Have you ever listened to a real life conversation and then tried to transcribe it into your story only to realize it doesn’t work? You’re left scratching your head and wondering how to write clever, witty, quick conversation. Dialogue is a fantastic tool in the writer’s tool box, but like any tool, it must be used right for it to work. It’s easy to find information about what not to do, but hard to find advice on how to do it well.
Let’s start with the basics. There are layers to any conversation, real or fictional. In real life, we convey a great deal of information through body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. Then, there are the words themselves. They can mean what they are meant to or have a new meaning ascribed to them when we start layering in the subtext. Check out my blog post on subtext if you want to know more about it. And let’s not forget about the setting. Setting is key to grounding the reader in the world and not leaving your characters as disembodied voices floating in a sea of nothingness.
The first step to writing great dialogue is to understand that every character has a goal within the scene. Each one needs a reason for having the conversation and something they want to get out of it. It could just be finding out the time of day, but it can be a deeper, hidden goal. This needs to be decided before you write the words of the conversation. Knowing what the character is trying to get from the other character helps to keep the dialogue focused. It’s the road map for how to get your characters from point A in the conversation to point B.
Let’s take a character, John. He’s married, but he suspects that his wife, Mary, is having an affair with his best friend, Bob. John and Bob are hanging out at poker night with Kevin and Shane. John’s goal is to confirm that Bob is having an affair with Mary without cluing Kevin or Shane into what the conversation is really about. Bob isn’t having an affair with Mary. Instead, he’s trying to help her find a way to leave John, who is controlling and abusive, but he wants to hide the fact that Mary is leaving John and that he thinks John is a jerk. Kevin and Shane just want to play poker.
Remember the words themselves may not have anything to do with the character’s actual goal. The conversation between the two might go something like this:
“Are you in or not?” Kevin asked.
“In,” John said. “Shane said he saw your truck here the other day.”
“Yeah,” Bob replied. “I was dropping off that wrench you lent me.”
“Right, and I’m the Queen of England,” John said. “Mary didn’t mention you dropped off the wrench.”
“Probably slipped her mind,” Bob replied.
“I’m in,” Shane said.
“Then where’s the wrench?” John asked.
“Try looking in your garage. This is too rich for me,” Bob said. “I fold.”
Ignore the dialogue tags for the moment. They’re only there to show who the characters are in this short example. We’re just looking at a straight up conversation with no layers. It’s pretty basic, and without any of the body language/facial expressions, the goals don’t come across clearly.
Let’s look at the words themselves. This is where the K.I.S.S. principle comes it. Keep it Simple, Silly.
Are there people in real life who babble on without ever getting to the point? Yes.
Do you want to read pages of text where the character chatters on incessantly about nothing? No.
Can a character occasionally deliver a long speech? Sure.
Should they do it on every page? Only if you plan on readers skimming large sections of your work.
The key to shiny dialogue is brevity. Keep it simple. Keep the characters on track.
But, what if I have a character that loves the sound of his own voice?
Cut him off. Have the characters around him interrupt before he gets on a roll. “Stay on target.”
I like to listen to my dialogue with text-to-speech software. It helps me to hear the redundancies and clunky bits. It also points out the places where a character goes on too long. When I find myself clicking over to the internet as I’m listening, it means I’ve got some work to do on that section of prose and dialogue.
The next piece of the puzzle is setting and body language. I’m lumping these two together because a character can use the setting in their body language. Body language is also a good way to convey character through tics, reactions, and interactions. You want to convey character without flashing back, info dumping, or any of the other pitfalls that come with world-building. Body language is a good way to do this.
Our characters, John and Bob, are playing poker so maybe John ups the ante as he gets more aggressive with the conversation even though he has a lousy hand. Bob folds early even though he has a winning hand. John leans into the table and is aggressive. Bob is tense, but tries to appear relaxed, meets John’s eyes, and doesn’t hesitate when he responds, but doesn’t take any risks while he plays poker.
Let’s add some setting and body language to see what we get:
John stared at the cards in his hand. Nothing. He glanced over the top of them at Bob, the cheating bastard.
“Are you in or not?” Kevin blew a puff of smoke from his cheap cigar toward the ceiling. It curled around his head and rose until it joined the cloud that hovered beneath the dim light of the ratty, outdated kitchen.
“In.” John pushed his entire pile of chips into the center of the chipped Formica table. Didn’t matter that he’d lose. He threw a pointed look to Bob. “Shane said he saw your truck here the other day.”
“Yeah.” Bob rolled a chip across the back of his knuckles. “I was dropping off that wrench you lent me.”
As if John were that stupid. He knew better. Mary thought she could get away with it. Liars, both of them. He shifted in his chair, and the cracked red vinyl under his butt hissed. He hated those stupid chairs.
“Right, and I’m the Queen of England.” John leaned in, his eyes narrowed. “Mary didn’t mention you dropped off the wrench.”
Bob shrugged and leaned back in his chair. “Probably slipped her mind.” He picked up his cigar, took a long drag, and blew it out, right into John’s face.
John’s fingers tightened on his cards, and his body went rigid. He wanted to leap across the table and shove the cigar down Bob’s throat.
Shane’s eyes darted between Bob and John. Carefully, he slid a pile of chips to the center of the table. “I’m in.”
“Then where’s the wrench?” John spat the words out from between clenched teeth.
“Try looking in your garage.” Bob tossed his cards on the table and flipped the chip he’d been holding in the air, catching it when it fell. “This is too rich for me. I fold.”
The motivations for the characters become clearer when I fill in setting details and body language. We start to see the where the characters are and get a feel for the tension brewing between Bob and John. We might not know the exact reasons for the tension from this short snippet, but we feel it. And that’s the key. As a writer, you have to trust your reader to fill in some things. Over explaining setting details and emotional reactions bogs down the pace and results in redundant dialogue and action.
If you are struggling to write dialogue, pick some plays by Samuel Beckett, Arthur Miller, George Bernard Shaw, or Sam Shepard. Or any other playwright that strikes your fancy. Plays tell their story via dialogue and stage directions, and while they are meant to be enjoyed as a performance, they are an excellent way to learn how to keep dialogue focused and on track.