Apr 02

Writing Dialogue # 1

Good dialogue should engage the reader and inspire the actor (if it’s in a script). Dialogue has these obvious purposes:

  1. Advance the plot
  2. Define characters
  3. Provide the reader/audience needed information
  4. Entertains

Originally dialogues were what today we call plays. To the Greeks, these were exchanges between two or more characters in the form of conversations. The ideas being discussed were of more importance than the personalities of the characters who were conversing.

As drama developed it became evident that while dialogue was one of the most important instruments in the writer’s toolbox, it wasn’t the only one. There was pantomime, action, even dance as well as costumes, props, and sets. But it was dialogue that carried the majority of the story. The Greeks used to say, “Let’s go hear a play.”

Even a quick look through Shakespeare shows that rather than requiring the actors, props and costumes, for every event in the story, sometimes it was quicker, easier and even more dramatic to have character dialogue or monologue on stage about events the supposedly happened off stage. This remains true today, not just on stage, but on film and video and even in prose.

In a very real sense, good dialogue is a verbal battle. It’s always more interesting to introduce conflict into dialogue instead of presenting a scene or section or chapter which is nothing more than simple questions followed by straight forward answers or a chorus reporting information crucial to the story. Even when the point of the dialogue is primarily to present information to the audience, it’s more interesting if it’s done in the form of a struggle. This is true no matter if you’re writing something dramatic or comic.

Look, for example at the famous “Who’s On First” routine by comic’s Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=who’s+on+first+video&mid=1387B833277116F5E8AF1387B833277116F5E8AF&view=detail&FORM=VIRE1

Or the Monty Python “Dead Parrot” sketch.


In both of these examples you see conflict from the very beginning, and the two distinct points of view battle and the scenes progress.

Often in a police procedural drama, it is more interesting to have the detective face resistance from the person from whom he or she is trying to silicate facts. The conflict in the scene doesn’t necessarily have to be about the facts to be revealed.

How often have you seen a scene in which the person being questions says something to the effect, “I don’t talk to cops?” Here, then, is the conflict. Even when the witness, the “perp” (perpetrator) or the “C.I.” (confidential informant) being questioned, finally gives up the information, it is not quick, easy, or painless. This makes the reader/audience remember the information later. To quote American Revolutionary pamphlet writer Thomas Paine, “That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly.”

The two comic scenes I’ve sited also present us with distinct characters that have unique speech patterns and mannerism to make them the ideal foils for each other in these contests of words. Remember characterization is one of the goals of good dialogue. This is accomplished primarily through the careful phrasing of each character, neither of whom sounds like the other but rather is often polar opposites in education, vocabulary, skills and goals.

The late Robert B. Parker, author of the 40 Spencer crime novels (the inspiration for the TV series Spencer For Hire which began in 1985) as well as nine Jesse Stone, five Sunny Randall crime novels and four Cole & Hitch westerns in addition to several other stand alone books, both novels and nonfiction, reached a point in his later years in which the majority of all his novels were primarily dialogue. So good was his dialogue that it carries his stories giving us the conflict, character, humor, suspense and mystery of each?

Part of the answer to the question, “How do you write good dialogue?” involves the writer developing a good ear to hear and then create dialogue that reflects time, place, and character without requiring the reader to constantly consult and dictionary or thesaurus.

Remember, dialogue is not actually the true speech of people but it resembles it so closely that it appears to be exactly that. Use your cell phone to record some conversations with friends and then try to transcribe this later. Part of what you’ll discover is that people do not speak in proper grammatical language. We speak in fragments, incomplete sentences, phrases and sometime just grunts and snorts. We end sentences with prepositions and eventually run afoul of all the rules of proper language. So what you’re trying to achieve in your dialogue is not to imitate real language but something that seems to be that.

Dialogue scenes have a point, a direction, a reason for being and the real speech of human don’t always accomplish very much. We are all guilty of holding conversations with people in which we don’t exchange any new information or move from point A to point B. Dialogue like that in a story wastes time and repels the reader/audience. A given dialogue scene may seem unimportant but if it were extracted from the story, would something be missing? If the answer is “Yes,” then the dialogue has a purpose. If the answer is “No,” cut it out of your story.

If you as the writer can capture the flavor of an economic, social, political, or religious class, then you have something you can bend to your will to create through dialogue the character you need in your story.

Dickens used to visit the locales where certain classes of people gathered and listened to them talk to try and isolate what made these people speak the way they did.

You must, however, be careful not to write in true dialect. First of all a true dialect will be difficult to read and may be difficult for an actor to perform in a script. Slowing down your reader/audience is never your goal as a fiction writer. A little bit of dialect or phrases common to the character of your speaker will go a long way.

It will be a more interesting conversation if one or both of the characters is exercising their wit, intelligence, or shrewdness (or the lack of any of these characteristics) in the course of the dialogue. People who can use language colorfully, or to inject humor, or to test or ridicule others are interesting people to listen to.


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