Have you ever been in such a rush to get to the reveal in a book that you skim through the descriptive paragraphs and just focus on the dialogue? As writers and lovers of writing, we can’t really condone this (every word counts, man!), but there’s no denying that this happens, and that it’s really tempting, especially in YA or thrillers or any kind of story where you just NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT RIGHT NOW. You know how that goes. It’s easy to focus on dialogue: that’s often the strongest component of a piece of writing. Not only does it further the plot, but it also reveals more about the character who’s speaking. It shows you the characters’ dynamics with each other, as well as their perception of the world, and of themselves.
So yeah, dialogue’s kind of important.
Think of just about any Shakespeare play, and you’ll realize that in the last 400 years, the play you’re thinking of has had an unfathomable amount of actors in the role—from the Doctor to Sherlock in one particular case—and set designs that range from historical to futuristic. Every director has added something of themselves to the interpretation, and each crew, from makeup to lighting, manipulated the mood. And of course those actors all made the roles their own.
Yet the dialogue has rarely changed. Even Baz Luhrmann didn’t touch Romeo or Juliet’s lines (there’s some cutting on occasion, but the majority of the lines tend to be left alone). Because everything, from their attraction, their hope and their despair, comes through in their dialogue.
As you go through your draft, make sure you do a pass where you only read your dialogue. Make sure it gives you a sense of your characters—both those talking and those listening—your plot, and your setting/world.
In some ways, dialogue is the spine of the story. And that spine needs to be strong. Which means it needs to feel authentic and organic. Each line needs to hold up on its own. Each line needs to clearly belong to the character that said it. If you read just the dialogue, it should be obvious who is speaking, and it should illuminate who they really are.
But it’s not all about what they say. It’s about what they don’t say. Think about any conversation you’ve had recently. How much of what was said was actually unsaid (yeah, we just blew ya minds!). How surprised would you be if your boss told you that she was angry at you for misspelling her name on the presentation because her stepfather never adopted her and refused to accept her as one of his own even though she was just a baby when her mother married him?
You might wonder if she was high. No one gives you all the information when they’re not under the influence. Not just because people might prefer to be cautious with TMI, but also because not many people are that self-aware in real time. If you write a character who narrates everything like that, chances are, they won’t feel authentic (unless that’s a very, very specific character choice on your part). When you’re writing a first draft, the characters often narrate, very clearly, everything you want them to say and feel. It’s one of the key jobs in the edit to cut down that dialogue, mess it up, make it oblique, less obvious, less on the nose about what it’s trying to be.
It’s not easy. It takes a lot of practice. Even if you’re writing novels, you should read a lot of screenplays, because great screenplays are full of beautifully concise yet meaningful dialogue. It’s also important to listen to the people around you. Yes, we’re telling you to eavesdrop. We’re also telling you to start some conversations where you ask all the questions, so you can listen to how fragmented answers can be, and how rarely people directly and cleanly talk back and forth. Call your friend who literally NEVER STOPS TALKING. We all have one (what’s up with that?). You’ll hear some almost musical, free-flowing stream of consciousness dialogue. (Sometimes you need to write long monologues for characters). If socializing isn’t your bag, watch some great TV. Maybe not your everyday glossy procedurals, which lean heavily on exposition and on the nose conversations. Look for shows that are STRONG on character dynamics and revelations, shows where dialogue is a weapon, a shield, a cloaking device, an illusion. Give us some examples you say? Alrighty then.
This show is a MASTER CLASS in how characters can communicate their feelings while talking about literally anything and everything else and doing it all really really fast until the truth comes out. Did we mention the speed? Characters talk so much and so fast on this show that one of their hourlong scripts, which would usually be 50-ish pages, can often run to 70 pages or more.
Game Of Thrones
No show has more information to hand out than this one (not even procedurals). There are SO MANY old white men to remember, but through some brutal, thrilling and visceral dialogue, you can figure out who everyone is and where they’re coming from without anyone standing around listing their credentials to one of the few remaining Stark kids (too soon? Seriously, zag, Rickon!!)
This is a great example of how a character’s dialogue should define them. (And it’s also really fun dialogue for actors to tear into — that’s important). If you watch the show on mute, Jessica is just a grunge girl having a really bad couple of weeks. Volume up, she’s more terrifying to cross than the Hulk, and more entertaining in her self-loathing than Tony Stark. She’s a formidable, complex character with layers on layers on layers, and it’s all there in the dialogue (although shout-out to Krysten Ritter for her astonishingly powerful performance of that dialogue).
ANYTHING BY JOSS WHEDON
Buffy and Firefly are particular standouts, but Whedon can literally not write a line of dialogue that isn’t witty, subtly revealing, and generally staggeringly good. Whedon is brilliant at making even the most incomprehensible of creatures (i.e. the Hulk) relatable and tangible. (“That’s my secret. I’m always angry” is one of the simplest and most devastatingly powerful lines of dialogue EVER). The key to being relatable and tangible is making the character sound grounded, and like someone you could be friends with. Even the bad guys/girls. In fact, especially them. Nothing makes a villain more compelling than the fact that you almost want to root for them. (Well, nothing except a black mask and cloak and some heavy breathing). Yeah, sometimes you need the villain to be utterly, jaw-droppingly awful—(f**k you Ramsay Bolton)—but even then, some element of outrageous charm can go a long way.
So, there’s a lot to think about when you edit your dialogue. That dialogue has a lot of work to do, and it can’t look like it’s doing any work at all. That’s the challenge, but also the reward. So go talk to some people, watch some TV, read some scripts, and make your dialogue really sing.