Monday, October 18, 2010

Dialogue: 6 Things It Can/Should Do

The other day I left a comment over at Jordan McCollum's blog about writing good dialogue. I referred to six things I think good dialogue can do. My belief is that every scene with dialogue should have at least two of the six.

Then in the comments of my last post, Kathleen asked if I'd list them. I've taught dialogue at writing workshops. At some point maybe I'll go into more that I cover in the 1-hour workshop, but for today, here are the six things:

#1 Reveal Character
Good dialogue is a great characterization tool. A man might call a color "orange," while his wife might refer to it as "salmon" or "coral." Meanwhile, he might discuss all the features of the latest Mustang, while her eyes glaze over. (Or, for variety, switch things up: make her the mechanic and him an artist who notices the nuances of color.)

My father (a 70-something retired linguistics professor who grew up milking cows in Cache Valley, Utah) would use very different vocabulary and sentence structure than my 8-year-old daughter. Both of them would vary widely from a forty-year-old Jewish woman from New York, who would again vary from a twenty-something college student from South Carolina, who would vary from a Silicon Valley executive.

Age, gender, education, socioeconomic level, geographical background, and so many other things impact our speech.

Sometimes, even the people we're with affect how we say things. I know I've lapsed into an almost teenage-style of talking around friends I know from that era, while I'll use a more formal register with, say, the school principal. When I'm talking with my sisters, I sound very different than when I'm talking to my kids. And so on.

Personality traits and attitudes come through in speech all the time.

#2 Propel the Plot
Avoid scenes with characters chatting about what they had for dinner or something else equally mundane and pointless (unless the scene really does do something else in this list). If there's no point to the chatter, if the story isn't moving along, if we don't need the conversation, cut it.

Now, I've read scenes where discussing food is important even if it's not propelling the plot. Maybe it reveals character or introduces a conflict or foreshadows. But I've also had countless manuscripts cross my editing desk where the conversation is just boring filler.

In most cases, cut the conversation or make it move the story forward, whether it's characters discussing what to do next, what the problem is, their reactions to something, or whatever.

#3 Give the Reader Important Information
Dialogue is a great way to reveal information that's important to the story.

That said, if you're not really, really careful, it's also a lazy way to dump information on the reader. Beware of speeches where characters explain their past or the current predicament or something else convenient. Never have characters tell each other things they both already know, just so the reader can find out about it.

Well used, dialogue can be a powerful way to get across information. Done poorly, it creates some of the weakest writing ever.

#4 Foreshadow
Goes along with #3: foreshadowing in dialogue is when something a character says hints at what will come later. But don't be obvious about it. Don't do it too often, and don't call attention to it. Be subtle.

An example: Lane in Better off Dead tells Monique how bad he is at mechanical things. He says something like, "My brother's making a space shuttle out of household appliances like blenders and vacuums. That's probably going to work, and then there's my car, just sitting there in the driveway. It'll never run." (Not a direct quote, but you get the idea.)

What comes later in the film? Of course, Monique helps Lane fix his car. Then, as a great cherry on top, during the final credits we see the brother's space shuttle take off and blow the roof off the family home.

But as far as the audience is concerned, when Lane delivers that line, it serves another purpose: characterization. It shows the total frustration Lane has with his life and his complete lack of self confidence.

#5 Show the Setting
Have your characters interact with the setting and even comment on it: Aaron thinks the carpet in the restaurant looks like orange astro-turf. Betty breathes in the smell of the old truck and mentions that the scent is just like her grandfather's old Ford. Charlie argues with the coach over the next play. Great dialogue can put us right in the middle of the setting and make the story world come alive.

#6 Create Conflict
This is probably one of the most important ones. Throw two characters together with opposing goals/desires, and get them talking. Voila: immediate conflict. To a great extent, this goes hand in hand with #2, propelling the plot.

Plot can't exist without conflict. Spark up some trouble, and your plot will come alive.


I always tell writers to use 2 or 3 of the 6. Don't try to use all six in one scene; chances are, one scene can't bear the weight. But often you'll write a scene with two purposes in mind, and a third (or maybe even fourth) will show up. Awesome.

Just make sure there's a solid reason for the conversation to be there.

Analyze all your dialogue. If some doesn't serve any legitimate purpose (or, rather at least TWO), cut it.

If it serves one little purpose, can you pump it up and have it accomplish more?

A final note, something I'll probably touch on in another post some time:

Contrary to what some teachers say, realistic-sounding dialogue does NOT mimic real speech. It's the illusion of reality. Real speech is boring, pointless, has pauses and filler words (um, well, yeah, etc.), repeats itself, includes talking over one another, interruptions, and so much more that makes for boring and (ironically) fake-sounding dialogue.

Your job as the writer is to make the reader think they're getting realistic speech, what we somehow think is real, but isn't.

Sorry, Miss W (my high-school creative-writing teacher), but recording and listening to conversations is NOT the best way to learn how to write good dialogue.

(That said, I highly recommend eavesdropping. Just not to learn dialogue. It's a great way to come up with characters and story lines!)


Barbara Palermo said...

Hi! Jessica (from Duck Duck Cow) sent me!

Shelley said...

Love me some "Better Off Dead," perfect example!

Amie McCracken said...

Great points. I'll go through my manuscript with these in mind.

I get so frustrated when people use ellipses and um in their written dialogue. I don't want to read ellipses!

Jessica said...

I've seen you around Blogland, but don't think I've ever stopped by. Nice to meet you! (Sent by Jessica @ DDC). Excited to see your cookbook!

Susan Anderson said...

Really interesting stuff! I'm in the middle of writing my annual Christmas Eve story, and now I'm on my way to critique my dialogue!


Anonymous said...

Ah, Better off dead. I can't help it. I like John Cusack. Although, my lil' bro and I noticed that in every movie of his, he ends up saying "Nice!" But he kind of drawls it out. ;)

Here's a Q for you about this dialogue thing: Do you instinctively write your dialogue this way during your drafting, now that you've got it down? Do you double-check it during revisions?

Unknown said...

I believe that when it comes to dialogue, less is more. I read a friend's manuscript recently (and I told her this, so I'm not telling tales out of school) and her dialogue always started out strong. But, in what I believe was a sort of 'speech imitating life' situation, the banter went longer than necessary. It lost momentum; rather, it was just two people trying to be clever and essentially saying the same things without adding any propulsion to the story. We learned all we needed from the first 2-3 sentences in the exchange; the rest was just filler. While it's true that in real life this happens all the time, in writing a little goes a long way.

Unknown said...

In fairness, I should point out that I prefer really strong narrative, and tend to write in a hyper-narrative style. I love good dialogue, but for me a 2-to-1 ratio of narrative to dialoge is perfect. I realize that others have very different opinions on the matter.

Alison Wonderland said...

"Never have characters tell each other things they both already know, just so the reader can find out about it." Amen and Amen! Drives me crazy!

Tanya Parker Mills said...

I see what you mean, Annette. Your other two points are brought out in my second half (after I get through Gail's six functions), in which I'll share principles espoused by Karen Joy Fowler.

Nat said...

Hi! Jessica sent me, too! We're all hoping to win your awesome cook book!

Scott said...

Better Off Dead! Love, love LOVE that movie. I try to reference it to my friends but I just get blank stares. Talk about some great characters. Your tips on dialog have me thinking of a story I'm working on (I want to call it a book but let's be real here). I'm thinking that I need to comb through the dialog with this information in mind. Thanks for sharing!

Jordan McCollum said...

Awesome list! I'll definitely link to this (probably later this week).

Lara Neves said...

I rather enjoy's just interesting. I can definitely see how it would help with writing!

And Congrats on being a Whitney awards finalist for Band of Sisters! :)

Rebecca Irvine said...

Printing this post out for personal reference. Thanks for your great advice!

The Slothower Family said...

I really want your cookbook! Love chocolate! Jessica sent me and I am glad she did. I love to read as well as eating large amounts of chocolate. Excited to get caught up on your blog!

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LisAway said...

This was so interesting to read. I admit I was going to skim it because I don't see myself writing dialogue and I'm rushing through my computer stuff right now but this was super interesting. And you may have convinced me about some of these things that Greg has been telling me about (he's listening to books about writing including On Writing) NOT using regular dialogue. As I read what you wrote about using um, etc. I was thinking, no I would like to read that, I think! But as soon as you mention that it "sounds" fake when you read it I realized that's totally true! Weird, I'm sure, but I know what I mean.

And It's hard for me to continue watching a movie that, within the first five minutes, has a character telling someone all the back story that we need to follow the film. Or the whole, "We did this and that. . . " when they both know it. So lame. (although it's obviously the easiest way, to "incorporate" everything you need to know into the story without just having a little narration at the beginning or something. Anyway. I'm going on and on. Sorry.

Great post. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for good stuff

Anonymous said...

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kbrebes said...

Perfect, Annette! Thanks so much. I needed that--very helpful!

* said...

Annette, you are awesome! I need work on dialog, this post helped immensely.
You rock!

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