25 Things You Should Know About Dialogue
Time for another iteration of the 25 Things series. This, I suspect, may be my last one here on the blog for awhile, but I’m contemplating putting together a small e-book of these lists with some new ones thrown in for good measure (already written part of 25 Things You Should Know About Publishing and Writing A Fucking Sentence). In the meantime, enjoy this one, and don’t hesitate to add your own in the comments.
Previous iterations of the “25 Things” series:
1. Dialogue Is Easy Like Sunday Morning
Our eyes flow over dialogue like butter on the hood of a hot car. This is true when reading fiction. This is true when reading scripts. What does this tell you? It tells you: you should be using a lot of dialogue.
2. Easy Isn’t The Same As Uncomplicated
We like to read dialogue because it’s easy, not because it’s stupid. Dialogue has a fast flow. We respond to it as humans because, duh, humans make talky-talky. Easy does not translate to uncomplicated or unchallenging. Dialogue isn’t, “I like hot dogs,” “I think hot dogs are stupid,” “I think you’re stupid,” “I think your Mom’s stupid,” “I think your Mom’s vagina is stupid.” Dialogue is a carrier for all aspects of the narrative experience. Put differently: it’s the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. I think I’m supposed to add “motherfucker” to that. I’ll let you do it. I trust you.
3. Sweet Minimalism
Let’s get this out of the way: don’t hang a bunch of gaudy ornaments upon your dialogue. In fiction, use the dialogue tags “said” and “asked” 90% of the time. Edge cases you might use “hissed,” “called,” “stammered,” etc. These are strong spices; use minimally. Also, adverbs nuzzled up against dialogue tags are an affront to all things and make Baby Jesus pee out the side of his diaper, and when he does that, people die. In scripts, you don’t have this problem but you can still clog the pipes with crap if you overuse stage directions. Oh, heavy dialect and slang? Just more ornamentation that’ll break the back of your dialogue.
4. Uh, You Do Know The Rules, Right?
Learn the structure of dialogue. If a screenplay, know the format. Capitalized name, centered above parenthetical stage direction and the line of dialogue. VO, OC, OS, contd:
I always said that life was like a box of marmots. You
never know which one’s gonna nibble off your privates.
In fiction, know when to use a comma, when to use a period, know where the punctuation goes in relation to quotation marks, know that a physical gesture (nodded, f’rex) is not a dialogue tag.
“Fuck that monkey,” John said.
“But,” Betty said, “I love that dumb chimp.”
John nodded. “I know, Betty. But he’s a bad news bonobo, baby. A bad news bonobo.”
5. Use It To Set Pace
You want a pig to run faster, you grease him up with Astroglide and stick a NASA rocket booster up his ass. You want your story to read faster, you use dialogue to move it along. Like I said: dialogue reads easy. Dialogue’s like a waterslide: a reader gets to it, they zip forth fast, fancy and free. Want to slow things down? Pull away from the dialogue. Speed things up? More dialogue. Throttle. Brake. Throttle. Brake.
6. Shape Determines Speed
Short, sharp dialogue is a prison shiv: moves fast ’cause it’s gotta, because T-Bone only has three seconds in the lunch line with Johnny the Fish to stitch a shank all up in Johnny’s kidneys. Longer dialogue moves more slowly. Wanting to create tension? Fast, short dialogue. Want to create mystery? Longer, slightly more ponderous dialogue. Want to bog your audience in word treacle? Let one character take a lecturing info-dump all over their heads.
7. Expository Dialogue Is A Pair Of Cement Shoes
One of dialogue’s functions is to convey information within the story (to other characters) and outside the story (to the audience). An info-dump is the clumsiest way to make this happen. Might as well bludgeon your audience with a piece of rebar. And yet, you still gotta convey info. You have ways to pull this off without dropping an expository turd in the word-bowl. Don’t let one character lecture; let it be a conversation. Question. Answer. Limit the information learned; pull puzzle pieces out and take them away to create mystery. Let characters be reluctant to give any info, much less dump it over someone’s head.
8. Showing Through Telling
And yet, you have to do it. Dialogue is a better way of conveying information than you, the storyteller, just straight up telling the audience. The curious nature of dialogue, however, is that it would seem to rectally violate that most sacred of writing chestnuts — show, don’t tell. I don’t open my mouth and project fucking holograms. I tell you shit. And yet, the trick with dialogue is to show through telling. You reveal things through dialogue without a character saying them. This means it’s paramount to avoid…
9. The Wart On The End Of The Nose
“On-the-nose” dialogue is dialogue where a character says exactly what he feels and what he wants for purposes of telling the audience what they need to know. When a villain spoils his own sinister plan, that’s on-the-nose. When a protagonist says, “I cannot love you, elf-lady, because an elf once touched me in my no-no hole,” that’s on-the-nose. Trust me, we’d live in a better, happier world if real world dialogue was all on-the-nose. On the other side, we’d experience duller, shittier fiction. Characters — and, frankly, real people — reveal things without saying them.
10. The Words Beneath The Words
Text versus sub-text. On-the-nose dialogue versus dialogue that is deliciously sub rosa. Meaning exists beneath what’s said. The best real world example of this is the dreaded phrase spoken by men and women the world around: “I’m fine.” Said with jaw tight. Said with averted eyes. Said in sharp, clipped tongue. Never before have two words so clearly meant something entirely different: “I’m fine” is code. It’s code for, “Yes, something is fucking wrong, but I don’t want to talk about it, but actually, I do want to talk about it but I want you to already know what’s wrong, and what’s wrong is that you had sex with my mother in a New Jersey rest-stop and put it on Youtube you giant unmerciful cock-waffle.”
11. Pay No Attention To The Dead Man Behind The Curtain
Put differently: pretend that dialogue is more about hiding than it is about revealing. The things we the audience want to know most — who killed his wife, why did he rob that bank, did he really have a romantic dalliance with that insane dancing robot — are the things the character doesn’t want to discuss. Dialogue is negotiating that revelation, and it’s a revelation that should come as easy as pulling the teeth out of a coked-up Doberman. Meaning, not easy at all.
12. Where Tension, Suspense And Mystery Have A Big Crazy Gang-Bang
The fact that characters lie, cheat, conceal, mislead and betray all in dialogue tells you that dialogue is a critical way of building tension and suspense and conveying mystery. Characters are always prime movers.
13. Quid Pro Quo, Clarice
Hannibal Lecter susses out the truth through dialogue. (Oh, and he also eats people.) But he’s also performing meta-work for the audience by sussing out character through dialogue. Clarice Starling is painted in part by Lecter’s own strokes. A character’s blood, sweat, tears, ball-hair and breast-milk lives inside their dialogue. How they speak and what they say reveals who they are, though only obliquely. After writing a conversation, ask yourself, “What does this say about the characters? Is this true to who they are?”
14. Let The Character Sign Their Own Work
Each line of dialogue from a character is that character’s signature. It contains their voice and personality. One speaks in gruff, clipped phrasing. The other goes on at length. One character is ponderous and poetic, another is meaner than two rattlesnakes fucking in a dirty boot. Don’t let a character’s voice be defined by dialect, slang, or other trickery. It’s not just how they speak. It’s also what they say when they do.
15. Dialogue Is A Theme Park
Theme is one of those things you as the author don’t really speak out loud — but sometimes characters do. They might orbit the theme. They might challenge it. They might speak it outright. Not often, and never out of nowhere. But it’s okay once in awhile to let a character be a momentary avatar of theme. It’s doubly okay if that character is played by Morgan Freeman. God, that guy’s voice. He could say anything — “Beans are a musical fruit” — and I’m like, “There it is! Such gravitas! Such power. It’s the theme. It’s the theme!”
16. Dialogue Is Action
We expect that dialogue and action are separate, but they are not. Speak is a verb. So’s talk. So’s discuss, talk, argue, yell, banter, rant, rave. Verb means action. That means, duh, dialogue is action, not separate from it. Further, dialogue works best when treated this way. Don’t stand two characters across from one another and have them talk at each other like it’s a ping-pong game. Characters act while speaking. They walk. Kick stones. Clean dishes. Load rifles. Pleasure themselves. Build thermonuclear penile implants. Eat messy sandwiches. This creates a sense of dynamism. Of an authentic world. Adds variety and interest.
17. The Real World Is Not Your Friend
I’m not talking about the MTV reality show, though one supposes there the lesson is the same (so not your friend). What I mean is, if you want to ruin good dialogue, the fastest path to that is by mimicking dialogue you hear in the real world. Dialogue in the real world is dull. It’s herky-jerky. Lots of um, mmm, hmm, uhhh, like, y’know. If you listen really hard to how people speak to one another, it’s amazing anybody communicates anything at all.
18. For The Record, You’re Not David Mamet
Yes, yes, I know. David Mamet writes “realistic” dialogue. Everyone interrupts everyone. They say inexplicable shit. They barely manage to communicate. Subtextapalooza. It’s great. It works. You’re also not David Mamet. I mean, unless you are, in which case, thanks for stopping by. Would you sign my copy of Glengarry Glen Ross? All that being said…
19. Again: Not A Ping-Pong Match
Characters don’t stand nose to nose and take turns speaking. People are selfish. So too are characters. Characters want to talk. They want to be heard. They don’t wait their turn like polite automatons. They can interrupt each other. Finish one another’s sentences. Derail conversations. Pursue agendas. Dialogue is a little bit jazz, a little bit hand-to-hand combat. It’s a battle of energy, wits, and dominance.
20. Conversation Is Conflict
Dialogue can represent a pure and potent form of conflict. Two or more characters want something, and they’re using words to get it. Before you write conversation, ask: what does each participant want? Set a goal. One character wants money. Another wants affirmation to justify her self-righteousness. A third just needs a fucking hug. Find motive. Purpose. Conscious or not. Let the conversation reflect this battle.
21. Authenticity Trumps Reality
“But it really happened,” is never an excuse for something to exist in fiction. Weird shit happens all the time in reality. Ever have something happen where you say, “Gosh, that was really convenient?” You put that in your story, the audience is going to kick you in the gut and spit in your cereal. Dialogue suffers from similar pitfalls. Just because you hear it in reality doesn’t mean it works in the context of story. Story has its own secret laws. You can make dialogue sound real without mimicking reality. One might term this “natural” dialogue; authenticity is about feeling real, not about being real.
22. Sometimes, You Just Gotta Babble That Shit Out
Writing dialogue sometimes means you just let two characters babble for awhile. Small talk, big talk, crazy talk. Let ’em circumvent the real topic. Give them voices. Open the floodgates to your sub-conscious mind. And let the conversation flow. Write big, write messy, write long. Cut later in comfort.
23. Nothing Wrong With Banter
You might write two characters just sitting down and shooting the shit and think, “I’ll cut this down later.” But don’t be so sure. Sometimes characters just need to chat, babble, mouth off. Who they are can be revealed in two people just fucking around, seeing what comes out of their heads. That can work if it’s interesting, if it puts the character on the map in terms of the audience’s mental picture, and if it eventually focuses up to be something bigger than how it began. Oh, and did I mention it has to be interesting?
24. The Greatest Crime Against Humanity Is Writing Boring Dialogue
Like I said, dialogue is easy to read. Or, it’s supposed to be. Anybody who writes dialogue that’s dull, that doesn’t flow like water and pop like popcorn, needs to be taken out back and shaken like a baby. Find the boring parts. The unnecessary stuff. The junk. Anything that doesn’t feel a) necessary and b) interesting. Stick it in a bag and set it on fire. Want to read great dialogue? Sharp, fast, entertaining, witty-as-fuck, with a lot going on? Go watch the TV show GILMORE GIRLS. No, I’m not kidding. Stop making that face.
25. Double-Duty Dialogueing
Heh, “duty.” Heh, “log.” Shut up. If you take one thing away from these 25
nonsense nuggets gems of wisdom, it’s this: let dialogue do the heavy lifting and perform double- or even triple-duty. Dialogue isn’t just dialogue. It’s a vehicle for character, theme, mood, plot, conflict, mystery, tension, horror. Dialogue does a lot of work in very short space: it’s the goddamn Swiss Army knife of storytelling. Or Macgyver. Or Trojan Horse. Or Macgyver hiding in a Trojan Horse carrying a Swiss Army knife. Didn’t I tell you to shut up already? Where’s Morgan Freeman when you need him? He’ll tell you to shut up and you’ll listen.
Corollary: “Everything Is Dialogue”
Part of why dialogue reads so easy is because it’s conversational, and conversation is how we interact with other humans and, in our heads, with the world. We talk to inanimate objects, for fuck’s sake. (What, you’ve never yelled at a stubborn jar of jelly? SHUT UP HAVE TOO.) There’s a secret, here, and that is to treat all your writing like it’s dialogue. Write things conversationally. Like you’re talking to the audience. Like you and the audience? Real BFFs. You can abuse this, of course, but the point is that in conversation you’ll use straightforward, uncomplicated language to convey your point — no value in being stodgy and academic when you’re just talking. So too is it with writing, whether it’s description in a screenplay or in fiction, you’ll find value in straightforward, uncomplicated, even talky language. Talk with the audience, don’t lecture at them. Everything is dialogue. Some of it’s just one-sided, is all.
So. How about you?
What are your rules of writing dialogue?
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Did you enjoy this post? Guess what? Chuck has a book chock full of the same kind of booze-soaked, profanity-laden writing advice you found here. Look for CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY. Buy for Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), Nook, or PDF.