Dialogue separates great works from lesser stories without you, as a reader, realizing it. Dialogue has such a profound effect that it has changed dramatically over the years. Take for example this good but dated exchange between two wives leaving a party from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s timeless classic, The Great Gatsby:
“Whenever he sees I’m having a good time, he wants to go home.”
“Never heard of anything so selfish in all my life.”
“We’re always the first to leave.”
“So are we.”
A perfect slice of life, isn’t it? I especially like the touch of irony at the end. So why don’t writers put in nice nuggets like this anymore? Readers don’t like them. Today’s readers want action and conflict as shown in this excellent dialogue from Lee Child’s Never Go Back:
Colonel: “Those men are in no danger. They’re poking around with some trivial inquiry.”
Reacher: “They missed two consecutive radio checks.”
“Probably goofing off like the rest of this damn unit.”
“In Afghanistan? Doing what? Hitting the bars and the clubs? Checking out the whorehouses? Spending a day at the beach? Get real, you idiot. Radio silence out of Afghanistan is automatically bad news.”
“It was my decision.”
“You wouldn’t recognize a decision if it ran up and bit you in the ass.”
A tad more direct than Fitzgerald, no?* The writing shows us that both characters are smart and determined. Neither of them has to take time thinking up his response.
Deconstructing dialogue tells us how some of the greats did it, but what are you trying to get out of your dialogue? You want the story to move forward from a series of critical events into a direct confrontation.
One way of writing dialogue is to plan it. You’ll start with basic questions:
- How do the two characters know each other?
- Will it be open conflict (argumentative) or dueling agendas?
- Do you need to resolve or suspend the conclusion?
Once you have those answers, you can design the interaction. You will need to define each character’s goals. Why would they engaging in dialogue instead of walking away?
Once you have an idea of where they came from, why they’re talking, what they want out of it, and, most important, where you want to stop, you’ll be ready to write the dialogue.
Wait. What’s that about dueling agendas?
The Reacher dialogue above was an argument. Sometimes we talk and the other person doesn’t listen**. You’ve heard politicians give an answer that has nothing to do with the reporter’s question because they’re focused on the message they want to deliver. You often argue like this without realizing it, you push your agenda forward to overcome resistance through force of will. It makes for interesting dialogue. Take this example from my book, Trench Coats, Episode I: The Meeting:
Pia Sabel: Did it strike you as odd when they asked you to deal with me?”
Capt. Patterson: “I asked to see your identification.”
She tapped her fingernail on his badge. “Did you ask yourself why?”
Patterson said, “It is illegal for an American citizen to break the laws of a foreign government. That reciprocating concept exists between all civilized governments, forming the basis for extradition. You have been—”
“Did they make you feel special when they sent you, Patterson? Like you were on a high-profile mission that would change things?”
A flicker in his eyes, a pause in his verbal assault for a fraction of a second.
Then he tipped his head forward and forged ahead. He said, “The government of the United States of America will not stand idly by while a citizen acts as a self-appointed vigilante and executes an official of a foreign government. The State Department has restricted your passport and will—”
“Your handling of the naval standoff in Somalia was brilliant…”
Neither one of them is listening to the other, but you can tell something has to give.
One of the best writing exercises to use before writing dialogue is to recall that argument, the one you never got to finish, and dream up what you would like to have said.
Get wound up—start writing.
Put an example of your favorite dialogue in the comments.
* Note that Mr. Child respects the reader’s intellect by not explaining the bars and clubs part.
** My wife claims to have a good deal of expertise on this subject.
Category: On Writing