly to that other person and your writing will never sound like . . . well, like writing. 

·         Most important, know where to end it. Dialogue has a beginning, middle and end. Learn to know which is which.

I’ll be teaching more on dialogue at the Greater Los Angeles Writer’s Society’s BIG STORY Conference at Los Angeles Valley College on February 20, 22, 2015. And stay tuned for more on the topic in my future posts here and at

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