Dialogue works best when it seamlessly reveals tidbits of information, moving the plot forward inch by inch and revealing the inner reality of the characters. The best dialogue flows naturally from each character’s state of being, so that each spoken line reveals the emotions and relationships between the characters.
Natural Dialogue Is Best
Overinflated or pretentious dialogue always turns me off as a reader; I want to feel included in the lives of the characters, and so in my writing, I aim for as personable and approachable a level of speech as possible.
I Learned To Write Dialogue From Improv
I’m a trained actor, and one of the areas of study that impacted my writing the most was improvisation. I took the improvisation class twice, once as a student, and then again as a teacher’s assistant. The part I loved most about improv was studying different people’s response to being put on the spot. There was one man in the class I TA-ed that was from a machismo, truck-obsessed culture, and another man from a liberal, social-justice background. Watching the two actors collaborate on improvised situations was fascinating. I feel like I learned the most about natural character reactions, and how to write speech patterns, from studying actors as they explored improvisational skills.
What Is Bad Dialogue?
Bad dialogue reaches beyond the characters; it is putting things into a person’s mouth that achieves an effect for the plot, or fulfills a goal of the author, without making space for the characters to be themselves, and to pursue their own goals. Bad dialogue happens when an author controls the characters, and manipulates the scene through contrived words.
Here Are Examples
“Those were very bad men,” the little boy said, hiding his plump cheeks in Claire’s skirt.
“I do not think they were very bad, but we are in an unfortunate position. If only I were older,” Geoffrey said. “I’m sorry, mama.”
“Oh, whatever will I do?” Claire said, her eyes turning to the furnishings in the room.
“I want them all to go away forever!” James cried.
“Dear, dear, it will be okay soon,” she said, patting his head. James sniffed.
“I think that the nicest man was the one named Henry,” Geoffrey declared.
“He works for the king of Old Laffet,” Claire added.
“Whatever will we do now?” Geoffrey asked her.
“We will have to think,” she told him. “We will have to gather our wits about us, and be clever. Perhaps . . .” she trailed into silence, and jewel-like tears appeared in her eyes.
“Someday I will be a man, all grown,” Geoffrey said.
“We will stick together; it will be all right in the end,” Claire said.
“I will be your new husband, and then you won’t get married at all, mama,” James declared.
“Hush, dear,” she murmured.
“Don’t marry any of them, Mama,” James said into Claire’s dress.
“Mother’s the queen,” Geoffrey said scornfully. “Don’t be stupid. There’s got to be a king, and I’m not old enough.”
“What do you think of them?” Claire asked Geoffrey.
“I hate them,” James broke in.
“You hated all of them?” Claire asked. Her youngest son nodded violently.
“The middle one was all right,” Geoffrey said. “The one who spoke for the married king.”
“Henry Standing,” Claire said. “Yes.”
“What did you think, mother?” Geoffrey asked seriously.
“Predatory men,” she said quietly. “All I need is a little time, Geoff. You are not so very young.”
“Young enough not to count,” Geoffrey said. “I’m not a fool.”
“A very old man may be ideal,” Claire told him. “A young man or a king will not be anxious to protect your succession to the crown.”
“Don’t get married, mama,” James commanded. “You be the king.”
“Mm,” Claire said.
Sentimental Dialogue Is Like Salt
When you make soup, you often add salt, but if you add too much salt, the soup is spoiled, and tastes terrible. Sentimental dialogue is similar; just enough sentimentality will add flavor and plumpness to your dialogue, but too much will spoil the effect, and ruin the scene. Make use of emotionally-charged scenarios, but keep aware of the amount of wallowing your characters are doing in wordy sentiment. Each spoken line flows naturally from the character’s heart, and expresses their current state of being as well as their long-term desires.
Well, There You Are!
Dialogue can become the strongest element of your fiction, if you allow it to flow naturally from the characters. Your dialogue can drive the plot forward, add depth to your story, and reveal the essence of your characters.
You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. My books can be found here. Nice to see you again!