The general advice about writing dialogue tends to follow the same basic precepts. Conflict, goals, move the plot forward, don’t waste time with chit-chat, etc. That is certainly all useful stuff and will help keep the story moving.
But there’s more to dialogue than just getting across information.
People loves great dialogue. In books, in plays, in movies. In real life. Sparkling conversation holds the attention, even when it has nothing to do with anything. People like hearing it. It’s enjoyable to read. But it’s very difficult to write.
Sometimes, a memorable line is designed to be so. Everything builds up to it. A character gets teed up to say the thing that will define the rest of their life, and wham: Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. Beautiful. AFI’s most memorable quote of all time.
Sometimes, though, it is not quite as clear why a line enters the collective consciousness. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Who would have thought that would be the most enduring line from Star Wars?
Which is the thing about dialogue. It’s all about the context.
It is entirely possible to have a bunch of people gathered together just chatting, and for it to be entertaining. But those writers who excel at that sort of thing, whether it be Tarantino or Oscar Wilde, do more than just collect a bunch of witty epigrams.
You can’t have everyone sound the same (even though in real life friends often have similar preoccupations). A roomful of acid-tongued raconteurs would get very tiring to read. For every manic Joker you need a taciturn Batman.
Also, there’s only a limited amount of time you can maintain a conversation for its own sake. It may seem like people are just chatting, but there’s always an end point they’re working towards. As a reader you don’t see it till you get there. As a writer, you have to know what it is so you can aim for it (although it may take a few drafts before you figure it out).
And then there’s the wider context. There’s always a story going on around the people talking, even if they aren’t participating in it at the moment. Characters don’t inhabit a vacuum. A simple contrast between what Mike says to Jane at dinner (I love your potato and leek soup) and what he later says to Darren in a diner (I’ll have anything but the soup. Can’t stand the stuff.) creates additional meaning out of very simple language.
In the way other people’s conversations are of interest to no one but them, characters in a story have to do more than behave realistically to be of interest to a reader.
The thing is though, you have probably read stories where people seem to be having a very mundane conversation, and yet it’s fascinating. You know this because you were fascinated by it. You didn’t get bored or annoyed, you just kept reading. Yet when you write a similar scene, one that reflects real life, that investigates the mundane, or is a moment of normality before the storm, readers react negatively. Why? What are you doing differently to the stuff you’ve read?
The problem is subtext. In good writing it’s invisible, but it’s there and it has an effect, even though you can’t see it. And subtext is dialogue means there’s more going on than at first appears. This can be achieved in various ways, through context, through wording, through phrasing. Lying, joking, coercing, threatening; these are all different ways for characters to present themselves through what they say. And they can all be used poorly.
“Give me the money or I’ll kill you.”
“Give me the apple or I’ll kill you.”
The first line would seem to be dynamic and action-packed. But it’s fairly dull and predictable. The second version is much more attention grabbing because people don’t normally fight over apples, so the reader wants to know what’s really going on.
When people say what they mean, when they say things that have no other meaning apart from the obvious, dialogue falls flat.
When you write a scene you should know :
Who are these people?
Where are they?
Why are they here?
What mood are they in?
What do they want?
These are the things that will help the dialogue be more than random chit-chat. None of the answers need to be hugely momentous, but if the answers to most of these questions is non-specific, if it doesn’t really matter, chances are the scene will not be very interesting.
That isn’t always the case.
Like an overheard conversation where you have no idea about the specifics, but you’re still captivated, really good dialogue can transcend all of the above. But you have to be a very skilled dialogist to pull that off. And like an overheard conversations that turns out to be utterly engrossing, it’s possible, but it’s very rare.
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That's the last in the series of 'What do you love...' posts (should have really held them back for Valentine's Day). Thursday's post will be a new Chapter One Dissection of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Hope you'll drop by for that.