The biggest mistake writers make when it comes to dialogue isn’t what you might expect.
The biggest mistake we make is forgetting that dialogue—like everything else in fiction—needs a reason to exist.
If dialogue comes easily to you, then this is going to be something you need to watch. Because dialogue is your strength, your tendency will be to allow your dialogue to dominate your story.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can also trip you up. You’ll be prone to adding empty small talk or to depending on dialogue to the exclusion of other action, internal monologue, and description. A well-rounded story needs them all.
To give your dialogue a reason to exist, make sure every passage does at least one of these three things. (Bonus points if it does more than one.)
Reveal Character or Character Relationships
I’ll go into detail in my next dialogue post about revealing character in dialogue, so for now, think about how the way we speak to someone reveals our relationship to them.
Are they comfortable enough with each other to tease? To disagree?
If they give their opinion, do they do it in a way that shows they’re speaking to a superior, an equal, or an inferior? The way we give a suggestion to our boss is very different from the way we give a suggestion to our teenager.
People who are newly dating speak to each other differently from a couple who’s been married for five years. A newly dating couple will be more tentative, wanting to put their best foot forward. A couple who’s been married five years will have private jokes, old wounds, and a closeness that allows them to convey their meaning without explicitly stating it. If the marriage is good. How a couple speaks to each other reveals a lot about the condition of their marriage.
Whenever your character speaks to someone else, their dialogue should be tailored to who they’re speaking to. If you can swap the listener without changing the dialogue, you need to rethink how you’re writing it.
Advance the Plot
We hear the advice to “show, don’t tell” so often it’s almost clichéd.
Using dialogue to advance the plot makes our scenes more active, avoids author intrusion, and “shows.”
But what does it mean to say dialogue is advancing the plot? Dialogue can advance the plot by…
- providing new information
- increasing suspense, tension, or conflict
- revealing new obstacles
- reminding us of the characters’ scene or story goals
The trick to making this work is to avoid As-You-Know-Bob Syndrome.
A character won’t say something the character they’re talking to already knows.
E.g., “When our Aunt Edna died, I wasn’t upset because I didn’t know her that well.”
A character also won’t say something that wouldn’t come up in conversation because it’s common knowledge.
E.g., “Hi Mary, my best friend since childhood. Won’t you come into the new house I just bought?”
In Revision & Self-Editing, James Scott Bell says the easiest way to fix (and avoid) this problem is to remember that dialogue is always from one character to another. It can’t sound like you’re manipulating it (even though you are). It must always be what a character would naturally say.
Another solution is to pick a fight. Characters who are fighting will dredge up things the other character already knows and use them as weapons against each other.
Echo the Theme
Every good movie does this. According to Blake Snyder in Save the Cat, creating a line of dialogue to echo the theme isn’t negotiable—a movie must include it to work.
Good books will do it multiple times in subtle ways.
If you’re a regular reader of my Monday posts, you’ve watched me pull themes from books and movies and find a lesson for us.
In The Amazing Spider-Man, Uncle Ben is fed up with Peter acting out and shirking responsibility. He tells Peter that his father lived by a code: “If you can do good things for other people, you have the moral obligation to do those things.”
In Chapter 7 of The Hunger Games, Peeta and Katniss argue about which of them has the better chance of survival and of getting sponsors. Each believes it’s the other. Peeta turns to Haymitch (their mentor) in exasperation and says, “She has no idea. The effect she can have.”
Echoing the theme doesn’t have to be obvious. You can work your theme into dialogue using subtext and foreshadowing as well.
Does dialogue come easily to you? If so, do you find that when you revise you need to cut out dialogue that doesn’t have a purpose?
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Image Credit: Bev Lloyd-Roberts (Stock XChange)