Do you struggle with dialogue? Is your dialogue natural and crisp? Does it build well? A very simple way to write natural, compelling dialogue is to write a series of miniature climaxes, or verbal confrontations, into each scene where dialogue is part of the story.
What Do You Mean, A Miniature Climax?
Here is an example from a Shakespeare play, Othello. In this scene, Iago first begins to plant the story of Desdemona as a busy adulteress. I shall mark each of the sallies, or opening shots, in green, and each of the resulting climaxes in orange.
IAGO. My Noble Lord.
OTHELLO. What dost thou say, Iago?
IAGO. Did Michael Cassio
When he woo’d my Lady, know of your loue?
OTHELLO. He did, from first to last:
Why dost thou aske?
IAGO. But for a satisfaction of my Thought,
No further harme.
OTHELLO. Why of thy thought, Iago?
IAGO. I did not thinke he had bin acquainted with hir.
OTHELLO. O yes, and went betweene vs very oft.
OTHELLO. Indeed? I indeed. Discern’st thou ought in that?
Is he not honest?
IAGO. Honest, my Lord?
OTHELLO. Honest? I, Honest.
IAGO. My Lord, for ought I know.
OTHELLO. What do’st thou thinke?
Now, the really interesting thing that is happening here is 1) the length of each exchange, and 2) the way in which Iago gradually primes Othello, until, midway through the exchange, Othello is beginning new climactic beats.
Let’s Look A Little Closer Now
I promise, this will pay off hugely in your own writing of dialogue. If we break this down further, we see, essentially, this exchange:
- Iago makes a benign conversation-starter. Translation: “Gosh, I was thinking just now . . . ” Othello, quite naturally, says, “What about, chum?” Iago leads gently to the big bombshell: “Oh, I thought so. Never mind.“
- We see a minor transition, as Othello attempts to continue the first train of conversation, but Iago begins a new topic, further priming the pump of speculation, when he says, “Oh, I thought they hadn’t met . . .” in a doleful tone. This leads to the next climax, where Othello demands, “Hey, dude, tell me what the matter is!“
- And, the corner has now been turned; Iago has succeeded, in the first two minor climaxes, in eliciting from Othello the desired question: “Well, what’s wrong with Cassio?!” The climax for this beat is swift, and only feeds the feeling of unrest, as Iago exclaims: “Wrong with him? Um . . .” and Othello replies, explosively, “Yeah! What’s wrong with Cassio?!“
- Now Iago sinks into the passive party, and draws Othello imperceptibly along in the shortest beat of all. He says, “Oh, I don’t know that anything’s wrong with him,” and Othello immediately comes back with the climax: “Dude, come on. Tell me exactly what you’re thinking.“
Four Beats, And Each Shorter Than The Last
The miniature climaxes here are of regular and shortening length; the first is the longest, and the pace between opening salvo and climax quickens repeatedly until the final exchange takes place in only two lines.
IAGO. My Lord, for ought I know.
OTHELLO. What do’st thou thinke?
These two lines form a masterful pivot in the dialogue; both characters are now tuned, as it were, into each others’ thought, and their communication is devastatingly brief and clear. Economy adds tension to the scene, and Othello trembles on the precipice from which he is about, disastrously, to tumble.
What Does This Mean For My Dialogue?
Shakespeare is endlessly instructive, but from today’s example, we shall take two lessons.
- A speaking character drives the conversation towards a desired end. The character who is driving can alternate, and sometimes both speaking characters are driving towards different ends simultaneously.
- Each attempt to gain the desired end tapers into a shorter exchange, and builds emotional tension. The climaxes get closer together as the dialogue continues.
I’m Still Not Sure How To Use This In My Own Work
Let’s look at a contemporary example. Let us take Greg, a space pirate, and Fran, a cyborg nanny who has been captured by said pirate along with her charge, a child who is heir to a planet.
Greg wants Fran to keep the kid quiet and cooperative, and Fran wants safe passage to her homeworld so she can quit her job, which she hates. (The kid is locked up with some friendly hypoallergenic cats Greg stole from an onboard transport to a moon colony.)
First, I will write a truly awful example of how bad unbuilding dialogue can be, and then I will follow with a good example of how small, gradually-shortening climaxes make for great dialogue.
Bad Dialogue (No Climax Structure):
“You’ve just got to keep that darn kid quiet!” Greg opined. “I’m having a hard enough time piloting this ship without his constant clambering over things, and his noise is utterly unbearable. You can give him a puzzle, or some sort of coloring book. Surely you have such items as that in your nanny supplies?”
“I understand your frustration,” Fran said calmly. “It sounds to me as though my charge is making your life a little difficult since you took us on board.”
“Yes,” Greg agreed, smiling with relief, “you could certainly say that. In fact, when I first got you two as captives, I was thinking to myself that there was going to be a little bit of trouble, as regards the age of the child, but I was just kind of hard up for cash. Little heirlings to great fortunes don’t just walk around any old day, you know.”
“I suppose they don’t,” Fran agreed.
“Well, that is what I have to say about the matter,” Greg said. He folded his arms, and stared piercingly at Fran. “Haven’t you got anything to say for yourself?”
“I am a captive,” Fran said agreeably. “I don’t know how I would possibly convince you to let me go, let alone to take me to some faraway place where I would rather be right now.”
“You could at least try asking,” Greg reproved.
Good Dialogue (Climax Structure):
“You’ve got to put a lid on that awful kid!” Greg cried.
“I didn’t ask you to go and kidnap either of us,” Fran replied calmly.
“I didn’t kidnap you, Fran. You’re the one who insisted on coming along with the kid.”
“Take us home, and I’ll see if I can get you life imprisonment instead of death,” she said.
“Why are you so calm! Stop being so calm!” Greg shouted. The childish shrieks and laughter emanating from the hold seemed to drive Greg wild. His eyes popped, and his hair stood on end. He clenched his teeth, and shook his fists in the air.
“You really should get control of yourself,” Fran observed. “You look positively ill.”
“Look, I don’t want to harm either of you, but I will use this blaster on you if you can’t keep him quiet.”
Fran stepped near to the slats that separated her from Greg, who quailed.
“Would you like to say that again?” she asked.
“No,” Greg mumbled.
“Because the noises he is making right now are quite pleasant,” she continued. “I would hate to see the way his genuine distress would echo in this little ship of yours.”
“Fine,” Greg snapped. “Just keep it down in there, all right?” He slammed the dividing partition between them, and Fran raised her heavy fist, and pounded on the metal. “What now?” Greg wailed.
“I will give you five minutes to let me out and change course,” she said. “If you do not, I will encourage the boy into a screaming fit.”
Greg was silent for a moment.
“I have earplugs somewhere,” he muttered, but his face was full of fear.
“Pirate,” Fran said through the metal shell.
“I heard you, lady! I’m thinking!” Greg shouted.
Well, There You Go!
If you struggle with dialogue, or you feel you can squeeze more tension and build from your character’s speech, give mini-climaxes a try. Remember, either one or both characters drive towards an end goal, and the space between opener and climax should gradually decrease throughout the exchange.