Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Importance of Great Dialogue

Dialogue Is Far More Than "Hello, How Are You?"

We crave reading dialogue, the witty exchanges, barbed comments, veiled threats, and wrenching, passionate, heated declarations. Why? Because when it’s done right, we get more than just polite conversations, we get the all important revelation of character.

Dialogue illuminates character faster than any narrative
because dialogue is a function of character.

Dialogue also moves the story forward while establishing your character and character relationships.

Dialogue reveals conflicts and causes a reaction.

And dialogue actively imparts information.

Is that all it does, you ask?

Yeah, I know, I’m asking you to think on many levels as you create your dialogue, but I promise it will be worth the sweat. Your readers will love you and you’ll become a sought after writer.

And before we start I want to ask one more thing of you. Don’t be disappointed if your first attempts sound cliché, stilted and strained. The more you write, the better you’ll get, and your characters will start talking to you. So don’t beat yourself up when you begin and it sounds like two robots talking. You’ll find your stride, and soon be off and running.

Okay, let’s dig in.

"If the scene is what the scene is about, you’re in deep shit."
- old Hollywood adage, Sam Goldwyn.

"...the writer’s constant awareness that everything exists
on at least two levels..."- Robert McKee

Is the literal meaning of what is being said. "Just the fact’s ma’am." Use this judiciously as it can become very boring quickly.

Is the real meaning of what’s being said, revealing the substance of the scene and characters even as they consciously or unconsciously attempt to conceal it.

In other words, what the character means as opposed
to what he says.
Subtext allows you to bring to light your character’s unconscious desire vocalized as word play, or her actual intentions hidden behind a catty or snide joke where she means every damning word. We get the information in an active, interesting way without using exposition.

Subtext can also be a way of avoiding a direct declaration or confrontation. Instead of a character saying what’s on her mind, she hems and haws. The usual reason behind this kind of avoidance is for the character to spare herself pain but I’m confident you’ll find other reasons. I caution you, don’t over do it or you’ll have your reader saying "come on, spit it out!"

Think about using action to reveal your character’s complex inner emotions.

Body language doesn’t lie, even if the lips do.

Your character can say "I love you," but not look his lover in the eye as he says it. Ouch. You feel for the lover, because she knows by his actions the words he speaks are false.

Dialogue demands a reaction. Physical or spoken or no reaction at all, which in itself is a reaction.

What could the reaction be in the above scenario? The sweet talking liar is slapped and his lover drives away angry and has an accident? Or maybe plots the liar’s demise?

Or perhaps the lover knows he’s lying, yet sleeps with him anyway, giving the liar the knowledge he’s in control.
See how you can drive the story forward, while actively imparting information without the use of narrative?

How cool is that? Very.

Usually only kids get to straight out say "I hate you." Adults, especially adults with something to conceal, use all sorts of manner of dialogue to throw their opposing character off the scent or throw down the gauntlet.

They bluster, or oh-so-smoothly change the subject or lie even if it’s a tiny white lie, or maybe simply say "I’ve had enough."

Conflict is the basis of all good drama
and dialogue is one of the best ways to create it.

Here is a list of some basic, yet important dialogue questions to ask yourself as you rewrite:

1) Do all my characters sound alike when they speak?

They shouldn’t, ever, unless they’re androids. A man speaks differently than a woman, uses different words, rarely uses adverbs and adjectives, (unless of course your character is British, just listen to any BBC show.)
And kids speak differently than adults. They can be chatter boxes, sullen, shy, excited and afraid and change from one emotion to the other in a split second depending on what’s happening around them, to them.
Teens speak differently than anyone else on the planet.
2) Am I revealing character traits and emotions?

Perhaps one of your characters is a very proper or uptight person, then wouldn’t his dialogue be properly structured to the point of full sentences and big words?
Then what happens when he’s upset? Run on sentences, gaps in his words?
Changing the rhythm is a great way to reveal/show emotion, without TELLING US.
Study the people around you. LISTEN WELL. BUT I caution you to use dialect sparingly. It can be overdone and can cause a reader skim.

3) Is my dialogue too-on-the-nose?

Am I saying verbatim what I mean? Am I hitting the reader over the head with information? Don’t, unless your character is a police officer or witness, or we need to know the straight and hard facts. Remember my definition of TEXT?
4) Am I moving the story forward?

It’s too darn easy to have your characters simply talking without the words moving the story in any sort of direction. That’s fine...FOR A FIRST DRAFT. Your character’s dialogue better move the story forward in the second draft and even be more honed in subsequent drafts.
5) Am I allowing my characters to react to what is being said?

It’s your easiest way to move the action forward. You don’t need a ton of narrative to explain what’s happening. A verbal slap in the face demands a reaction. And believe me, even standing still afterwards is a reaction as it could show us supreme willpower or abject fear.
6) Am I using tags at the end of a dialogue passage to denote the emotion?

If so, your characters aren’t saying what you want them to say. The dialogue itself should tell us.
The differentiation you’ve made in the character traits should tell us whose talking, even in a long stretch of dialogue. That’s not to say you can’t use a tag once in awhile. "He said, she said," are invisible to the reader and can reorient us if need be.
Or maybe you’ve just gotten into the habit of using tags and your dialogue is more than fine. In that case they’re redundant, so lose them.
Remember, words once uttered, can never be taken back.
They are a powerful tool in a character’s and writer’s arsenal.

I hope these tips will inspire you to enjoy writing your character's dialogue. Good luck and keep on writing.


Theresa said...

This is a GREAT primer on dialogue! Thanks. As you mentioned, one of my favorite uses of dialogue is when the words uttered contradict nonverbal cues. This is such a subtle, human commonality--I love it.

One other point about dialogue is that it's easy to read. With all the relative white space around it, it's way less intimidating to read than a large, solid paragraph that takes up have a page.

The truth is, readers see a huge long paragraph coming and unless they're seriouly hooked, they're more likely to skip part of it, if not all of it, than if it was dialogue--IMO.

I hazard to guess that this is especially true with commercial readers. Reader who enjoy literary works probably have more patience than the avid commercial reader. My assumption of reader expectation. At least it's true for me.

Just wondering, but what writers would you say have a particularly stellar knack for dialogue?

Donnell said...

Excellent post, LA, as a dialogue driven writer, I paid particular attention to your post. I often tell critique partners, characters don't always say what they mean, they're not black and white, I love your Sam Goldwyn reference, and finally if the dialogue in a book is stilted, I can easily put the book down. It is indeed one of the most important ways to advance a plot, if not THE most important way. Thanks!

Leslie Ann said...

Hi T,
Thanks, I hope everyone finds it useful. Sometimes it's good to simply have a reminder of things we know, but just forget to use.

I agree about long passages of narrative...I for one skim. Sorry to those who love to write long.

Hmmm, I'm tired right now, just saw Indiana Jones 4...another blog for another I'll think on the writers. I know there are several stellar writers, other than my fellow scribes who write dialogue that makes me cry with envy.

Leslie Ann said...

Hi D,
Gosh, thanks. I love dialogue and in screenwriting you have to be careful not to allow your characters to become "talking heads." Every word they utter should do more than just what they say. Subtext here is vital.

Delta Dupree said...

Love this post, L.A. Reading it really helps to keep me focused. I've copied and saved to file.

Like Donnell, my stories are dialogue-driven, and it's so important for me to get it right. Doesn't always happen, though--takes another person's good eye. DB, can you see me winking?

I imagine script dialogue must be extremely tight!

Donnell said...

Ditto Delta, you always help improve my dialogue, she said ;) Dialogue is very important :) And I could see you winking!

Leslie Ann said...

Thank you, actually I'm blushing at your compliment.

In screenwriting, all the dialogue should be tight and serve more than one function. You may think it's "throw away" dialogue at first while watching a scene, but realize in a few moments that indeed you were seeing character growth or a character bonding comment as well as a clue or plot point.

I said a few moments...because that's all the time you have to make an impact and follow up on it. If your audience (and this is important in novels as well) has to stop and think about the dialogue, you've lost them for the next few scenes. There is no way to catch up on a movie, unless you have it on video and can hit the rewind button...and who is going to do that unless you're studying the film?

Same in books...don't make the reader go back to see what you're talking about. Keep it front and center while MAKING it do more than one thing for you.

Again, an epic reply. I wonder if I'll ever get less windy...?

Leslie Ann said...

Hi Donell,
Okay, what is with the and Delta crit partners? :)

Hey, I'm happy you're reading the blog, Delta. And D, what a great fellow scribe you are.
LA ;) who is sending a wink to both of you.

Samara Leigh said...

What great info on dialogue, Leslie Ann. Writing a section of dialogue that really nails it is one of my favorite moments in writing.

Your tips will help me make that happen more often. ;-)

Leslie Ann said...

Thanks Samara,
Here's to more "favorite moments." I love writing dialogue too. Sometimes too much:)


Mary Marvella said...

Good grief, Leslie, that was a workshop in a nutshell! Good work.

Leslie Ann said...

Thanks Mary,
I glad you enjoyed it. And thank you for returning to the blog to read what's new and for posting your comment.


Jessica said...

This is very, very helpful. Thank you!

sunila said...

Love this :) so informative and its helped me with something I'm trying to hone...I've taken notes and I'm going to make sure I think through ur tips- absorb and apply them ,thanks.