Dialogue. Done right, it makes characters and story come alive. Done wrong, it’s clunky and awkward and sounds contrived and discordant. It can move plot and character along, or mire it down in the mud. Some authors are very good at writing conversations, and others not so much. I’ve read some great books – books where most of the writing could even be called brilliant – but the dialogue just sounded stilted and wrong.
It’s a hard thing to learn to write. You can’t just listen to conversations and learn to write how people talk, because conversations tend to go like this:
“Hey you. How’s it going?”
“Oh all right. I’m tired though. I didn’t sleep very well last night.”
“Me either. I think it was the coffee. I drank way too much coffee last night.”
“Maybe you should try cutting back.”
Okay – are you yawning yet? These people might have something interesting to say to each other at some point, but as a reader I may not be willing to stick around long enough to find out.
In all honesty, I think I have some learning to do before I’ll be really good at dialogue. When my characters are having conversations I rework it and rework it. I want them all to have their own voices so that their speech patterns and word choices reflect who they are. But the one thing I have learned is that if I want the conversation to work to build the story, there has to be some level of conflict in it. Our characters above, for example, can’t just have a conversation about being tired. It needs to go something more like this:
“Damn, honey, you look like something the cat drug in.”
“Oh, perfect. Thank you so much for the color commentary. I feel so much better now.”
“I’m only trying to help.”
“Yeah? You wanna help you can figure out how to make me sleep.”
“Maybe if you didn’t drink ten cups of coffee…”
In this example there is a point to the conversation. It creates (or reveals) conflict between the two characters. It gives us some idea about their relationship and also tells us that one of them is having some insomnia.
I think every conversation has a little bit of conflict. Even the ones where one character is declaring love for the other. Questions remain, or resistance, or they wouldn’t still be talking, they’d be getting on with the kissing.
One of the most helpful techniques I’ve found for writing dialogue came from a game I was taught in a drama class. Two participants were each given a line they needed to say that would make sense, in context, within a conversation. Neither participant knew the other person’s line. The goal was, within the course of an improv conversation, to reach a point where you could deliver the line you’d been given. I try to do that for my characters. What do they both want? Where are they trying to get to?
It always seems to work better when they want two very different things.
If you’re a writer – have you found that adding conflict helps make your dialogue pop? And if you’re a reader, can you think of an author who does dialogue particularly well?