Author Topic: How to write great dialogue?  (Read 8896 times)

Offline Dean

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How to write great dialogue?
« on: August 14, 2014, 09:45:38 PM »
I've noticed that I don't put the same amount of thought into dialogue as I do for other parts of my prose. I know the basics, such as giving characters a unique voice (although how well I achieve that in theory is questionable), not to use it as a vehicle for unsubtle exposition "As you know Bob..."), to use it to propel conflict, etc.

But I usually write very simple dialogue, functional, dialogue. I'm not sure if how to articulate the difference between this and what I hope to achieve, but I'll try my best.

It's like when you pick up a young adult or new adult book. The dialogue is pretty basic, maybe hints of subtext but nothing really complex. Things are stated outright, very clearly. Whereas take a book like "To Kill a Mockingbird", or to use a more contemporary example, and the thing that dragged this to the forefront of my mind in the first place, the TV show "Homeland".

Without wanting to give away spoilers, there's an interrogation scene between the two main characters in Season 2, in the episode "Q&A". Unfortunately I can't find a video to show you, but the scene was referred to by critics as "a masterpiece of writing". The characters clashed and said what they needed to in order to propel the plot, but in this absolutely compelling and clever way, and you can tell a lot of thought went into it.

Just how do you do that? How do you plan and write dialogue with that kind of precision, to elicit such emotion?

I hope my attempt at explaining this at 3 in the morning makes some semblance of sense :).

Wolfe

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Re: How to write great dialogue?
« Reply #1 on: August 14, 2014, 10:00:50 PM »
Just how do you do that? How do you plan and write dialogue with that kind of precision, to elicit such emotion?

For me, knowing your characters is the answer. Knowing their goals. And knowing how far they'll go to get them. This is crucial in dialogue because it should paint ever word those characters say.

Yes, every word.

I can always tell when a writer doesn't know their characters because the dialogue is weary. Wooden. Worthless.

Great dialogue sings. Becomes quote worthy. Future clichés other writers wish they wrote. It's also why you cannot write a perfect, first draft. Your initial manuscript lets you get to know the characters. Their speech patterns. The words they favor when they speak. Editing brings this out. And no, you can't shortcut this step and hire an editor.

That's something you must learn yourself.

« Last Edit: August 14, 2014, 10:11:26 PM by Wolfe »

Offline Dean

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Re: How to write great dialogue?
« Reply #2 on: August 14, 2014, 10:04:53 PM »
Thanks Wolfe, good advice as usual.

Quote worthy future clichés that other writers wish they wrote...I know that feeling. One of my favourite pieces of dialogue this year came from "Orange is the New Black":-

"Isn't humility a virtue or something?"

"One of the highest. People in power are always saying so."

Loved it  ;D! And characterisation clearly came into play when it was written.

Offline bailish

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Re: How to write great dialogue?
« Reply #3 on: August 14, 2014, 11:58:04 PM »
The examples you mentioned were from movies and TV, both visual media, whereas books are a written medium. Wolfe's comment suggests there's no difference, but for me, I can enjoy a book where most of the dialogue is paraphrased. Movies can't do that because they don't jump into characters' heads.

Jo Bannister

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Re: How to write great dialogue?
« Reply #4 on: August 15, 2014, 03:49:32 AM »
Can't really add to what Wolfe has said, except that getting the dialogue right is hugely important.  Much more so than how much showing v telling you do, where and if to use gerundives (even if you can remember what they are) and how many dots to use for what sort of pause.  If the dialogue is wooden, the characters are wooden; if there's too much dialogue, the book looks light-weight; if there isn't enough, readers can't face the challenge of page after page of closely printed text.  Edit and re-edit.  Say it out loud if that helps.  But don't part with the piece until the dialogue works.

Wolfe

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Re: How to write great dialogue?
« Reply #5 on: August 15, 2014, 05:08:49 PM »
The examples you mentioned were from movies and TV, both visual media, whereas books are a written medium. Wolfe's comment suggests there's no difference, but for me, I can enjoy a book where most of the dialogue is paraphrased. Movies can't do that because they don't jump into characters' heads.

That's a misconception.

Movies, novels, and television shows aren't visually driven . . . but audibly. You hear the words I've written in your head. You also hear what characters say, and yes even in thought if needed through voice-over. Watch a movie or television show with the sound turned off, and you'll see the story disappear.

Closed captioning for the hearing-impaired bears this out.
« Last Edit: August 15, 2014, 05:13:25 PM by Wolfe »

Offline Alice, a Country Gal

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Re: How to write great dialogue?
« Reply #6 on: August 16, 2014, 11:56:50 PM »
For me, knowing your characters is the answer. Knowing their goals. And knowing how far they'll go to get them. This is crucial in dialogue because it should paint ever word those characters say.

To me, I think the above is one of the things that helps make a story come alive. If you know your character well, you will also know how they speak, their word choices as well as their body language.

If you dialog reflect the character in such a way the reader knows which is speaking when the scene only contains two people, you've got them down.

It also means you don't have to add a lot of character description. The reader will envision their own version of the person you have created.

 
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Offline Interrobang

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Re: How to write great dialogue?
« Reply #7 on: October 12, 2014, 11:53:19 AM »
The best advice on dialogue I've come across is to make each conversation a contest - have each character aiming to get something different out of their exchange. Like two people taking a walk together, but each having a different destination in mind. The character's desired outcomes needn't be dramatically opposed, just offset enough to introduce some tension to the conversation.
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Offline Louise Thomas

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Re: How to write great dialogue?
« Reply #8 on: October 14, 2014, 01:18:20 AM »
Knowing who the characters are and how they behave and talk is the key. Get to know your characters like you would a real person and then it is easier to notice if what they are saying sounds 'off' or contrived. Reading their dialogue out loud and 'in character' is useful too - pretend to be that person.

I think actively observing real people can be useful if you're stuck and you can find similar characters around you. Although, I've often noticed that what people actually say in real life usually makes terrible dialogue - you have to filter out the essence and the 'way' they express themselves.

Offline Magdiel

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Re: How to write great dialogue?
« Reply #9 on: November 09, 2014, 09:50:11 PM »
You've probably realized this by now, but I feel the need to say you really, really want to avoid turning it into a systematic process. Do put thought into your character's dialogue, but for goodness' sakes, don't Blockedyze each and every word. Don't spoil the hint of spontaneity that makes real life dialogue so fluid.
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Jo Bannister

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Re: How to write great dialogue?
« Reply #10 on: November 10, 2014, 10:18:28 AM »
Good advice from Magdiel.  If it's dialogue, it needs to read like people talking.  But with all the crap cut out!  Real people talking say "you know" and "like" every third word, and repeat themselves, and loose track of what they were saying and may well switch horses half way through the argument.  That's "authentic", but it won't do in a book.  You need to capture the essence of how characters speak in words that are the words real people wish they used but can never remember at the relevant moment.  In short, dialogue needs to give the impression of authenticity without becoming bogged down in the authentic cotton-wool that slows down most actual conversations.

Offline Gyppo

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Re: How to write great dialogue?
« Reply #11 on: November 10, 2014, 12:45:15 PM »
You have to be able to hear the voices in your head.  If they all sound the same you're doing it wrong.

Magdiel is both right and wrong.  Like so many things in writing there any many ways to skin a cat.  I'm all in favour of spontaneity in the creative stages of writing, but when you come to edit anything, even dialogue, that's when you can use a systematic process to detect possible stumbling points.  That's when you strike a balance between flow and 'proper' grammar.

Real speech, as Jo pointed out, can be a mess but we understand it in everyday use because our brains are quite adept at sorting the wheat from the chaff, and can adjust on the fly to discard or retain what we feel is important.  Written speech is still there on the page to look back at and wonder 'WTF did he just say?'  If we look back it distracts us from what is ahead, and as writers we really don't want people doing this.  We want them to keep turning pages, and maybe leaf back later for any phrases which really resonated - for good or bad - at the time of first reading.

Dialogue is just one of the tools at our disposal  and we definitely shouldn't be too casual about it.  But it's even more important not to turn it into dry text.

One of my characters is an elderly gypsy gent.  I chose to make his speech fairly formal, even a bit archaic at times.  This is quite deliberate as it helps maintain his character.  (I have no idea if he can read and write - the question has never arisen in my mind until now - but possibly not.)  If not then the spoken word is his only means of communicating, so he'd naturally be more careful to make sure he was understood.

So when Eli is about to speak a little switch changes in my head and I hear the more careful enunciation and word choices and write accordingly.  Therefore, to a certain extent, this is the systematic process which Magdiel mentioned.

Horses for course, as they say.

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Offline Magdiel

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Re: How to write great dialogue?
« Reply #12 on: November 10, 2014, 01:18:12 PM »
↑indeed, but this question had struck me as "How do I make up better dialogue?" which, for me, is really just letting my gut speak. And it usually goes pretty well. The reason I emphasize on not putting too much thought into it is because I often see writers write dialogue that seems a bit forced, like their characters sure took their sweet time Blockedyzing their responses, much more time than what a conversation would allow. Of course, editing is a completely different process. That's when you re-read your lines dozens of times and tweak to perfection.

tl;dr: The essence comes from the heart; the shape, from the mind.
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Offline Gyppo

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Re: How to write great dialogue?
« Reply #13 on: November 10, 2014, 01:35:58 PM »
Yes, it's definitely possible to over-Blockedyse.

It's good when you can trust your gut-instinct.  I suspect some people never learn to do this, which is very sad..  And some are too impatient to wait a while, keep getting the words down, and let the instincts develop along the way as part of the larger learning curve.

By the way, welcome to the circle.  I hope you stick around.

Gyppo
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Pale Writer

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Re: How to write great dialogue?
« Reply #14 on: November 10, 2014, 01:48:30 PM »
Myself, I listen, watch, how others react to conversations - probably eavesdropping on them, but then I don't taint my sayings with theirs.

It is a hard chore, that balance of how much to use of real dialogue, and where a writer/reader needs to draw the line. I treat it like anything I write in regards to balance - it must be for the story, to build on a past moment, to strengthen a present moment, to lead into the future.

Great question - Excellent replies.
« Last Edit: November 10, 2014, 01:54:40 PM by Pale Writer »