Dialogue is a simultaneously overlooked and much appreciated part of storytelling. It is through dialogue that characters relay information to us, be it how they are feeling, or how a story is developing, or just summing up a particular plot point so maybe we don’t get too confused. It’s through dialogue that the detective reveals to us just how he solved the case, or that a great hero gives a big motivational speech to a waiting crowd.
Dialogue is one of the most important elements in traditional fiction, from novels, to plays, and even to film which is generally a visual art form. Since many of us assume we know dialogue very well (we do after all exchange it every day), it can be easy to take it for granted and not do it quite right, but this is a mistake. Dialogue can make or break a character.
One of the biggest points in dialogue is it’s not necessarily which information is conveyed, but how it is conveyed. For example, take this line here.
“Hey everyone, come this way. I found where all the colonists are hiding.”
This is a simple line that reveals a plot point, our characters looking for some missing people. However, it doesn’t say much about the character who delivers it. What type of person are they? What archetype do they fall into and so forth? This line is actually an altered line from the movie Aliens, which in its original form reads like this.
“Yo! Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen. Found ’em.”
As you can see, we’ve received the same information as before, and are brought up to speed on the current plot point. The only difference now is some flare has been added to the dialogue, which now reveals a lot more about the character. He’s a jokester, seems to have plenty of confidence, and may not be taking the situation all that seriously.
Simple injection of words in an otherwise unremarkable line of dialogue can also drastically change it’s meaning. For instance, in Ghostbusters after Spangler says they’ll be able to capture a ghost, Venkman is impressed and responds with
“Egon, I’m going to take back some of the things I said about you.”
The injection of the word ‘some’ completely changes the sentence from an ernest apology to one Venkman’s usual snarky backhanded compliments. It also says a lot about Venkman, that he has ridiculed Spangler for some time and in spite of being impressed with his new ghost catching technology, still doesn’t completely respect him. All from a simple word with the proper placement.
Another point to remember about dialogue is sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. It is tempting, especially for first time writers such as myself to have characters speechify and deliver information and backstory with long drawn out speeches.
This can be very effective when done correctly, such as Quint’s famous Indianapolis speech in Jaws. The scene is permeated with a feeling of dread, only strengthened by the haunting way in which Quint recounts the horrors experienced by him and his shipmates. But it’s not the length of the speech that makes it work. Rather, it’s the words Quint uses, such as comparing a shark’s eyes to a doll’s eyes. This speech lasts several minutes, and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Keep speeches and monologues to a minimum. Usually you can only get away with one.
But as there’s a time and a place for speeches, there’s also a time and a place to just keep it short. In the movie Escape from Alcatraz, a counselor asks the Clint Eastwood character what his childhood was like, to which Eastwood replies “Short.”
So much about the character is revealed in that one word. He doesn’t go into a big long speech about how his mom was a neglectful sex worker or how his dad got drunk and hit him, or how he had a dog named Spot who was his best friend in the world before he got run over by the milk truck. All we know is this character never had what most would consider a childhood, so whatever did happen must have been pretty awful. Our mind fills in the blanks in a far more effective way than a monologue ever could.
While this approach wouldn’t have worked during the Indianapolis speech in Jaws, it does work here. The trick for a writer is to see which situation calls for what approach, the monologue or the story of few words.
One of the biggest tricks in dialogue is how the exact same lines can have drastically different meanings based on how they’re delivered. An ‘I’m fine’ told with a wink and a smile tells of a person who is well, whereas an “I’m fine!” shouted through gritted teeth tells of a person who is obviously not doing very well and trying to hide it.
This was a simple example, but picture this used in another situation. What if instead of the quiet and dignified way Atticus Finch delivers his closing argument in To Kill a Mockingbird, we switched it out with him being red in the face, frothing at the mouth, and flipping over tables in the gallery? The words are the same, but the actions speak of a man not interested in justice and protecting an innocent man, but an obsessed lunatic coming undone when he realizes he’s losing. A stirring speech can be transformed into a paranoid rant at the drop of a hat.
In closing, treat your dialogue with care. Carefully consider your word choices and understand the importance of each one, think carefully about whether a monologue or a short sentence will be more effective, and after all that is done, think about how these lines are delivered. I myself am still a relatively new writer. There’s much for me to learn and hopefully plenty of time to learn it. In re-writing my own manuscript time and again, I’ve come to realize just how important a part of character and story dialogue can be. All of these elements can make a huge difference, and can come together to create magic when executed properly.