NOTE: After reading this post on the purpose of dialogue, learn more in the first two parts of this three-part dialogue saga by going to Dialogue Writing Tips Part 1 – What Makes Good Dialogue? and Dialogue Writing Tips Part 2 – What Makes Dialogue Fun to Listen to?
In Part 1, we discussed how to make dialogue sound real and why that’s important. In Part 2, we discussed how playing with the sound of dialogue can add flavor and enjoyment. Let’s move on to the grand finale where we talk about the true purpose of dialogue:
3. It Achieves Its Goal in the Story. Dialogue in a story should have a goal. If it doesn’t achieve its goal, it is a placeholder or a time waster. Placeholder and time waster dialogue shouldn’t be in your story.
Two major factors influence the purpose of dialogue within each story or moment:
- What do the characters want
- What do you, the author, want
To determine what a character wants, you need to think like an actor. When an actor prepares for a scene, they try to determine their character’s motivation. What is their character’s goal or objective in the scene? When we’re writing a scene, we have to do the same thing, except for ALL the characters present. The possible motivations are infinite.
Just one example: Three people are sitting in a corner booth at a diner. Suzie wants to see if Billy still has feelings for her. Billy wants to find an excuse to leave before Suzie asks him anything personal. And Jimmy Joe John intends to convince them both to invest in his brilliant “hamburger on a stick” idea.
Each of these characters will have their goal foremost in their mind, and their dialogue will reflect that. For those characters, their goals are the purpose of dialogue.
However, if you don’t inject YOUR goals as an author into the scene, it will run away from you. Non-writers may find this difficult to understand, and it might even sound a little crazy, but your characters will take the reins of the conversation away from you if you let them. As a comparison, think about what happens when you’re dreaming. You’re literally making up everything in the story, but it still takes you by surprise. And if you wake up before it ends, you might say “now I’ll never know how it turns out!” But how is that possible if you’re the one making the story? In short, brains are funny things, and characters need to be held in check.
One method is to write the scene naturally, like you’re “letting the characters talk” and letting them try achieve their goals. This gets you your rough draft of the scene. Next, it’s time to go in with the author’s eye and make sure everything is serving YOUR goals as the author – plot advancement, character development, comic relief, etc. Each of these goals are part of the true purpose of dialogue.
This is where discretion and judgment comes in. After all, the same dialogue can be crucial in one story and totally irrelevant in another.
Jack: “Can you help me move next week?”
Betty: (pauses, then nods). “Sure.”
A version of the story where this dialogue is irrelevant: The main character, Mary, is walking downtown when she runs into two old friends, Jack and Betty, who never show up in the story again. As Mary leaves them, she hears them discussing Jack’s move.
A version of the story where this dialogue is crucial: Betty hasn’t spoken to anyone in three years after a traumatic house fire. Her friend, Jack, hasn’t judged her or excluded her but keeps treating her the same as always. Betty feels so close to him, has come to care for him, and wants him to know how much he means to her… so she finally breaks her silence with a single word to show him she wants to start repaying his kindness.
And what if a particular line of dialogue is kinda in between? What if it’s not absolutely critical, but it adds some fun, flair, or flavor to your story?
There are a couple schools of thought on that.
There’s a saying that gets tossed around in writing classes: “kill your darlings.” Basically, don’t get so attached to a line or scene or moment that you can’t see its lack of value in your overall story. Some even take it so far as to say that any line that is not completely useful is useless.
On the other hand, there are writers of books, TV shows, and movies that have made whole careers of filling their stories with dialogue that is mostly there to be clever or entertain without necessarily driving the story.
My personal preference? The Goldilocks Approach. Lines that are just there to be fun or entertaining are like the dessert after the meat and potatoes of the crucial dialogue. They are a welcome change and a fun accent, but too much can make you sick and ruin your meal.
A COUPLE OF THINGS NOT TO DO
This is by no means an official list, just a couple of my personal dialogue pet peeves.
- Avoid creating awkward and artificial dialogue to dump exposition on the reader.
I’m not going to shame anyone by quoting actual dialogue I’ve read, so here’s a made-up example:
Bob: Hello, Jim.
Jim: Hello, Bob.
Bob: How have you been doing since last month when you came home from work and suddenly discovered that your wife had left you and taken the dog with her?
Usually you’ll see this with characters telling each other things they both are aware of. A prime tell? Starting a line of dialogue with “As you all know…”
Maybe you can think of some moments in your life when people have said this (perhaps a boss giving a polite reminder during a meeting by saying something like, “As you all know, quarterly reports are due today”), but it certainly is not a common everyday occurrence. Like…
(speaking to the family at dinner) “As you all know, last week we went to the movies together and then got ice cream afterwards.”
- Be careful with levels of formality.
I read a translation of a famous novel where someone was given a gift by the queen of their country and replied with “Thanks.” Not “I am honored, Your Majesty” or even “Thank you.” “Thanks.”
That’s too informal, verging on disrespectful, and it took me out of the story. When you have characters speaking to other characters who they view with either respect or disrespect, your formality levels should match those feelings.
There’s also formality that is imposed upon us, like forced respect for an office even if we don’t respect the individual within that office. Our words may be more formal, but there’s a begrudging nature to it. All of these kinds of details add to our understanding of the characters and their world views.
Use your own experiences or your own observations as a template. What words and phrasing would someone use with:
- Their best friend?
- Their best friend who betrayed them?
- Their mother who they love dearly?
- Their mother who has always been cold to them?
- Their boss who they like?
- Their boss who they hate?
- Their grandfather who they adore?
- Their grandfather whose attitudes they vehemently disagree with?
- A police officer who stopped someone stealing their wallet?
- A police officer who pulled them over for something they didn’t do?
- An elected official who they like?
- An elected official who they don’t like?
Even in situations where you really dislike someone, formality comes into play and potentially changes your speech.
Well, folks, I think we’re reaching the end of this three-part journey into dialoguing and speechifying. I hope you’ve gained at least a little something out of it. Writing dialogue is one of my absolute favorite parts of writing a book, and I hope you like it a little more now, too.
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