Dialogue is a chance for our characters to speak for themselves – to reveal who they are, what they feel, what they think – sometimes by saying the opposite of what is true. At its most basic, good dialogue reveals information about character and setting, conveys information, propels the plot, and heightens the conflict. The best dialogue does more than one of those simultaneously.
There is the oft cited rule of writing dialogue: Listen to how people talk. Not to be too cynical, but when people talk in real life, I hear conversation shrouded in politeness, or filling silences, or conducting business, arranging things. It can be a good place to start. But when we eavesdrop on how people talk, the things they say can be banal, repetitive, embarrassing, dull to the point of boring. To overhear it, may not prove salacious…or interesting…or dramatic. People talk over each other, monologue, provide running commentary, avoid difficult subjects, or speak in run-on sentences full of verbal pauses. To read it, would likely be boring. What we, as writers, are after are the greatest hits of conversation; not all the babble.
Dialogue helps us tell our stories. The things said between quotation marks (direct or indirect) should be chosen, like all things in our stories, with intention, purposefully to move the story along. It’s a tool in our toolbox just like narrative, action and description.
I like to draft scenes by letting my characters babble. It helps me to begin to understand what the scene is about, who my characters are, what they are trying to communicate, which in turn helps me figure out what it is that I am trying to say. Sometimes I know with utter clarity; sometimes I’m churning, trying to uncover my own intentions. Once there are words to look at, then it’s time for me to redline the draft and get rid of all the unnecessaries. There’s low hanging fruit, like all the hi, how are yous? the introductions and niceties, the filler and small talk we use in real life. Then I ask myself three questions, which are true for dialogue but also other components of storytelling: is it moving the story forward? And/or revealing character or setting? And/or heightening the conflict? Because I believe the best dialogue will accomplish at least two out of three. And if it isn’t moving the story forward or revealing character or setting or heightening the conflict, why not? What do I need to change to make it work? What are the characters saying and what do they mean when they say the things they say? Then, the rewrites begin. Which is nice and tidy for a 500 word blog post, but is where the real work is: re-envisioning.
Here’s a lesson from the screenwriting guru Syd Field that applies to dialogue: “The hardest thing about writing is knowing what to write” (Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting) — the hardest thing about knowing what to say is knowing what you want to say.
Melissa Koss is a Senior Associate Fiction Editor for The Flexible Persona.