How happy for you, Mr. Collins, to possess a talent for flattering with such… delicacy.
Do these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are they the result of previous study?
They arise chiefly from what is passing of the time. And though I do sometimes amuse myself with arranging such little elegant compliments, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.
Elizabeth Bennet:Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Oh, believe me, no one would suspect your manners to be rehearsed.
You only have to watch a Quentin Tarantino film or read a George R.R. Martin book to realise how immersive dialogue can be.
Having the literary know-how to pull off a realistic conversation is an elusive skill that few possess a mastery of.
I mean, sure, you can have your one-dimensional characters spout endless exposition at each-other to your heart’s content, but you cannot put a price on masterfully constructed dialogue scenes.
I, for one, love dialogue. I love reading it, and I love writing it.
I believe you can tell more about a character through a few lines of interaction with another character than you can with all the adjectives in the dictionary at your back.In my professional career as an editor, I have discovered this: nowadays, the sheer abundance of content – be they novels or screenplays, blogs or video essays – has forced the hand of every creator to write with immediate effect.
After all, this is the age of content creation, and with that comes the inflation of all content. The days of 19th century prose are slipping away in favour of “extended screenplays” of character interactions and action.
Books are becoming more and more dialogue heavy – and that is not a bad thing in my book (no pun intended.)
The reality is unfortunately this: dialogue of any kind is hard to pull off effectively.
But, have no fear, brave Knights of the Conversassionne, ye bold Champions of the Backenforth, for I have the answers!
Or at least, some lessons learnt from experience…
This week on Write & Wrong, we take a look at 6 professional techniques to improve character dialogue.
1) Find the Raison Detre
First of all, ask yourself: Why is this conversation happening?
If it doesn’t have a reason or add to anything significant to the plot or character, then throw it in the bin as good for nothing.
Conversation may be a fun distraction from the sometimes intense plot, but it is still part of your story – so it needs to be part of your story.
This doesn’t have to be done in the first draft. By all means, save it for the edits. But if you are anything like me, you will have written tonnes of dialogue – most of it being inane babbling interplay between characters.
My advice to you: cut what you can. Less is more, after all!
Separate out your conversations and analyse them. Why are they here? What do they add?
Is it for exposition purposes? (Careful here. More on that later!) Is it for comic relief or character development? Just keep that in mind from the get go.
Once you have established that, you can move onto the next step, which is…
2) Where is it going?
If it is an important conversation, it needs to lead somewhere. I am a big advocate of that idea and always look for it in submissions.
Just like analysing your conversation’s Raison D’etre, now you should have a good idea of where that conversation is going and have an end point in mind.
Do you need a character to say or realise a certain thing? Good, then get there, logically.
Each conversation is a journey made with a series of steps. Knowing how those steps should be laid out will make that conversation feel like it is between two genuine characters, rather than two thinly veiled creations spouting unrelated exposition at each other.
This can, of course, lead to complications. Over-analysing before you even start can lead to every writer’s old adversary: Writer’s Block.
For now, know where you want to end up, and you’ll go far. Just remember, take it step by step!
3) Reach the Crescendo
I’ve always found that conversations are like music.
I know, I know, just bear with me a moment, I’m getting to the point!
They build and they build and then they reach their crescendo in spectacular fashion (or at least some of them do!)
If it’s dramatics you’re after, or you are dabbling with a particularly pivotal scene in your story’s plot, then build to it.
Treat that conversation like a musical performance. Hint at the resolution, build on it, retreat from it, then build on it again and…
Send shivers down your readers’ spines!
Think about the most pivotal lines you can remember from literature and film.
Darth Vader: Obi Wan never told you what happened to your father…
Luke Skywalker: He told me enough… he told me you killed him.
Darth Vader: No, I am your father.
Step by step, and crescendo.
Let’s take another of my favourite scenes…
Legolas: Farmers, ferriers, stable boys. These are no soldiers.
Gimli: Most have seen too many winters.
Legolas: Or too few. Look at them. They’re frightened. You can see it in their eyes. [in Elvish] And they should be. Three hundred… against ten thousand!
Aragorn: [in Elvish] They have more hope of defending themselves here than at Edoras.
Legolas: [in Elvish] Aragorn. They cannot win this fight. They are all going to die!
Aragorn: Then I shall die as one of them!
Those were examples of conversations that knew their crescendos and, more importantly, earned them.
And what is it’s reward for pulling this off?
You remember those lines.
Of course, not all conversations need to be structured like that, but this can be generally applied to more dramatic sequences and conversations resulting in a comedic punchline.
Moral of the story: know your crescendo, and you’ll be memorable in return.
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4) Stay True to Character
Now is the time to go back through the intricate conversation you have just constructed and ensure that each character’s dialogue is true to their character.
Nope, it’s not easy. Sorry. In fact, it’s downright tough in some places.
It’s a running gag that you will need a character to say something that they simply wouldn’t say, or in other words, to say something that just seems off.
You can’t have your titular hero say anything innately selfish, lest he lose the reader’s compassion. Likewise, you can’t have your anti-hero say anything overtly heroic or he will lose his title as Anti-hero.
It’s a difficult balance to make, but with a bit of practise it always gets there. After all, you’ll know if you’re making the right decision for a character. Call it a writer’s trick!
5) Is it Convincing?
There is a reason it is called a back and forth. Each character plays off of the next. They each have their motivations, and they each act on them.
Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock in complete isolation from other human beings (in which case, welcome back to civilisation) you would have heard people speaking before and know how two people converse with one another.
The moral of the story is, don’t have a character say something out of the blue and completely nonsensical just because the plot demands it.
If it doesn’t seem right, don’t make them say it… or you’ll have a revolt on your hands. Speaking of which…
6) Let the Characters Lead
A lot of the time, your characters will know more about the story than you do. So…
If there is one thing that I have learned in my years of writing books and editing other people’s, it is that characters can be damned stubborn at times and often refuse to go in certain directions.
If this does happen to you, then… congratulations! What you have created there, my friend, is a multifaceted and well-realised character.
They will tell you if you’re telling them to say something uncharacteristic.
A downside to that is they tend to do what they want, rather than what you, the author, want them to do.
It’s a bummer, I know, but better change your plot to suit your characters than write out a well-written character.
You have to love them though! They do have a habit of creating some pretty amazing stories, even if it’s not the one you originally had planned!
Anyway, that concludes our list of 6 tips to improve your character dialogue. I hope you’ve managed to gather something useful from it!
It’s important to remember that there is no holy grail of crafting perfect dialogue. I wish that was the case and there was just this dusty goblet you can drink from and become the master of dialogue, but Quentin Tarantino and George R.R. Martin have locked it away somewhere.
All we can do is emulate what we can!
The truth is that the rules of dialogue are different for every story and set of characters. It’s just about finding the right method for you! It’s as simple (and complicated) as that!
Anyway, have you got any more tips for creating dialogue? If you do, then let me know in the comments below! I’m always up for hearing techniques that get people through these issues!
Until next time, stay creative, Authocrats!