What makes good dialogue? When do you know you’ve spent too much time telling people things they never needed to know? Have you ever read a passage of dialogue and thought to yourself, “Oh, come on! That is so fake!”?
I know how you feel. Dialogue like this often suffers from a lack of studious editing. When it comes to writing dialogue, you should write from your heart and edit from your head. (This is also called “write hot, edit cool” and you’ll see it mentioned in a TON of creative writing courses, books, and blogs. It’s good advice.)
Dialogue writers also tend to give too much exposition, all at once. It’s an illness that is common among writers, but I am starting (right here, right now) a campaign to end it.
Overexposition sounds a lot like this:
“Who are you?”
“My name is Jane. I’m new around here, so you probably haven’t seen me before. I just moved in from Texas, but I must say I’m really enjoying this weather. I haven’t been in weather so nice in a long time, ever since my (brother/cousin/sister/parent) died in a car crash. It was raining that night, I remember that much. I almost lost it after that. Depression, suicidal tendencies, the works. Thankfully, I’m better now and looking forward to my new job. Did I mention I’m going to work at (insert local company)?”
First of all, all the first character asked was “who are you?” People usually aren’t so gushy around people they don’t know. And, depending on the situation, they may not want the other person to know who they are. There are 3 correct responses to the first question.
#1 = “I’m Jane.”
#2 = “Who wants to know?”
#3 = “You don’t need to know.”
So much simpler.
The second thing I saw in this generous amount of exposition (that’s putting it nicely) is that it’s too much, too soon. Where’s the characterization? Why aren’t we revealing this tragic backstory in bits and pieces, forcing the reader to keep reading to find out what really happened? Things to keep in mind as we move forward.
Okay, so you have the overexposition illness. Don’t worry, there are things you can do to fix it. So breathe, put down the cake you’re gorging yourself on, and listen to the rest of what I have to say.
Dialogue is a learned craft. A craft that takes time to perfect. However, I can give you a kick start.
People who aren’t good at dialogue can learn a lot from movie/screenplay writers. For examples:
“Are you giving me attitude, Spock?”
“I am relaying many attitudes. To which are you referring?”
“I am a god, you dull creature!”
“What was that?”
“You gave me the nod.”
“Yeah, the punch him in the face nod. Not the ‘throw him off the building’ nod. At most… at most that was a break his fingers nod.”
“Do you know what the preservation room is for?”
“Delicious jams and jellies?”
Okay, so now that we’ve seen these golden gems of Hollywood genius, let’s talk about why screenwriting dialogue works and what we can learn from it.
Point #1 – Dialogue should expose true character
Let me break it down.
Whenever someone talks, they tell us a little more about themselves, even when they don’t mean to. It’s the same with your characters. They’re people, right? So whatever they say should give some insight into what they’re all about. The “I am a god, you dull creature!” example (from Marvel’s The Avengers) is a prime example of this. Obviously, this guy is full of himself and that’s why he thinks that.
So, what can your character say that points to what they’re really like?
Point #2 – Dialogue should NEVER be “on the nose”
Unless you are writing a character who only says what they really think (like Spock, and even he isn’t “on the nose”) then you shouldn’t write what that character is actually feeling. Real people lie all the time. “How are you?” “I’m fine.” Things like that.
Characters lie too. They avoid questions. “Do you know what the preservation room is for?” (National Treasure)
Instead of answering “no”, Riley avoids the question with sarcasm of his own. People do this in real life, which makes it so much more believable on screen or in print.
Point #3 – Dialogue should elude to backstory
You’ll find that I am a HUGE fan of backstory. Dialogue is my favorite way to elude to an interesting story in the character’s past. Example:
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Because I won’t be like him.”
Him? Who is him? Why doesn’t he want to be like him? WHYYYYYY?!? (I know, of course, because I wrote it. Sorry to leave you hanging.)
When writing dialogue, ask yourself this: What happened in this character’s past and how does it apply to what he’s doing now?
Point #4 – SUBTEXT
I admit, subtext is a lot like backstory, but it IS different. Trust me.
Subtext is a helpful tool to help you avoid saying something too bluntly. Subtext is when you say something without really saying something. It’s difficult to master, but once you do you’ll find that it’s totally worth it.
Let me just say: “You were my new dream” (instead of plain old “I love you”) in Tangled. So much subtext! And then, tears. Okay, I’m done gushing now.
(Hint: classic lines are usually full of subtext)
I hope you found this helpful to help you craft dialogue for your character. It’s really important that they say what they mean, but in an interesting way. Never forget, they are your creation and your friend, so give them the treatment they deserve.
Stay tuned for next week’s exciting conclusion to the 4-part character series!
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