NOTE: To see the first part of this three-part saga of tips on writing good dialogue, please go to Dialogue Writing Tips Part 1 – What Makes Good Dialogue?!
In Part 1, we discussed how to make dialogue sound real and why that’s important. Let’s move on to the second big trait of good dialogue:
2. It Is Pleasant to Listen to.
Now that you are getting a handle on crafting realistic dialogue, you can spice things up a bit and have a little fun.
This is where we find things like:
First, rhythm. If you’re interested, you can look into iambs and trochees and dactyls and such, but we’re going less technical and more instinctive here. That is, we’re talking less about the proper names for these beats and more about just hearing the beat.
To start, what sounds better?
- “I want to watch TV tonight.”
- “I want to watch television tonight.”
“TV” is the clear winner for two reasons. One, it’s more natural and how people normally speak. Two, the rhythm or beat is better. “I want to watch TV tonight.” It has a regular tempo, and it flows.
Are there exceptions to this? Of course. What if your character is just learning English and only know the word “television”? What if they are just more formal in general?
This is part of why there aren’t hard and fast laws about writing good dialogue or just writing in general. There are guidelines or rules, which, once you’ve learned them, can be bent or occasionally broken.
In our example about watching TV, we’re going to assume there aren’t any unusual character motivations going on. This is just an ordinary person conveying their desire to veg out. In this case, the better rhythm is the better choice.
Does this mean that all of your dialogue has to fit a rhythm? Not at all. Conveying information or character is the primary function of dialogue and should have the primary importance. However, if you know of two ways to say the same thing with equal relative impact, go with the one with the better beat.
This also is part of the reason you’ll hear character’s names repeated more often in TV shows and movies than you do in real life. I mean, how often do you use a person’s name in conversation if you are talking to them and have their complete attention? And yet in scripted dialogue, you’ll hear names all the time.
Besides helping reinforce the character’s name for the audience, names are often used to “fill out the beat” or rhythm of a line. Here’s an example:
- “I don’t know why you did that.”
- “I don’t know why you did that, Sue.”
Adding Sue improves the rhythm. “I don’t know why you did that, Sue.”
We instinctively prefer rhythmic lines to ones without a beat. Sometimes we even force it when it doesn’t exist. There are many famous old movie lines that are consistently misquoted. Interestingly enough, many times they are misquoted in a way that improves their rhythm.
Misquote: “Play it again, Sam.”
Actual Quote: “Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By.“
Silence of the Lambs
Misquote: “Hello, Clarice.”
Actual Quote: “Good evening, Clarice.”
Misquote: “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Deville.”
Actual Quote: “All right Mr. Deville, I’m ready for my close-up.”
The Wizard of Oz
Misquote: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Actual Quote: “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Are the original quotes horrible or awful or poorly written? Not at all. Obviously, they’re quite memorable. And yet, people still tweak them when they remember them into something with an easier beat. Rhythm is clearly effective in helping dialogue stand out.
Alliteration can also be used to improve the sound of dialogue. This isn’t about making up lines where every single solitary word in the sentence begins with the same sound. It’s about adding a sprinkling of alliterative salt to spice up the lines. Compare:
- “I can’t wait to see my beautiful boy”
- “I can’t wait to see my pretty child”
“I can’t wait to see my beautiful boy” wins because
- “beautiful boy” is a phrase used in describing young children, so it has familiarity,
- “beautiful boy” adds a little alliteration
Again, use this with caution and subtly. Unless you’re writing for children, you don’t want this to be a constant feature where everyone speaks like Dr. Seuss. It’s a spice. Use it sparingly.
Pacing is quite possibly the hardest aspect of writing good dialogue to pin down or define.
As a general definition, pacing is how fast or slow something steadily moves . A marathon runner has a different pacing than a sprinter. In writing, this refers to how quickly your story moves from plot point to plot point, from scene to scene, and even from line to line.
When speaking of dialogue, pacing can refer to:
- how quickly a character speaks
- how quickly a conversation moves
How quickly a character speaks is very much a reflection of the character themselves – their personality, their age, their life experience, their current emotional state, etc. We learn a lot about a character by identifying their normal speaking pace, and we also learn a lot about their emotions based on how that pace changes in response to the events around them.
How quickly a conversation moves can show the urgency of the situation as well as showing whether all the characters share that feeling of urgency. Usually, the situation and the characters align. For instance, if aliens are invading, you’re likely to hear all the characters speaking hurriedly and in clipped sentences about how to escape. Their obvious anxiety adds to ours as we go through the alien invasion with them.
The pacing and situation don’t have to line up neatly, however, and this can create some interesting dichotomies and opportunities for adding layers to a scene.
For example, if the house is on fire but two characters in the house are conversing calmly about the weather, it raises some questions. Are they unaware of what’s happening? Do they just not care if they get burned? Or do they know something we don’t know about how they’re going to escape?
If two people are discussing what cereal they should have for breakfast, but they’re doing it at a clipped and hurried pace, we pause for a moment. Is there something going on in their lives or the world at large that is making this a tense conversation? Is there something in their relationship that is affecting them? Is there a history specifically related to cereal that we aren’t privy to?
Pacing can effect the gravitas or impact of a single line of dialogue. Slowing down the pacing can add a punch that doesn’t come with speed. Would Darth Vader’s famous pronouncement have had the same weight if he’d said “I’m your father” instead of breaking that contraction to say “I am your father”?
Are these the only ways to add flavor to dialogue? Of course not! That’s part of what makes writing so awesome! Please share the ways you like to spice up your conversational writing in the comments below.
Make sure to tune in for Part 3, where we go into what dialogue’s purpose should be, how to make sure it achieves that purpose, and what not to do if you want your dialogue to shine.
See you then!