When I was in film school and started to learn how to write screenplays, my professor called me the “monologue queen.” My characters would go on and on about a party they went to, or the way the clouds were hovering above the barn…. Meanwhile, the reader was sound asleep. This is not to say a beautiful, well placed monologue is always inappropriate, it’s just that this device has to be used judiciously in service of story.
The primary function of dialogue is to reveal character and move the story forward. Like the two little girls in the photo above, we want our readers to be intensely interested in everything our characters say.
Over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks regarding the use of dialogue. If you want, tuck them in your writer’s survival kit…
1. Know your characters. One of the primary reasons a character’s dialogue can be “off” is that the writer doesn’t truly know this person. In order to create authentic voices for the people in your story, you have to understand them deeply. What do they love, hate, fear? Where do they come from? How much education do they have? What are their feelings about the world? Are they crazy, meek, violent, judgmental, seething with anger? Knowing your characters is the single most important prep for writing great dialogue. Everything a character thinks and feels informs what they say and how they say it.
2. No chitchat or repeating information the reader already knows. People in real life blah blah blah all the time. “How are you?” “I’m fine, thank you.” People in books and movies can’t. We have to keep the reader riveted to our pages. Unless the chit chat is revealing some intense underlying theme (as in a Pinter play) cut it out. Also, try not to have a character repeat, in dialogue, information that the reader/audience already knows.
3. Use subtext. People rarely say what they mean. Nothing is worse than “on the nose dialogue”– when a character states the obvious or says exactly what they feel. Remember, your characters use strategies to get what they want. Let them be tricky. It’ll make your dialogue more interesting. However, if it’s time for your character to truly pour out his/her heart to someone (as in the climax of your story,) let them say exactly how they feel.
4. If you need to reveal exposition through dialogue, hide it. Exposition is the revealing of necessary information about a character’s backstory, or a dramatic situation, or historical context that the reader must know to fully understand the plot. Here are a couple of ways to keep this information bearable– parse it out slowly over time in the story, create an argument between people where the info can be revealed through conflict, or have something visually or dramatically interesting happening at the same time the info is being dumped.
5. Less is More. This is probably the most important thing to remember. Less dialogue is better than more dialogue. Try to create visuals or action that carry the plot forward, rather than depending on speeches. If you have a scene that’s too talky, try to write it with no dialogue. One image or action is worth a thousand words. Try always to move the story forward by making your character actively take steps toward achieving his/her goal.
Take action! Are you having issues with dialogue? Get to know your characters– what they desire, where they came from, their fears and dreams. Have you cut out all the chit chat? Do your characters repeat what the reader already knows? Are you using subtext, making your characters tricky in trying to get what they want? Are you hiding exposition? Most importantly, are you trying to use as little dialogue as possible?
Remember, every word your character says should reveal who they are, what they want, and move the story forward.
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